Sitting down with an estate planner to develop an estate plan is a smart first step. But signing your documents is not the end of the process. In order to ensure your wishes and desires are protected, you need to have some frank conversations with your fiduciaries.
The emergence of the Empowered Consumer is one of the most important by-products of the Internet, the web and social media.
Pre-dot.com, if you had a bad experience with a business, you could complain to the owner or manager, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, tell your friends, and if you were feeling particularly aggrieved, you might write a letter to the editor. Your reach was somewhat limited.
That changed dramatically with the dawn of the new millennium. The balance of power in the buyer-seller relationship turned upside down. Not only did consumers have instant access to product and pricing information, which enabled them to comparison shop online, they also had a newfound outlet for providing feedback…online ratings and reviews. Enter Yelp!
Consumers had easy access to a number of channels to sing your praises or air their grievances. They rated your business by stars. No longer was a consumer’s rave or a rant limited to those within earshot of the water cooler. Now, all of your future potential customers had immediate access to what your previous customers wrote about you, and how they rated their experience. Consumers now had power with these “gripe sites” and it was a tectonic shift in how businesses needed to manage their reputations. Take Yelp! for example. Since its founding in 2004, people have posted more than 250 million business reviews and counting.
Businesses that failed to take notice of the new “water cooler,” or chose to ignore it, did so at their own peril. The US Constitution (as well as every state constitution) broadly protects speech. Federal law exempts platforms like Yelp!, Google and Facebook from being sued for what their users post. The shift towards consumer power emboldened consumers to speak their mind and caught businesses unsure of where the defamation line was drawn.
One of those reviews was written in 2008. I happened to be acquainted with the Yelper. And it prompted my defense of one of the first online defamation cases brought for a Yelp! review.
And that’s where the story of my transformation begins.
The case was somewhat interesting from a legal standpoint. Was my client’s online review a statement of fact that can be held up as defamatory? Or was his review an opinion and therefore constitutionally protected speech?
The facts: A patient went to visit a chiropractor, got a bill that he didn’t fully understand, and then proceeded to write a negative (and colorful) Yelp review that called into question the chiropractor’s billing practices. We settled the case a couple months prior to trial.
What I saw in this case was the fragility of professional reputations and the power of this new consumer platform. Despite having 19 5-star reviews, the chiropractor threw his business into turmoil (due to the cost and publicity of going after a Yelper) over one 1-star review buried on page two. The chiropractor failed to appreciate this new consumer power and thought the “old ways” of reputation management would work. This was a new standard of accountability for service providers. And, for some of us, an opportunity to transform our businesses with consumer support.
It changed the way I practice law, for the better.
The case was an eye-opening experience for me that created greater awareness of the importance of client service and client satisfaction. I chose to become a client-centered law firm. As a result, I made some substantive changes in my practice.
Change 1: From billable hours to fixed fees (as much as possible).
The first step was to move away from the billable hour as the model for our practice. Billable hours are a primary fee-model in the legal world, but they immediately set up a conflict situation with our clients.
Namely, due to the open-ended nature of many legal issues, there was usually no way for the attorneys to provide estimated fee ranges for the work.
Clients were upset when detailed responses to a question cost them 100s of dollars; or worse, if they changed their mind during the drafting process, the bill might run to thousands of dollars.
As a result, I restricted my conversations to the legal aspects of my clients’ estate for fear that the holistic aspects of estate planning would be seen as over-communication. Thus, we tended to be terse, avoiding deeper conversations, not wanting to over-communicate for fear of “running up the bill”.
Nobody was happy and we knew there had to be a better way. If we were to be truly client-centered, we had to address the clients’ concerns over what our services cost. Shifting to a flat fee was critical to how we interacted with our clients.
Flat fee billing for estate planning allows us to be more responsive and more accessible. As the fees are already set, our estate planning practice is now outcome focused with a high bar: if success matters (as it should) then what must be legally in place, what conversations must happen, what would we like our clients and their beneficiaries to carry forward? In short, delivering what we think is the best estate plan with the best experience for our clients.
Without the limitations of the billable hour, we could now explore difficult estate planning topics in depth. We are able to address both our clients’ concerns of a “plan gone bad” as well as the hopes of a “plan gone good.” We talk about more than money issues. We assign homework to our clients so that we can gain a deeper understanding of their vision and their values.
The goal is always the same…an outstanding, highly personalized estate plan, with clear instructions for all involved in carrying it out.
Change 2: The reviews can come in, they do come in, and we listen!
We are proud of the fact that to date we have received more than 180 reviews with 157 currently showing (as of this blog post) and all of them (except for 1) are 5-stars. Are we awesome? Admittedly, yes ☺; but it took time to get here.
In those early Yelp! days, we focused so much on not getting a bad review that we were forgetting to create a service that generates good reviews. That change of perspective freed us to build something unique, which was to focus on the qualitative aspects of estate planning and what truly makes a plan successful.
That focus to generating rave reviews also helped us address what to do with those negative reviews that came in. And they (occasionally) did. We developed a reputation management methodology.
Upon receiving a negative review, I immediately contacted the prospective client (we never received anything less than a five-star review from someone who hired us) and thanked them for the review. I might not have liked what they wrote, but from their perspective, something was off about our service and the review highlighted it. I let the reviewer know that I wanted to learn more about the service they received and learn what might be done differently so that the next prospective client doesn’t come away with a similar experience. I let the reviewer know that whatever we came up with (together) is how I would support them moving forward.
Rather than see client feedback as a negative or something to fear, we recognized that this feedback could make us better. It’s paid off. Aside from how much we love practicing law in the way we practice it, many of our clients have taken the time to express their satisfaction with our service, attention to the big picture and our process. We are grateful.
Here are some highlights:
“We came to them knowing very little of what we needed or how to accomplish it but knowing our end goal of securing our legacy and financial future. They walked us through every step, every word, and empowered us to make the right decisions for us.
From the planning phase, to the homework, to the review and addition, they were only a quick call, text, or email away. They were also extremely thoughtful about aspects outside the legal trust that were invaluable, such as how to talk to our advisors, trustees, executors, and family members. Additionally, they were extremely communicative, upfront, and honest.”
“Michael Blacksburg came up with multiple 5-star reviews, and all we can say is that if we could give 6, we would! It has been such a pleasure working with him, and we look forward to continuing to work with him over the years to come.”
His gift is being able to break down complicated ideas and processes, and explain them in terms that we can understand, being new to this process ourselves. His guidance and communication has been outstanding, and each step of the process has been stress-free and easy for my husband and I to work with, especially given our own impacted schedules. Having the ability to work with Michael via Zoom, and to sign all the documentation remotely, has honestly been such a wonderful bonus!”
Michael actually made it a fun and rewarding process. He explained everything well so I knew what the process was and the important questions to consider. The discussions we had made me think about things I hadn’t before and I feel my decisions were better as a result. He made it easy and convenient, was available for follow up conversations, and organized everything in a binder for safe keeping. Amazing customer service and a joy to work with. I couldn’t be happier to have this important life task finally done and so painlessly too.
From the moment I reached out to Michael via email, I was immediately impressed by his responsiveness and his willingness to answer my questions before I had even committed to using his services. Once we were ready to proceed, Michael was incredibly patient, answered ALL of our questions without any judgment, and offered so much advice about how we should be preparing our estate. He never rushed us and always encouraged us to take our time when reading through any documents he sent through, and always made sure we understood what we were opting for. He provided a roadmap and other ‘homework’ documents to guide our conversations as a couple and made sure we were as prepared as we could be to draw up an estate plan.”
“The cherry on the cake is the beautifully well-organized Estate Planning binder with table of contents and tabs. There are sheets with written instructions for reference. You will also be able to retrieve all documents electronically, as well. When I had some questions, I received responses right away. A+ in customer service for sure. They will check in with you annually to ensure no major changes are overlooked. This speaks volume in an Attorney/Client partnership. I am extremely pleased with their service.”
We invite you to see more 5-star reviews here.
Blacksburg Law. A better way to address your estate planning.
At Blacksburg Law, estate planning is more than documents; it’s about the actual set of instructions for your assets, responsibilities, and legacy. We work together to develop this road map for how your important assets are managed if you’re not managing them, how your vital responsibilities are cared for if you’re not capable, and then how you wish to be remembered when you’re no longer narrating your story.
We work with you and your family to take your estate plan from theory (documents) to practice (successful outcomes). We work with families of considerable wealth to facilitate a multi-generational understanding of the mechanics of an estate plan, opening the lines of communication among stakeholders, and the goals or hopes for inherited wealth.
If you’d like to experience our 5-star rated estate planning services, please contact us.