In his seminal guide on solo practice, Jay Foonberg predicted that the Internet would change everything about the way consumers shopped for goods and services. And in his opinion, the practice of law was no exception. Today, Foonberg’s vision seems to be materializing more each day. Consumers size up lawyers not just by their artwork and furniture but also by their online reviews at sites like Yelp.com. Indeed, for some potential clients, searching for an attorney may be just like searching for a restaurant: pick up an iPhone and start perusing reviews (perhaps with Siri as a guide.) In fact, Yelp is one of the three main ways that clients come to me (I’ll leave the other two to future posts).
When I first began my practice, I was ambivalent about having a presence on Yelp. On one hand, I knew it was a great (and low-cost) way to gain much-needed exposure. On the other, I feared it because it was entirely outside of my control. Review websites are great for obtaining information, but also largely unregulated. Despite some refinements over the years, users can go on them and say anything about anyone, anonymously, without fear of repercussions. This allows anyone with an internet connection and an agenda (including an unscrupulous competitor) to post a false or unfair reviews and manipulate ratings. And yet, true or untrue, strangers would potentially take those reviews and ratings at face value.
This frightening truth is part of the brave new world that modern lawyers and other business owners confront. Review websites are here to stay. As a result, your control over your reputation may not go much further than your ability to foster positive reviews and ratings on review sites like Yelp. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the inevitable. I encouraged a client to post a review on Yelp and he did. Since then, I have gotten a surprising amount of business from users searching on Yelp. As time has gone on, more reviews have been posted (all of them favorable, thankfully). And if anything, I would like to believe that the site has showcased my honesty and good customer service.
Yet, in reality I know that this view is simplistic. As others have attested, many reviewers are simply unfair and much of the Yelp game may be more about your likability and luck and the inevitable outcome of a legal matter than about your competence and skill. Some businesses have even sued Yelp for poor monitoring of their site. Since I began riding the wave of the modern Internet review site, I have learned a few basic tips that can help make Yelp and other websites a positive experience:
Encourage satisfied clients to post reviews. Personally, I do not believe there is anything unethical about doing this. Indeed, law practices have used testimonials for years in their advertising. Only here, the client is telling their own story, in their own words, which I personally feel is better.
Treat everyone with respect. Perhaps the most lasting influence Yelp will have on the legal industry is the way lawyers treat their clients. Gone are the days when an attorney could chew out a nuisance client and kick them to the curb. Such actions now risk damaging retaliation by way of nasty internet complaints. In my practice, frankly, I am so terrified that this might happen that I treat everyone quite politely and will bite my tongue no matter how unreasonable the person is being. Such is life in the new age. Every call or meeting is a potential review, so do your best to send the person home satisfied (or at very least not unsatisfied).
Lastly, it pays to engage clients who are having issues rather than avoiding them. At the veterinary hospital where my wife works, they have recently begun encouraging people to come to them before posting a Yelp review. The idea is to catch problem cases before they wind up on the Internet. Whether the strategy works remains to be seen, but the concept is important. By addressing the source of dissatisfaction as early as possible, you have the greatest opportunity to fix the problem. And, even if the problems are not fixable, there’s always the possibility that if unhappy clients at least have the opportunity to air their grievances to you, they will be less inclined to do so at home on their computer.
Are you considering using Yelp? What has been your experience on Yelp or other review sites?
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.