What is Smith.ai and what does it do?
Smith.ai is constantly evolving, but the simple explanation is that we’re a virtual receptionist service for businesses and we specialize in serving law firms. Our live, U.S.-based receptionists answer calls and website chats, return calls, qualify leads, book appointments, and accept payments. To callers and website visitors, our receptionists deliver the experience of an in-house staff member; to law firms, however, they actually offer significantly more value, because the receptionists use our AI technology for far greater efficiency and efficacy. It’s like having an IT person and team of receptionists at your disposal: human intelligence combined with machine intelligence. This is evident in our automatic spam blocking, software integrations, triggered workflows, and more. But the human side alone is compelling on its own: Consider the benefits of having a team of receptionists at the ready, rather than just a single person who can get tied up, busy, sick, redirected to other work, and so on!
In addition to the services offered by our live receptionists, Smith.ai also offers a cloud phone system, Keypad, which is tailored to the needs of solo and small firms at $25/month, with an easy interface, integrated business texting, e-fax, call recording, and a host of other features.
The Impact of Communication Issues on Solo and Small Firms
Communication issues are common and can significantly reduce the potential growth and sustainability of a firm. The 2017 and 2018 Clio Legal Trends Reports highlighted two communication trends that are particularly important for small firms to keep in mind: 2 out of 3 potential clients base their decision to hire on a firm’s initial responsiveness to their first call or email and 59% of people still didn’t hire an attorney after a consultation.
What this tells us is that firms need to be quick to respond to callers (and web visitors), but that they need to improve their lead qualification so that only the leads most likely to become clients get booked for consultations. The problem is, solo and small-firm lawyers are spread very thinly, and answering a call or web chat often means stopping work, if they’re even available to take it in the first place (e.g., not in court, in a meeting, or in transit). So, many calls go to voicemail, and then as soon as that’s recorded, if they even leave a message at all, off that potential client goes to call the next firm in their web search results. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a very patient lead from a strong referral, the first firm to answer typically gets hired, provided they match with the client’s needs, budget, timing, etc.
Consider also that even if the lawyer does accept the interruption, they’re faced not only with the time spent listening to the potential client’s legal needs but also with the “recovery” time incurred after the call, which is, on average, 23 minutes. That is, the time it takes to complete the post-call work and get back into the task they were working on when the interruption came through. Add in the increased prevalence of spam calls (up 30% year over year to 3.4 billion in the U.S.), and the fact that the majority of consults don’t result in clients, and it’s easy to see why lawyers have communication challenges that can later produce business-growth struggles.
The solution is to offload initial contact to a receptionist service that can quickly capture and then qualify leads based on an attorney’s custom criteria. And further, still, receptionists can book well qualified potential clients for call-backs or consultations directly on the attorney’s calendar. This provides a clear next step for the lead at a set time, which reduces the chance of the potential client exploring (and hiring) an alternative firm.
One other quick comment here: Potential clients aren’t always ready to hire after the first conversation, no matter how good the firm is at promptly answering calls and web chats. Systematic follow-up is critical. Six follow-ups are generally cited as the “saturation point,” at which point 93% of potential clients have either converted, rejected, or gone “dark.” The challenge is, with the bar set at that call volume, a solo attorney could spend all day answering calls and following up with leads. That’s one of the reasons we offer inbound and outbound services, and why we also strongly recommend that attorneys implement automated email campaigns to “nurture” leads with the goal to convince them to hire.
What are the main features to look out for when choosing a virtual receptionist service?
There are deal-breaker features, and there are also good-to-have (“best practice”) features. I’d say deal-breaker features are most often performance-based. Examples of this are inconsistently adhering to a firm’s directions, rejecting good leads as “unqualified” thereby costing the firm revenue, communicating poorly (mispronouncing an attorney’s name or lacking professional yet modern business communication skills), routinely missing calls, artificially extending calls when charging per-minute to increase charges, and other related issues.
Good-to-have features are those that help firms maximize the value of the service. Examples of this are per-call rather than per-minute pricing that allows more to be accomplished during a call at a fixed price; software integrations that immediately log contact information in a firm’s practice management software; the ability to follow complex decision trees to qualify, book, and intake clients; multilingual receptionists; extended hours; automatic spam blocking; and so on. Gone is the era where receptionist services are synonymous with answering services. There’s a lot more that can be done than message taking, at just slightly higher costs. Getting a message about a missed call only marginally reduces your workload. Having a receptionist qualify a lead, schedule a consult, and take a credit card payment for a deposit or consultation fee takes real work off your plate and saves significant time.
Are receptionist services useful to firms who already have an assistant or receptionist in-house, or are they only for true solos with no in-house help?
Receptionist services are actually very useful for solo and small-firms who already have in-house staff or even remote help, like a virtual paralegal. With an in-house or singular remote helper, there’s very little (or no) overflow protection. Receptionist services can provide back-up services so that when individual staff are busy, the dreaded black hole of voicemail is prevented. What we often see in solo and small firms, is that it’s less common for there to be assistants and receptionists in-house and far more common to have more skilled staff on hand, like a paralegal.
Just like attorneys, paralegals and other staff are being spread thinly, and (especially when they’re in-house) tapped to answer phones and perform admin duties, which often results in “underemployment.” Meaning, people are working on things they’re overqualified to handle, and that’s typically accompanied by their overpayment, because when you’ve got a paralegal on staff who’s answering phones, you can bet the job can be handed off to someone at a lower hourly rate who allows the paralegal and/or attorney to work on cases and more advanced-skill work. Not to mention the fact that folks hired as receptionists typically are better suited for and satisfied by receptionist work. Paralegals who are routinely asked to fulfill admin duties are more likely to look for work elsewhere that better capitalizes on their skill set.
Bottom line: We know a certain percent of attorneys and legal staff at solo and small firms are still going to answer their phones. In cases where money is tight, we recommend having conditional call forwarding set up so that after a certain number of rings (ideally just one) or during certain hours (let’s say, lunchtime), the phones ring over to a receptionist service. That way, if someone in-house does have bandwidth to answer a call, they can do so; otherwise, they can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing the call will be answered professionally by a friendly receptionist, and they can keep plugging along at the task at hand, which they’re best positioned to accomplish.
What’s your number one piece of advice to solo and small firm attorneys who want to improve responsiveness in 2019?
It would be too obvious to say, “Start by hiring a receptionist service to answer your calls!” So, let’s approach it more holistically: Track your billable and non-billable time for a week, whether or not you still bill hourly. Then, evaluate each block of non-billable work and tag each one based on the way it can be improved, using these 3 tags: Automate (handoff in whole or part to software), Streamline (trim or reduce work required), or Offload (outsource to someone else). For tasks that can’t be altered, tag as “Maintain.”
As a general guide, data entry, document generation, and lead nurturing are best automated (like an email drip campaign that sends messages to unconverted leads about your expertise, testimonials, etc.). Answers to FAQs, intake, workflows, and client check-ins are most easily streamlined (think: an email template for responding to “bad” leads with a list of recommended firms by practice areas outside of yours). And call answering, lead qualification, scheduling, and late-payment reminders are best outsourced(imagine if your phone only rings when the courthouse or a white-listed current client calls, or when your receptionist service has a well-qualified lead on the line).
The more you cut down on inefficiencies and employ specialization by triaging work to capable software and services, the freer you’ll be for client work and those really warm leads you want to win right at that moment. And the less frazzled you’ll feel when the bulk of the non-lawyering work, especially those chores and nuisance tasks, isn’t just on your shoulders. Because a less frustrated attorney, one who is more in control of the day-to-day operations of their firm, is a friendlier, better attorney—and one who is far more likely to perform well, make clients happy, and generate new business from raving fans’ referrals. You don’t have to go it alone, even in a “solo” firm.
If you’re an attorney who’s ready to do more lawyering and less laboring, consider enlisting help from Smith.ai’s receptionists. Visit https://smith.ai, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or better yet, call (650) 727-6484 Monday through Friday 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. PST / 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST to hear their receptionists for yourself.
The code ABA50 gets you $50 off your first month of live receptionist services (phone calls or web chat). If you’re keen to try Smith.ai’s cloud phone system, Keypad, the code ABA20 takes $20 off your first month.
About the Author
Maddy Martin is the head of growth and education 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 live web chat. 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 email@example.com, and you can also connect with her on LinkedIn. To learn more about Smith.ai, visit https//smith.ai.