Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Idea of Service -- Lessons from the Drive-Thru

Parsley Sage Rosemary & Ginsburg llp
“always a reasonable result for a reasonable fee, always”

Accounting Department
Mike Marget
August 22, 2012
The Idea of Service – Lessons from the Drive-Thru

Fast food restaurants are everywhere.  You will usually spy two or more at most major intersections.  Where would we be without them?  Less obese perhaps, but when we are on the road they provide reasonable nourishment at a reasonable price and within the time constraints of our fast-paced lifestyles. 

Not long ago, after placing a drive-thru order, I started thinking about the similarities of running a successful drive-thru operation and our Accounting Department.  There are a lot of parallels.  The drive-thru must be thoroughly organized; designed to keep things moving; every order must be correct; and although I may not always notice, I never expect to drive away without a “thank you.”  Shouldn’t our Accounting Department be organized according to the same principles?

Admittedly, there is one big difference.  Drive-thru customers have a choice.  There is a lot of competition and the successful drive-thru operation is structured to win customers and keep them coming back.  Our Accounting Department holds a monopoly position.  It’s not like our lawyers are going to take their accounting and billing business across the street to another law firm, but that’s not the point.  What the successful drive-thru operation and our Accounting Department have in common is the idea of service.

The following is a list of pointers from my drive-thru epiphany. 

1.     Look and Be Professional
I may be partial to fast food, but I have standards.  Cleanliness is important.  Scattered debris around the drive-thru makes me think there are issues in the kitchen as well.  Also, the line must appear to be moving and the speaker system audible.  Appearances are important, especially because I can continue down to road to a competitor’s place.

Despite our monopoly status, the Accounting Department can never appear to operate like our internal customers don’t have a choice.  Dealing with us should be a good experience.  Like at the drive-thru, every customer should be greeted with “how can I help?”  We should look like we have our act together and actually have it together; this means being organized and professional.  We need to care about service and solving whatever problem occasioned their visit, phone call or email.  No matter how simple or complex the order, it must be abundantly clear that our internal customers came to the right place and we will provide them what they need.

2.      Understand Our Real Job
Not everyone in the fast food place is the cook; there is a lot of specialization.  But, as a customer, it is not important to me how the joint is organized and who specializes in which task.  I simply want my order taken and expect it to be delivered in a timely manner.  Regardless of their job specialty, every fast food employee understands the No. 1 job is to make sure my order is promptly and accurately executed, so I will have a positive experience and keep coming back.

Law firm Accounting Departments tend toward specialization, too.  For sake of efficiency, some of us concentrate on accounts payable processing, others in billing or receipts/payment applications.  Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to erecting customer service silos. 

“Sorry, that’s not my job.”  Regardless of the context, few phrases infuriate me more.  When one of our internal customers explains a problem and then is told to talk to someone else instead, “Sorry, that’s not my job” may not be the words used, but it is the message nonetheless.    

Admittedly, you may not know how to reverse an invoice or stop payment on a check, but when someone in the firm seeks our help with a problem, they are “placing an order” and it is our collective responsibility to take ownership of that “order,” as opposed to telling them to move to a different window. 

3.     If There’s a Problem, Let Them Know
Things don’t always go smoothly at the drive-thru.  Sometimes a complex order will take too long and the attendant does not want a single vehicle holding up the line for everyone else with simpler tastes.  On occasion I’ve been asked to pull forward and wait for someone to bring my order to me when it is ready.  If this has happened to you, ever feel as though you were forgotten?  I’ve had mostly good experiences, with someone walking out to my car to give me an update “just a few more minutes.”

Communication is the key to dealing with the Accounting Department’s internal customers as well.  Give them an estimate as to when to expect the check from us or when the client payment will be posted to the computer system.  Should you encounter a delay, be sure to communicate this information as well. 

4.     Deliver on Implied Warranties
This point is related to the last one.  When the attendant takes my order there is an implied warranty my bag eventually will contain the items requested.  Customers don’t like leaving the drive-thru and later finding out the entire order did not make it into the bag.  The same is true when an internal customer requests assistance from the Accounting Department which fails to materialize on time.  

Don’t disappoint internal customers.  Once the order is placed the expectation is the desired result will promptly come to pass.  If the requested check will be delayed due to a missing receipt or an absent approval from someone on vacation, promptly inform the customer so expectations can be adjusted.  Our internal customers naturally assume once a transaction has been entrusted to us, it will be executed with dispatch.  For our lawyers, it is frustrating to find out, days after assuming everything was to be done, that an accounting transaction is delayed for some reason without the courtesy of a heads-up.    

5.     Provide Value
Fast food is cheap for a reason.  Some of it has to do with the ingredients, but a lot of it has to do with efficiency.

Make sure the Accounting Department is operating efficiently.  Know that our efficiency (or lack of it) is apparent to our internal customers.  Just because they can’t take their business somewhere else, doesn’t mean dealing with us shouldn’t be a positive experience.
Efficiency demonstrates to the lawyers that the Accounting Department “gets it” and is mindful of its contribution to overhead costs.  Value can be demonstrated in other ways, too.  Encourage lawyers and staff to enroll in direct deposit programs for expense reimbursement; initiate delivery of client invoices via email to reduce the billing-to-collection cycle time.  The Accounting Department is uniquely situated to identify opportunities to improve the firm’s overall financial performance.

6.     Show Appreciation
Admittedly, I’m often in such a rush I barely notice when the drive-thru attendant says “thank you” or “come again.” But, when those words do not materialize, I tend to notice every time.   We’ve exchanged my money for a bag of food; that’s a fair trade.  But I had a choice and a simple sign of appreciation is quid pro quo for my decision to select this drive-thru instead of their competitor.

The firm’s lawyers (should) make it a practice to always thank clients for the opportunity to be of service.  Clients have a choice, too. 

Just because our Accounting Department has a monopoly, does that mean we shouldn’t appreciate the opportunity to be of service?   After all, without our internal customers, how would we pay our mortgages and fast food tabs? 

I once overheard a conversation between a lawyer and a billing clerk who had just resolved a complex issue involving multiple invoices for a single matter split among different parties.  After completing the task, the lawyer told the billing clerk, “That’s exactly the how I wanted it done.”  The billing clerk responded, “I’m glad I could help,” to which the lawyer replied, “No, thank you.”  The billing clerk expressed appreciation and received a “thank you” in return.”  It is great to receive those reciprocal thank you replies; high praise from lawyers who expect perfection in their own work and from us, too.[i]

It’s about Service, Duh[ii]
The commonality between a successful drive-thru operation and our Accounting Department is the idea of service.  A drive-thru exists to provide service to customers.  The Accounting Department exists within the law firm to provide back office services so the lawyers can spend more time practicing law, focusing on clients and attracting future clients. 

The idea of service means putting the customer first – ahead of all others.  Do what is in the customer’s best interest; treat them right.  The successful drive-thru operators do that and the customers keep coming back.  If the Accounting Department does that, our customers will keep coming back, too, with increasing appreciation and admiration for all we do for them.[iii]

[i] I’ve long held that if you can get two lawyers to say you did a good job on something, it is equivalent to receiving a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.  This is what those of us in law firm management live for – the occasional standing ovation equivalent.
[ii] Okay, I riffed this from James Carville, circa 1992, but you get the point.  We need to continually remind ourselves – as a back office function within a law firm – we are a service business, too.
[iii] See, footnote i.