The Power of Appreciation
I am constantly amazed at the number of lawyers who get referrals from existing clients or bankers or other people, and do not say “Thank you.” When I ask those lawyers, “How did you express your appreciation for that referral?” they will look at me quizzically and say something in a defensive tone, like, “Well, we go to dinner occasionally,” or “I’m fairly sure I referred something to them one time last year.”
Behavioral-conditioning experiments have shown us that if we want the puppy to come to us when we ring the bell next time, we have to provide a reward when the puppy responds to the bell this time. It is pretty straightforward: If you want more of the same behavior, reinforce it. If you want less, fail to reinforce it. In the client context, showing appreciation with a thank-you card or even just a phone call can be extremely powerful in reinforcing and making more consistent the behavior you want. It also helps you to avoid the tremendous potential fallout from of failing to do anything.
How many times have you done a favor for someone and later realized that they never thanked you? How many times have you said to yourself, “That’s the last time I stick my neck out for that person!"
Well, your client may feel exactly the same way about you. They stuck their neck out. They made a referral to you. They took a chance. If the person they referred is unhappy with you, they could find themselves in trouble with a relationship that is important to them. The least we can do for that kind of investment on their part is to express appreciation.
In regard to the method of saying “Thank you,” one tactic is becoming increasingly powerful in this day and age—and that is the hand-written note. People used to write letters all the time, but in today’s highly electronic age where voices and electronic impulses and words flash across screens, the intimacy of a hand-written note has become even more eloquent than it used to be because of its increasing rarity. In fact, if you melt a little wax on the back and do an imprint of your insignia, you may really astound the recipient. Wax or no wax, however, if this personal-communication strategy appeals to you, you can easily obtain some stationery that already says “Thank You” on it, whether it is generic stock or a card that is embossed with the name of your firm. You should do this soon. Having a supply within reach is important, because only if it is very, very easy are you likely to do it. We all know that if writing a note requires a special effort, the next client file will probably get in the way.
Appreciation Within the Office
I have mentioned elsewhere that as lawyers we usually do not feel overly appreciated at work. As we all know, under-appreciated lawyers, or those who feel under-appreciated, are susceptible to being headhunted away. Many good lawyers who change firms do not do so simply for the money.
Members of support staffs, like lawyers, tend to be quite hungry for appreciation. When I have had the opportunity to talk to members of support staffs of some very good firms, they are usually very loyal to the firm and very positive, but in a moment of confidence and trust they may explain that there are times when they are a little disheartened. The firm might have some very tight policies or rules, for example, or simply have senior people who tend to offer negative feedback about incidents such as leaving early on occasion, or taking a personal phone call. The support staff member says, “Nobody remembers that I stayed three hours late three nights in a row last week to get the share issue done for the securities department.”
If we allow the members of our support staffs to think that we are police officers who look for any variance from policy so that we can dish out—politely or not so politely—a little bit of negative reinforcement, we will certainly not get peak performances from them. People do expect to be noticed—and want to be noticed—when they go beyond the scope of their duty. You may want to consider making it a habit that when you observe a member of the support staff doing something extraordinary— staying late, working very hard, getting something done extremely well—you take a moment to make some appreciation known.
Sometimes we fail to show appreciation or give positive feedback because—yet again—we are too caught up in the analytical and critical approach to our work product. Again this may be understandable, but is not likely the best strategy.
Let me give you an illustration. A junior person or a member of the support staff drafts a letter for me and brings it into my office. I look the letter over and find it is not too bad at all—except that in the third paragraph on the second page a reference to a legal issue appears that makes me uncomfortable. I feel this reference does not properly reflect the issue. I think the paragraph needs to be fine-tuned. So I provide a little feedback to the person who drafted the letter, saying, “This paragraph suffers from being a little vague and I really need to tighten that up to properly explain… [whatever].”
Let us look at the way I have responded in the context of the whole letter. How was the paragraph that opened the correspondence? It was quite good—it was cordial, it was friendly and it was pretty effective. What about the second paragraph, which summarized the events over the past month? That was quite good, too. That was accurate. But did I say so? No. I focused immediately on what needed to be fixed—on what could be better.
As you get work from those who produce it for you, remind yourself to first look for what was done well—even if it was only a small part. Your feedback will then sound something like this: “Thank you for doing this work. I like the opening very much. I think the review of what we’ve done previously was very strong, very well communicated. I have a small concern about the way the legal issue is expressed on the second page, and this is what I intend to do about it. Thank you for the letter.”
That is how you convey appreciation to people. That is how you avoid circumstances where people say, “The only thing anyone ever notices around here is when I make a mistake, and then they’re ready to jump on it. When I do something right, I never hear about it.”
Appreciation is probably the most powerful human communications tool. Used effectively, not only with clients but with those lawyers and support staff with whom you work, and who work so hard for you, even small investments of appreciation are likely to provide you with enormous returns. Consider a daily addition to your to-do list—add the name of one person to whom you will communicate appreciation.
© Gerald A. Riskin