As the web and search engines continue to become more local and social, more and more small business owners are understanding the benefits of online customer reviews. Online customer reviews can serve as the difference-maker for consumers in choosing between products and services online. Further, these online reviews are playing an increasing role in search engine visibility.
Like other small businesses, law firms can benefit greatly from both client, as well as, professional reviews online. In fact, as you can see from this short youtube search story, review sites are gaining much greater visibility in search engine results pages:
However, there are several considerations regarding online client reviews that are unique to legal professionals. Here are some things to think about your online client reviews.
Providing Excellent Client Service
Before we get into the specific how’s and what’s of online client reviews, it’s worth saying a quick word about getting client reviews in a more general sense. And that discussion must begin with providing excellent client service and developing a strong professional relationship. If you can’t provide great service to your clients, you may not want them reviewing you at all.
So, let’s assume that you have provided excellent service and you believe that you have a satisfied client that might be willing to provide you with a positive testimonial. The next question is what do your state bar’s ethics rules say about client testimonials?
Client Reviews & Ethics
The ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct – Information About Legal Services Rule 7.1 Communications Concerning A Lawyer’s Services states:
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.
It goes without saying that testimonials that make false or misleading communications about a lawyer’s services should not be used nor encouraged. In fact, some may make the argument that a lawyer has an obligation to use reasonable means remove false or misleading testimonials or reviews of which they become aware (while a noble principle, it seems unfair to require lawyers to scour the web for false testimonials).
Additionally, client testimonials may, in some instances, fall under the purview of Rule 7.2 Advertising, which states:
(a) Subject to the requirements of Rules 7.1 and 7.3, a lawyer may advertise services through written, recorded or electronic communication, including public media.
(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may
(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;
(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a not-for-profit or qualified lawyer referral service. A qualified lawyer referral service is a lawyer referral service that has been approved by an appropriate regulatory authority;
(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17; and
(4) refer clients to another lawyer or a nonlawyer professional pursuant to an agreement not otherwise prohibited under these Rules that provides for the other person to refer clients or customers to the lawyer, if
(i) the reciprocal referral agreement is not exclusive, and
(ii) the client is informed of the existence and nature of the agreement.
(c) Any communication made pursuant to this rule shall include the name and office address of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content.
While there are many client testimonial instances in which Rule 7.2 is not triggered, it’s important for legal professionals to be aware of how the rules of their state may regulate their use.
Collecting Client Reviews
Once the ethics issues have been addressed, the next step is to develop a system by which to collect the review. I have seen many different methods of client review collection, some good, others largely ineffective.
I was once told that, “you don’t get anything in this world unless you ask”. While I’m not sure that this is always true, it certainly seems applicable to obtaining client reviews.
Sure, there are those clients that are extremely eager to sing your praises. However, more times than not, you will probably need to initiate the discussion of whether or not the client is willing to provide a positive testimonial.
Now that you have a client that is ready and willing to provide a testimonial, you have to decide how best to collect it. In my opinion, one of the best ways to collect a client testimonial is through an exit interview.
Effective exit interviews or surveys should feel less like testimonial collection and more like an experience survey. You may want to consider scanning various online review sites for questions and rating systems that you can incorporate into your exit interview process.
If you have a client who is willing to provide a testimonial and is fairly savvy with computers and the Internet, in addition to documenting the review for the file, you may also consider providing access to online review sites right at your office. You may be surprised how many clients will leave reviews right there on the spot. Then again, you may not.
Many clients won’t feel comfortable with you standing over your shoulder while they write something about you online. That is why assigning exit interviews to a secretary or paralegal might make the most sense. Alternatively, you could have the client simply fill-out an exit interview form, take a form with them, or provide a testimonial over the phone.
Getting Your Client Reviews Online
Now that you have collected the interview, it’s time to decide how and where to use it. If it complies with your state’s ethics rules, you might want to consider syndicating the review online. Obviously, you will want to make sure you have permission first. Next, the question becomes, where do you want your clients to provide online reviews?
The first place you will want to consider are local search data providers. These sites are beneficial due to their own online visibility, as well as, their impact on local search visibility. In addition to the more general local search data providers, you should also consider legal specific review websites and data providers.
Here are just a couple to consider:
While there are several other lawyer review sites to consider, these two are especially important in terms of increasing your firm’s Google Places visibility:
As you can see, Google is currently pulling data into Google Places listings from Avvo and Lawyers.com. This data plays a role in your firm’s local prominence.
When it comes to increasing your reputation and visibility online, there is no question that the importance of online client reviews will greatly increase in 2011. As social signals continue to merge with seo factors, don’t be surprised to see tweets, likes, and status updates playing a larger role in your visibility too.