As an elder law attorney, building a relationship with your clients is the most integral part of your business. After all, you’re in the business of helping people. Without building a solid foundation for your client relationships, there can be no basis for these people to trust you and for you to likewise trust that they will do their part in order to get the greatest benefit from the estate planning services and consultation you provide.
The need for elder law services is greater than it has ever been, and practicing elder law provides the opportunity to truly build trust and rapport with your clients and with their children, other family members and caregivers. With approximately 15 percent of the American population currently made up of adults ages 65 and over, there are plenty of potential clients out there. Building better relationships will help your firm’s reputation rise to the top so that you can retain elder law clients and attract new ones in order to grow a successful and profitable business.
Building relationships will not happen overnight and there is a lot that goes into a truly fruitful relationship. That’s why we’ve dedicated this article to the importance of building strong client relationships and provided some helpful tactics for doing so.
Building Trust and Rapport
Gaining your clients’ trust is something that starts with your very first interaction. Communication is the key, and that includes the language you use when you speak to your clients. Becoming a trusted advisor means providing information on sensitive — and often complex — topics.
Your clients will be exposed to a lot of new information and terminology, and it is up to you to make these topics less intimidating. Your clients and any family members or loved ones involved in their estate planning won’t find you to be genuine or relatable if you’re constantly using legal jargon or talking over their heads.
“Dumbing down” legal topics might seem counterintuitive, and it’s not uncommon for lawyers to have the perception that complex language will convince clients of your expertise. In elder law, however, being able to communicate that you are knowledgeable without coming across as stuffy or arrogant will show your clients that you are approachable and have their best interests at heart.
Assessing each client’s specific needs so that you can provide the solutions that will be the best fit is also important to building trust and rapport. Your clients will sense immediately if you are trying to apply cookie-cutter solutions or upsell them on things they don’t need. Right-sizing and customizing your services to a client’s specific needs is always the best approach. This even includes the methods you use to interact with your clients.
For example, consider the technology gap that may exist based on your client’s age and access to the Internet, etc. While some clients may be comfortable using Skype and email to communicate, others may prefer phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Keep in mind that half of those over 75 years old don’t own a computer. Therefore, don’t force a client to download an app or fill out forms online if they are uncomfortable doing so or doesn’t have access to these tools. Estate and long-term planning come with some inherent stress, so it’s important to do what you can to mitigate any additional anxiety for your clients.
Getting to Know You
Learning about your clients begins before they ever set foot in your office. Likewise, your clients will begin getting to know you before that first face-to-face meeting. Clients who are Internet savvy (or relying on the assistance of younger family members who are) will likely research your firm online via your website and any online reviews of your practice.
Getting to know your clients starts with the client intake form. You will want to be as thorough as you can when creating this form so that you can get information that will foster a meaningful connection and begin building rapport from that very first in-person meeting. A well-executed client intake form will serve as the foundation for a more comfortable — and more productive — initial consultation. Asking the right questions, as well as some unconventional ones, will help you to learn a lot about a client early on.
In addition to requesting the basic information you’ll need for planning, such as a complete list of assets, you should also include questions that are a bit more personal. Ask your clients about their grandchildren, their favorite cuisine, hobbies, or social causes about which they are passionate. Including these questions will help you to connect on a more personal level and contribute to the trust and rapport necessary for a successful attorney/client relationship.
Of course, it can be a challenge to get clients to fill out the intake form thoroughly. If you’ve found this to be the case, consider offering an incentive, such as a discount on the initial consultation if they fill out the form completely. No matter how you approach the client intake form, make sure to convey to your clients that successful planning starts with a comprehensive intake process.
Once it comes time for that first in-person meeting, remember that your clients and any accompanying loved ones will be looking to you to guide the conversation in a manner that is comfortable and informative, but not overwhelming. In this first interaction, it’s okay for your legal knowledge to take a backseat to your bedside manner. It’s important that you focus first on putting the client at ease as they’re beginning to navigate their estate planning and long-term care options.
Relating to loved ones and caregivers
In addition to the clients themselves, building rapport with family members and/or caregivers is also important. Consider how you can provide support to these people as well by offering information and resources. Remember that it can be difficult for adult children to talk to their aging parents about these topics. You have the opportunity to provide the support they need to make this a bit easier and to help ensure their loved one is prepared for his or her retirement and beyond.
One of the best ways you can provide support to family members is to work out a financial plan that will help them avoid expenses that could potentially deplete their own retirement savings. In the case where an adult child is acting as caregiver, for example, you can advise them on how to talk to their loved one about his or her wishes for end-of-life care, and the importance of putting a power of attorney in place.
Providing your clients’ loved ones with resources such as a financial checklist, will guide them and ensure that none of the important aspects of helping their parent or loved one manage their elder care finances are overlooked.
Approaching the pricing conversation
The question of pricing can cause a lot of anxiety, particularly for new or transitioning elder law attorneys. That’s due in large part to the fact that pricing, no matter how fair or legitimate, can still cause sticker shock for many clients, and this sticker shock can increase even further when living on a fixed income.
In many cases, pricing will depend on the stage of your practice and your level of expertise, however, this is not to say that you need to undercut yourself based on the fact that you’ve only been in business for a few months or a few years. You can actually set the stage for pricing expectations before you ever meet your client face to face. Because clients don’t typically know the most effective questions to ask in their initial meeting, you can prepare them ahead of time by providing educational tools such as webinars and resource guides. This allows you to begin proving your value before meeting.
Ultimately, the best approach is to turn the pricing conversation into a value proposition. This allows you to shift the conversation away from cost and instead focus on the value and savings that can be achieved through proactive planning. This approach helps the client shift his or her mindset from fees to value.
The Importance of a Client Maintenance Program
No matter how good of a rapport you build, maintaining your client relationships isn’t something that should be left to chance. This is where a client maintenance program (CMP) comes into play. The role of a CMP is twofold: It helps to foster better communication via a better and more productive relationship with your clients and it generates a reliable and consistent base income.
A CMP is an agreement through which a client prepays an annual fee in exchange for access to certain services anytime they need. You can include free phone calls, emails, a pre-set amount of face-to-face meetings each year, or an annual meeting to review existing documents in your firm’s CMP. It might also include a meeting with a successor trustee in the event of your client’s illness or death. Your CMP doesn’t have to be one size fits all and can be tailored per client, based on his or her needs. Consider offering different levels of CMPs, for example, you could offer a lower-priced option that includes a pre-set number of calls and emails, and a higher-priced option might include unlimited phone calls or emails and a pre-set number of in-person meetings.
By offering constant accessibility and support, you will not only build trust with your clients, but will also benefit from the ability to communicate more frequently to better understand needs and identify opportunities to provide additional services.
Allowing your clients to contact you, or one of your colleagues, when they have questions underscores the value of the services you provide, and your clients will quickly realize the value of this as well.
Furthermore, a CMP dispels the notion that elder law services are one-time transactions. Many clients set up estate plans, long-term care, or advance directives and then simply check them off of their to-do list. This approach results in missed opportunities to provide additional beneficial services to these clients. It can also result in outdated and obsolete plans that end up failing to serve the client’s needs in the long run. A CMP results in more consistently maintained plans that better serve your clients. CMPs help to nurture ongoing relationships because clients feel comfortable relying on you and your staff when questions arise or needs change.
Other ways to connect with your clients
There are all sorts of other opportunities for you to connect with your clients beyond those interactions related directly to estate planning or long-term care. Connecting with your clients also entails finding other ways to nurture the relationship. Consider what opportunities you may be able to capitalize on for client outreach, such as newsletters.
Monthly or quarterly newsletters offer an ideal platform to showcase your knowledge and expertise and to share information about other services you provide in a way that doesn’t come across as salesy. Your newsletter can include a mix of informative and fun information that is seasonally appropriate.
Client appreciation events are another great way to nurture client relationships in an out-of-the-office environment that can be more casual and relaxed. Consider planning an event at a coffee house, or even a client happy hour at a local establishment where you can take the opportunity to connect with your clients in a more casual environment.
You can also consider conducting free educational events and encourage your clients to bring a friend who may also be interested in obtaining information related to estate planning or long-term care. This type of event is a win-win because it affords you some face time with your existing clients as well as the opportunity to generate new business.
The holidays offer yet another opportunity to strengthen your client relationships. Thanksgiving and Christmas are perfect times to connect with your clients on a personal level and show them that you care about more than their business by sending a card or a gift as a token of your appreciation for their business. If you happen to know what a client’s favorite restaurant is (remember, that client intake form?) send them a gift card with a warm holiday message. You can also consider offering a free or discounted in-person meeting as a way to check in with your clients.
It all comes down to trust
Ultimately, your clients and their family members must trust you in order for the relationship to be a fruitful one. The more time and effort you put into getting to know your client and their loved ones — via tools like the client intake form, in-person meetings, video chats, and phone calls — the better you will be able to serve them. By taking a vested interest in your clients you will build relationships that positively impact your elder law practice for the long term. And with a solid business reputation in your community, you will generate more referrals and new business.