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How to find out what your clients want (so you can give it to them)

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Attorneys ask a lot of questions. We ask to find out what our clients want and need so we can prepare the right documents. We ask questions through discovery, to avoid surprises, develop a strategy, and gain an advantage. Questions are how we tell a story in the courtroom or negotiate a settlement in the hallway. Questions are even how attorneys answer questions they don’t want to answer.

We’re good at asking questions.

We know when to ask open-ended questions and when to ask leading questions. We know how to question a hostile witness, an expert witness, and our own client. We know when a question is proper and when it is objectionable.

All day, every day, we ask questions in our work. Why don’t we do the same thing in our marketing?

Your clients and prospective clients can tell you what you need to do to grow your practice. They can tell you what you need to say to get them to say yes. They can tell you what you need to do (or not do) to make them happy. They can give you information you can use to improve every aspect of your practice.

All you have to do is ask.

You can ask about the specific handling of their case, what they liked best in your latest newsletter, or how they were treated when they called to make an appointment.

You can ask what topics they would like you to write about in your newsletter, whether they are interested in other services you’re thinking about offering, and whether they think your fees are too high, too low, or just right.

You can ask them what you did well for them, and where they felt you could have done better. You can ask which headline they like best, which blogs or magazines they regularly read, or whether they want paper copies mailed to them or if email is just fine.

You can ask in person or over the phone, through email or online surveys and polls. You can ask directly or, for more honest feedback, let them answer anonymously.

You can ask anything, and they will tell you, and what they tell you could be worth a fortune to you.

What if you have always assumed your clients wanted updates only when there is something important to report but in reality, most of them want to hear from you every month? What if you’ve been writing about how to avoid infringing on others’ patents but they want to know is how to minimize employee lawsuits? What if you have always assumed your receptionist is doing a good job but half of your clients think he is rude?

And guess what? People like being asked. They like giving their opinions and they will appreciate you for asking. It tells them that you care about what they think, and that you want to make them happy.

Make a list of questions to ask your clients and prospects and business contacts. Get in the habit of regularly asking people what they want, what they like, and what you can do to improve. And then do something even more important: listen.

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Lawyers required to protect personal information under new federal rule

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Oh what fun, lawyers (and their clients) have new regs to comply with and new exposure if they don’t. Civil damages, administrative penalties, and even criminal charges are possible under these new rules. But this emerging field also provides new marketing opportunities. You can advise (and bill), you can represent damaged parties, and you can defend parties charged with failure to comply. And, if you practice in any related field, you can attract new business by speaking and writing about these new regulations. You can also earn profits beyond your legal fees by offering non-legal identity theft protection to your clients and their employees. I work with many attorneys who do this and the income is not only substantial, it is residual. If you’re interested in learning more, send me a personal message. dw

By Susan D. Oja and Alex De Grand

April 1, 2009 — Lawyers who bill their clients after services have been rendered are expected to implement a written program guarding against the theft of their employees’ and clients’ personal information under a new federal law.

The Federal Trade Commission will begin enforcement of the “red flags rule” on May 1. The rule is part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), a congressional response to spikes in reported identity theft. Identity thieves assume a person’s entire identity or synthesize one from parts of various victims. Because more than half of identity thefts occur in the workplace, businesses are required to implement safeguards.

Those subject to the rule are “creditors” and financial institutions who maintain consumer-type accounts or other accounts at reasonable risk of identity theft. The FTC noted that identity thieves look for opportunities to obtain products or services that do not require payment up-front.

As interpreted by the FTC, “creditors” has a broad definition, encompassing professionals such as lawyers and doctors who defer payment of a client’s bill. The American Medical Association protested that other federal laws and professional ethical duties to maintain patient confidentiality precluded the new rule. But the FTC held in a letter that the statute borrows the sweeping definition of “creditor” from the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). Agency interpretation of the ECOA specifically includes doctors and lawyers within the meaning of “creditor.”

What is expected

Under the new rule, lawyers must implement a written policy specifying how they will watch for the warning signs — the “red flags” — that indicate an identity theft may be occurring and how they will respond to prevent or mitigate the crime if uncovered.

Policies are supposed to be tailored to the amount of risk. The FTC acknowledges there is no bright-line rule to distinguish between high and low-risk. But the rule suggests a lawyer consider such factors as how easily an account is opened or accessed and previous experience with identity theft.

If a lawyer finds there is little risk, an appropriate program might comprise no more than checking photo id at the time services are sought and a policy against collecting from an identity theft victim or reporting it on the victim’s credit report.

In its letter to the AMA, the FTC stated that it does not foresee the new rule imposing a great burden. “For example, a small medical practice with a well-known, limited patient base might have a lower risk of identity theft, and thus might adopt a more limited Program than a clinic in a large metropolitan setting that sees a high volume of patients,” the letter read.

What to watch for

The Appendix of the “red flags rule” provides examples of incidents putting a creditor lawyer on notice of potential identity theft. In addition to fraud alerts from consumer credit agencies or the client’s complaint, this list includes suspicious documents, perhaps altered or forged. A creditor lawyer may receive fishy personal information such as an unexpected change of address. Creditor lawyers are also directed to look for unusual use of an account.

A creditor lawyer’s policy should address the detection of “red flags” at the time an account is opened by obtaining identifying information about the new client and verifying it, the rule instructs.

What to do

Responses to “red flags” should be in proportion to the risk posed and a creditor lawyer is advised to consider any “aggravating factors” such as a data security breach that may exacerbate the threat. The rule Appendix suggests appropriate responses could be alerting law enforcement, monitoring the account for evidence of identity theft, changing passwords or other security devices controlling account access, reopening an account with a new account number, or closing an account. Under certain circumstances, the rule states that a creditor lawyer may determine no response is necessary.

These written policies should be updated periodically to account for changes in risks to clients’ information or innovations in detection of identity theft. A subsequent merger, acquisition, joint venture, or service provider arrangement may also prompt the need for an updated written policy.

The rule also requires appointing a senior management person to implement the program; appropriately educating employees; and overseeing any service provider arrangements. Liability follows a creditor lawyer’s data, so due diligence is necessary to confirm vendor compliance before outsourcing payroll or hiring an office cleaning company.

More information from the FTC: The Red Flags Rules: Are you complying with new requirements for fighting identity theft?

Susan D. Oja, a solo practitioner in Middleton, is a certified identity theft risk management specialist through the Institute of Fraud Risk Management. Alex De Grand is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

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