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Use Surveys to Make Decisions
by Barbara Lewis MBA and Dan Otto MBA

One of the best ways to get answers to questions that you might have about your clients, your services or any number of other issues, is to survey the people who can best answer your queries.  Historically, many businesses have always used surveys to gauge customers’ opinions.  We’ve all received the questionnaires or telephone calls from the auto dealerships to find out how we like our new cars or filled out the postcards inserted in packages that solicit our views on newly purchased products.

 Attorneys use surveys in a variety of ways, such as querying: clients about the level of services provided by the attorney, executives on the visibility of the law firm, referral sources on qualities that they value when referring business, employees about the firm’s benefits package, etc.   However, many attorneys, in general, are reluctant to conduct surveys, especially with their clients; they think that the results may reflect poorly on their work.  Yet surveys are one best ways to obtain valuable information and can indicate a viable course of action when the attorney is stymied about the direction in which to move. 

 Moreover, surveys are an excellent public relations tool.  Clients are impressed when they find out that the attorney is interested in their opinions, especially since so few attorneys bother to survey clients.  Surveys also provide a benchmark and, when used on an on-going basis, can indicate the success or failure of a specific program.

 For example, a law firm wanted to increase its visibility through a public relations campaign.  When the attorneys were interviewed, they thought that the firm had little or no visibility in the business community.  A visibility survey was conducted among five industry groups.  The top executives in the largest 20 to 50 companies were asked if they were familiar with 10 local law firms.  The results were revealing.  In one industry group, every company knew the law firm (100 percent visibility), yet in another industry group, the firm was virtually unknown with only 10 percent visibility.  The mandate was clear – conduct a public relations campaign targeted toward the industry where the visibility was low.  Then in one or two years conduct the same survey to gauge the results of the publicity.

 If you mount a public relations campaign which publications do you target?  At another law firm, the attorneys thought that certain industry publications were well read within the industry; however, they decided to query a couple of hundred industry executives.  Surprisingly, different publications surfaced as the ones that were the top read.  So the law firm targeted those publications as part of their publicity campaign.

 One of the most common types of surveys conducted by law firms is to ascertain the clients’ view of the level of service provided by the firm.  Twenty to 30 clients including the largest clients should be randomly selected as well as representative clients with various matters across different industries.     About 10 to 15 former clients should be surveyed as well as the same number of referral sources.  Former clients, oftentimes, shed light on problem areas that may not have been uncovered in the past.   

Attorneys, other personnel at the law or a third party can conduct surveys, which can be completed by telephone, mail or in person.  Third party interviews usually obtain more candid feedback from the client.  And a good interviewer can gather more information from telephone interviews than from a written survey.  Face-to-face- interviews are time-consuming and, oftentimes, the incremental value is not worth the cost.

 During one set of surveys conducted for a law firm, we discovered clients noted that they were not giving additional work to an attorney because he always talked about how busy he was.  The attorney thought that he was impressing his clients by saying that he was busy, not realizing that he was driving potential work away.  The survey results motivated him to change the clients’ perspective on his availability to take on additional work.

 An overlooked survey group is employees.  Yet an annual employee survey will uncover areas for improvement.  In a business climate where employees are difficult to attract and retain, knowing what motivates employees can be critical in winning the employment game.  One firm that began employee surveys several years ago, discovered that employees were underwhelmed by the benefits package.  The firm set about upgrading the package and the following year employees ranked the firm in the benefits arena high, which resulted in an increase in morale and retention. 

 Over the years, we’ve conducted many surveys, most of which have held some surprises for the firm.  Many of these surprises have been positive, but, on occasion, when the news is negative, firms are able to quickly change the tide.  Surveys are one of the best ways to find out about the perceptions of your clients, referral sources, employees and others.  Too often, attorneys are ready to make decisions without appropriate research.  A simple survey can provide concrete answers, can offer a course of action that is well supported and can benchmark the progress in reaching your goals.

Developing a Survey

 When you need to make a decision and you’re not sure what it should be, develop a survey to help you.


1.      Pose the question that you want answered.  For example, you may to know what additional services you should provide.  The question is, What other services do our clients need?

2.      Select the group of who can best answer the question.  For example, a cross-section of large and small clients in a broad range of industries, handled by various partners.

3.      Develop a short survey of 6 to 10 questions with a mix of open and close-ended questions.

4.      Decide who will execute the survey.  For example, can you conduct the survey with in-house personnel or should you hire an outside person?

5.      Decide on the survey method. For example, do you want a telephone survey or a written survey?

6.      Send a letter to the selected survey participants informing them that someone will contact them by telephone.  Or send the survey by mail with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to increase the likelihood of participation.

7.      Conduct the telephone survey within three days of the letter mailing. Or, if a written survey, set the due date 10 days to two weeks after the mailing.

8.      Analyze the results.


Make your decision based on the survey results.

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