Jim Aronoff’s tips for cultural change

Jim Aronoff, partner-in-charge, Cleveland office, Thompson Hine LLP

Thompson Hine LLP has always been a law firm focused on client service, but Jim Aronoff says that if you go back about seven years, the firm decided to develop not just a strategy but rather a culture of client service to differentiate it from the competition.

Aronoff, now partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office, was part of a small pilot group that got together with about a half dozen of the firm’s most significant clients from around the country to talk about their views, concerns and hot-button issues. They also discussed how the firm could better partner with them, and they ultimately developed a client service pledge that the firm would serve the clients the best way it could. Fast forward a few years, and now that client service pledge is the culture of the organization and guiding the firm into the future.

“It’s one thing to roll it out and get the buy-in, but then it’s conducting it day by day,” he says. “As time goes along, no one thinks about what it was like before we had a client service pledge and before we had client service teams.”

Additionally, the firm has been recognized as one of the top two firms in the country for client service.

Smart Business spoke with Aronoff about how to create a customer-first culture in your organization.

How do you create a culture focused on customers?

From my perspective, there’s nothing proprietary about it. It is common sense. It’s how everyone and how our clients should be treated and how they should expect to be treated.

You need to find ways to communicate with and, most important, listen to your clients, your customers. There is this natural inclination to sell and to market. To truly be effective and successful in client and customer service, you have to be able to listen to and understand the particular needs of your particular client or customer and focus your efforts in that way. That’s really step one.

What’s the next step?

It is essential that each component of your business and all of the employees who are going to be involved in delivering the service in whatever way it is, there has to be effective buy-in and training. Essentially, it needs to become part of your day-to-day culture.

We spent a great deal of time getting comfortable internally that we had effectively trained and had the right orientation internally to execute on our program before we were prepared to roll it out, because we take our commitments very seriously.

How do you get the buy-in across the organization?

It was somewhat methodical. It was a firmwide initiative. You’re talking about a firm of 400 lawyers. We started with the partners, and we had a number of sessions where we did stand-alone in each office and then by videoconference amongst the offices. It ultimately culminated in conjunction with our annual partners’ meeting where all of our partners were together, and we spent the better part of a weekend retreat focused almost exclusively on client service.

As we got the partners buy-in, it was a process of rolling it out to our nonpartner lawyers through developing an implementation plan and understanding the little things and the big things — from answering your phone, or if you’re not in your office that your phone is forwarded to your assistant to cut out the number of rings before a client would get a live person. Our nonprofessional staff had to be part of that equation because each activity that goes on in our office, whether it be our senior-most partner, any of our secretarial staff or our other support services — everybody is, in some fashion, contributing to the delivery of our client service, and if we fall down at any level, then we can’t deliver the level of service that we have committed to deliver and that our clients are entitled to. That’s why it took as long as it did. It wasn’t like we got a small group of people together and they agreed, ‘Yeah, this makes sense,’ and just put it out there. It was a very organized program over a decent amount of time.

The bottom line is you have to live it every day because you can undo a lot of goodwill very quickly.

How to reach: Thompson Hine LLP, (216) 566-5500 or www.thompsonhine.com