Surveys Help Make Critical Decisions
by Barbara Lewis and Dan Otto
(County Bar Update, April 2004, Vol. 24, No. 4)

Surveys Help Make Critical Decisions

By Barbara Lewis, M.B.A., Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee, and Dan Otto, M.B.A. Lewis and Otto are co-founders of Centurion Consulting Group, which assists firms in developing and conducting surveys. They can be reached through its Web site at www.centurionconsultinglaw.com. For a sample list of biased/unbiased and close/open-ended law firm survey questions, e-mail barbaralewis@centurionconsultinglaw.com. The opinions expressed are their own.

If you're confused about a specific direction in which to move, a survey can obtain valuable information and indicate a viable course of action.

Attorneys use surveys in a variety of ways, such as querying clients about the level of services provided by the attorneys, executives on the visibility of the law firm, referral sources on qualities that they value when referring business, and employees about the firm's benefits package.

Surveys can be an excellent public relations tool as well. Recipients are often impressed when they find out that the attorney is interested in their opinions, especially since so few attorneys bother to use surveys. Surveys also can provide a benchmark and, when used on an ongoing basis, can indicate the success or failure of a specific program.

Attorneys, other personnel employed at the law firm, or third parties can conduct surveys, which can be completed by telephone, mail, in person in a one-on-one interview or in a focus group, or, more recently, online.  The survey method depends on the type of information needed. A telephone interview works well with a small group of interviewees where probing questions are useful. A written survey with close-ended questions is more appropriate for a larger participant pool. Face-to-face interviews are time-consuming, and oftentimes the incremental value is not worth the cost unless the topic requires a discussion. Online surveys are an easy, cost-effective way to obtain information from participants. The data can be downloaded into a spreadsheet with graphs generated automatically.

If you're considering using a survey, here are some simple guidelines.

1. Pose the question that you want answered. For example, you may want to know what additional services you should provide to your clients. The question is "What other services do our clients need?"

2. Select the group who can best answer the question (or in this case the target group to whom you will be marketing the new services).

3. Develop a short survey of approximately 8 to 15 questions. Use close-ended questions when surveying a large number of people and open-ended questions when conducting a focus group or telephone interview.

4. Ask unbiased questions.

5. Whenever possible use a Likert scale, such as 1 to 5 from "not helpful" to "very helpful."

6. Decide who will execute the survey. For example, can you conduct the survey with in-house personnel, or should you hire an independent third party to ensure confidentiality and candor?

7. Decide on the survey method. For example, do you want a telephone survey or an online survey?

8. Send correspondence to the selected participants informing them that someone will be in contact about the survey.

9. Offer a reward for participation such as a coupon at the local coffee shop to increase participation.

10. Allow two to three weeks for survey completion depending on the type of survey that is distributed (two weeks if the survey is online and three weeks if by mail).

11. Surveys generate the most results within the first week with participation dropping off thereafter. A reminder notice generally spikes response rates.

12. Analyze the results. Be wary of small sample sizes since they may not accurately reflect the true opinion.

13. Make your decision based on the survey results.

Surveys can be one of the best ways to find out about the perceptions of your clients, referral sources, employees, and others.  Too often, attorneys stand ready to make decisions without appropriate research. A simple survey can provide concrete answers, offer a well-supported course of action, and benchmark progress in reaching goals.

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