The Missing Piece: Virtual Receptionists

The 2017 Clio Legal Trends Report revealed many alarming statistics about the daily work habits of practicing attorneys, but perhaps most shocking were the statistics on the tasks consuming the majority of attorneys’ time, the tasks receiving little attention, and the net results of their efforts. Notably:

  • The average attorney spends only 1.9 hours per day on billable work.
  • Attorneys are interrupted an average of six times per day, resulting in nearly two hours of lost time.
  • Only 86% of revenue from billed time is ever collected.

Take a look at the state of the industry in this infographic, which draws from data in the Clio report:

What wasn’t surprising in the report were these facts:

  • Two out of three potential clients say their “decision” to hire is most influenced by a firm’s initial responsiveness to their first call or email.
  • Law firms get paid 39% faster when they accept online payments.

Individuals and businesses looking for legal help aren’t inclined to wait for an attorney to follow-up after they leave a voicemail, nor are they inclined to rustle up and dust off their checkbooks. If your law firm isn’t responsive to the ways people prefer to do business, you’re destined to lose business. It’s really that simple.

Clients expect you to promptly answer calls and emails, offer online scheduling for consultations and appointments, accept credit card payments, and increasingly, make yourself or your firm available via text message and web chat. These are the new standards of doing business and the legal industry doesn’t get a pass.

But, as a solo or small-firm attorney, you have a dilemma: potential and existing clients demand responsiveness, but interruptions kill your productivity. How can you possibly allocate time to everything a modern law practice demands of you? You can’t. That’s why virtual receptionists are indispensable.

If you’re not yet using a virtual receptionist service, it’s critical you consider the impact that working solo (or repurposing your paralegal for admin work, as is often the case) is having on the growth and sustainability of your law practice.

If you are using a virtual receptionist service, it’s time to consider whether you’ve chosen the best one, because (just like all other services in any industry) they’re not all created equal.

These days, a great virtual receptionist should be able to carry out the following business-critical tasks:

  • Qualify potential clients based on your custom criteria
  • Block spam, unsolicited sales calls, and wrong numbers
  • Make outbound calls
  • Integrate with your CRM, intake, practice management, and marketing automation software like Clio, Lexicata, PracticePanther, and HubSpot
  • Schedule appointments directly on your calendar using tools like Calendly, Appointy, Acuity, and ScheduleOnce
  • Collect payments through your billing software, like LawPay, Headnote

All of these capabilities directly contribute to the growth of your solo or small law firm. Here are just five of the innumerable ways that virtual receptionists can have a life-changing impact on your income, your time, your clients’ satisfaction, and even your work/life balance—because business growth often isn’t worth pursuing unless it’s also sustainable for you in the long run.

1. Quickly capture leads

Whether your leads come from referrals, lawyer-listing sites, Google search visitors, or paid ads, you and your marketing agency can only generate them; capturing and converting these leads to clients is on you. Wait to respond, and they’ve already reached other attorneys. The first to answer gets the business most of the time.

The problem is, your day is booked up with court dates, meetings, chargeable tasks, and admin chores. You’re lawyering and you’re laboring. There’s no time for “unnecessary” interruptions. But if you don’t answer calls from potential clients, there won’t even be a business to interrupt…

The way to make time is to get capable people to not only answer your phones but also respond to leads coming through your web form.

A team of virtual receptionists can answer one or multiple incoming calls at once. You can even auto-forward them the notification emails when website visitors complete your “contact us” form and your receptionists can call the leads, thereby capturing them at the time of intent, not later in the day or tomorrow when you’re finally able to carve out time.

2. Efficiently qualify leads

What do you do once you have a live lead on the phone? We recommend you entrust your receptionists to qualify the lead based on your custom criteria and clear directions. They can ask things like:

  • Are they willing to pay your fees?
  • Are they in the right county where you practice?
  • Do they need work within your practice area?
  • Does their timing align with your work schedule and current commitments?

These are all questions virtual receptionists are capable of handling. They’ll record the answers and, based on your instructions, either flag them as a good potential client or as a “bad” lead.

One note here: Don’t just instruct the receptionists to ask questions; also give them information to proactively share, so callers are well informed and can even “self-filter” themselves as good or bad leads. Sometimes by stating your fees, receptionists can take away the discomfort that sometimes comes when topics related to money arise. They’re the ones who mention your fees, and the caller never needs to disclose their ability to pay; they can simply turn down the opportunity to work with your firm, saving you from finding that out during a more time-consuming initial consultation.

Tip: You can even provide different criteria for you and each of your partners if you have multiple attorneys at your firm.

3. Intake new clients

After the qualification step comes intake: The “good” leads get processed.

That should be initiated through an intake form built within your CRM or other case/practice management software, or through your calendaring software since many online scheduling programs now include optional form fields that you can require to be completed before an appointment is booked. Instruct your receptionist service to complete the fields in the form. When you have the form hosted in your CRM or practice management software, each time it is completed, a new client record is created. This way, when the first appointment happens, you already have a new record for that client, and all you need to do is add to it.

Note that at any point after a lead is “qualified” by one of your receptionists, a live transfer to you (or a partner or associate at your firm) is possible. If an attempt is made and fails, the fallback solution is to let the receptionist continue with intake or schedule a call-back appointment on your (or your colleague’s) calendar.

Now, what about the leads who aren’t qualified? Don’t just hang up! You can monetize them by referring them to a firm or attorney you recommend who will be better suited to serve their needs.

Based on your directions and custom referral list, virtual receptionists can provide contact information to lawyers you recommend. Attorneys who make referrals can earn up to 40% of the referred firm’s client fees. But the benefit here is not only to generate a passive revenue stream, as a great recommendation is also a major gift to that person who called you. You saved them time and effort, preventing them from having to turn back to Google for further research. That creates goodwill, which often comes back to you in the form of future referrals.

4. Schedule call-backs, consultations, and appointments

Whether it’s a call-back, a phone consultation, or an in-person meeting, virtual receptionists can schedule appointments directly on your calendar, so there are fewer follow-up tasks after the calls they handle on your behalf.

Fully featured and affordable online scheduling tools abound, and if you use Google Calendar, Office 365, Outlook, or iCloud, there’s even a free option available through Calendly, a simple online program that allows you to display your availability to your receptionists (and anyone else who has your calendar link) and book appointments. You can opt to put the link on your website so anyone can schedule a consultation with you, embed it in your email signature, and/or make your calendar link available to your receptionist service (for better “gatekeeping”).

If you do embed your calendar on your website, consider charging for consultations to reduce the chance of no-shows and cancellations. You can credit this to their account balance if they hire you, to ease concerns they may have about paying you for this time.

You can also enlist the help of your receptionists here: Request that they make outbound calls to individuals with upcoming appointments 24 to 48 hours in advance. This is also an opportunity to inform potential and existing clients of any preparation required of them prior to your call or meeting.

5. Collect payments for consultations, one-time payments, and recurring payments

No business captures 100% of the revenue due to them, but the goal is to collect as much as possible. Virtual receptionists can take payment by phone under a number of scenarios, such as:

  • A new client calls in and books a consultation, for which you charge a fee. The receptionist answers the phone, books the appointment, collects the new client’s credit card information, and processes the payment right on the spot.
  • An existing client calls to make a payment on an invoice. Save yourself an interruption. When receptionists answer your calls, and an existing client dials in to make a payment, the receptionist can take payment by phone and note the invoice number so you don’t have to spend time tracking it down.
  • An existing client emails in with questions about an invoice. Sometimes clients want to discuss line items on invoices before making a payment. When an email comes through from a client who has a question about their invoice, simply forward that email to the receptionist service with the answer(s) to the client’s question(s) and a receptionist will call them to provide the answer and take payment by phone.
  • Existing clients have payments that are due this week or past due. Provide your receptionist service with the contact information and invoice amount (or unique invoice link) for a client or a list of clients from whom payments are due or past due, and save yourself the chase. Your receptionists will make outbound calls to these clients so you’re not waiting and wondering if they’re going to submit payment on time (or ever!).

Online credit card payment solutions built for lawyers, like LawPay, TrialPay, and Headnote, allow you to add a payment collection page to your website, have a publicly accessible URL available to your payment page, and generate unique invoice links for specific clients. So, whether a client unexpectedly calls in and wants to make a payment, or your receptionist is making calls to specific clients to request payment on past-due invoices, you can remain hands-off and focus your time and energy on billable work.

Additionally, clients are often more comfortable speaking about payment-related matters when the conversation is with a neutral third party rather than you, with whom a close personal relationship has often been established. Handing payment follow-up tasks to receptionists is not only more efficient, but it also leads to greater client comfort.

Choosing the right virtual receptionist service

As we alluded to earlier, not every virtual receptionist service offers lead qualification, new client intake, appointment booking, payment collection, and referral services. Make sure you ask about these features when shopping around.

What’s special about Smith.ai?

Smith.ai virtual receptionists offer all of these services. Professional, U.S.-based receptionists answer, transfer, and return calls during business hours, freeing you up to practice law, network, write articles, and do everything else that no one but you can do.

What’s with the “AI” in the name? That stands for “artificial intelligence,” and it powers the following features:

  • Automatic spam blocking of 20 million numbers
  • Live call transfer requests via SMS and Slack
  • Easy status changes via SMS (e.g., text “Do Not Disturb” when you arrive at court)
  • Instant call notes via email, SMS, or Slack

Unlike most virtual receptionist services, billing is per call, not per minute. Leads who need to explain their case in detail? Clients who need to track down their credit card to book a consultation? These calls can take three to five minutes. Be wary of answering services that suggest the average call is one to two minutes. How much are those agents really doing?

Moreover, per-call pricing makes it much easier to calculate the cost of acquiring a new client. From your marketing campaigns, you can determine the cost to make your phone ring with a new lead. When a potential client converts from a phone call into a consultation, you know how much that call cost you, too. At the end of each month, simply look at how much you paid your receptionists, and then at how many calls resulted in new clients. (Keep in mind, this doesn’t account for the added benefits of time and energy savings and efficiency gains.)

Here’s the general scope of Smith.ai’s virtual receptionist services:

  • Inbound & outbound calls
  • Lead capture & qualification
  • Appointment scheduling & reminders, with calendar integration with Appointy, Acuity, Calendly, ScheduleOnce, and more
  • CRM and practice management software integration with Clio, Lexicata, PracticePanther, Infusionsoft, HubSpot and more
  • Payment processing through LawyPay, Headnote, TrialPay and more
  • Coverage Monday to Friday, 6 AM to 6 PM PST/9 AM to 9 PM EST
  • S.-based professionals familiar with law firm operations
  • Spanish-speaking receptionists available at no additional cost
  • Call screening, prioritization, and VIP lists
  • Instant call summaries and end-of-day reports
  • Voicemails transcribed and sent to email or SMS

With plans starting at $60/month, law firms get the experience and quality of an in-house receptionist at a small fraction of the price.

Reject the age-old trade-offs between running your business and practicing law—with Smith.ai’s professional receptionists and powerful AI, you’re able to get more work done, collect more of what you’ve earned, and scale-up a more profitable law firm.

Get started with a 10-call free trial of Smith.ai virtual receptionists

If you’d like to sign up for Smith.ai, you may do so online at Smith.ai, by phone at (650) 727-6484, or by email at support@smith.ai. Law Technology Today readers get $50 off their first month with code LTT50. This can be combined with Smith.ai’s 30-day/10-call free trial for a total of $110 in savings!

You asked for it, and we built it. Smith.ai will begin offering web chat staffed by our live, U.S.-based professionals as soon as Fall 2018. To learn more and sign up for the waiting list, visit Smith.ai/chat.

Contact Smith.ai

Questions about virtual receptionists? Looking for more best practices? Smith.ai support can offer guidance so you implement the most efficient and effective call-handling processes from the start. Contact Smith.ai Monday through Friday between 6 AM and 6 PM PST at (650) 727-6484 or support@smith.ai.

About the author, Maddy Martin

Maddy Martin is the head of marketing and partnerships for Smith.ai, which provides integrated phone and web chat services for solo and small-firm attorneys, including their virtual receptionist & intake service, Keypad cloud phone system, and Web Chat service (coming Fall 2018). She has spent the last decade growing tech startups from New York to California, and has expertise in digital marketing, small business communications, lead conversion, email marketing, SEO, and event marketing. Maddy can be reached at maddy@smith.ai, and you can also connect with her on LinkedIn.

About Law Technology Today

Law Technology Today
Law Technology Today is the official legal technology blog from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC). Law Technology Today provides lawyers and other legal professionals with current, practical and innovative content developed by some of the leading voices on legal technology.

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