Sending out the right cross-selling signals

Cross-selling is not wrong in itself, says Paul Denvir. It is just the way that professional services firm go about it that can get them into trouble. The good news is that an ethical approach to cross-selling is also the most effective.

Cross-selling is getting a bad name these days. On Legal Week’s website in June one headline read: “Senate to launch cross-selling attack”. A recent article from The Wall Street Journal trumpets: “Before Enron, greed helped sink the respectability of accounting” and goes on to rail against accountants selling “anything under the sun”.

So, is cross-selling bad per se, or does it depend on how and why it is done?

Consider the following quotations from a recent report in another part of the legal press. The words are attributed to the chairman of a City law firm on his return from a ‘partners’ retreat’: “Squeezing more out of our clients is the way forward” and “partners need to exploit client relationships more”.

How would you feel as a client reading those words, especially if the next day your client service partner suggested it would be a good idea to arrange a client service review meeting?

It is possible that the chairman was misquoted, but it is also possible that he is being ‘misquoted’ daily within the firm.

Consider also the law firm that developed a comprehensive customer relationship management programme with the number one stated aim of “winning a greater share of our clients’ wallets”.

The following example is from personal experience. In the early stages of a project I asked the members of a key client team to describe a two-year ‘vision’ for their client relationship; what would success look like in two years’ time? This is what they came up with:

  • achieve 40% of the client’s total legal spend;
  • win all major corporate instructions;
  • secure work in the US, Far East and Australia;
  • capture 50% of top-end employment instructions;
  • become first choice for all property work;
  • win the first piece of major litigation work for the client;
  • increase recovery levels by 10%; and
  • target overall profitability to be 20% above the firm’s average.

On the face of it, these are pretty focused aims. However, there is nothing here about, for example, reducing the client’s total legal spend by 20%; reducing headcount in the legal department by three without increasing the cost of external advisers; or the client increasing its market share by 10% in selected markets through the retention of more key personnel. In fact, there is nothing here about the client at all.

But, does it matter why we are looking to cross-sell? After all, everyone knows that, at the end of the day, the reason we are in business is to make money.

Here is why it might matter a great deal. I looked up the word ‘ethics’ for a seminar we ran recently. According to the definition I found: “Ethics represents a norm or standard of behaviour in support of a set of values which in turn depend on purpose.”

Depending on the purpose of cross-selling, different things will be valued and different behaviour will be the norm. If ‘a greater share of my client’s wallet’ is my purpose, then anything that achieves that will feel acceptable, providing I do nothing illegal or ‘unprofessional’.

I might, for example, try to sell my clients all the services my firm has to offer, whether they need them or not. In meetings, I might listen out only for ‘problems’ rather than trying to get a full understanding of the client’s situation.

I will be tempted to ‘pounce’ on ‘opportunities’ as they appear until the client starts to feel a little punch drunk. It is at this point that he or she will wonder whether I am their legal adviser or Del Boy Trotter in disguise. They will join the Heads of Legal who tell us they see some lawyers in the same way many of us now (fairly or unfairly) regard Bank Managers – once respected advisers, but now only interested in selling us insurance and mortgage products.

And yet the greatest shame is that as a firm we probably have something to offer that would be of immense value to the client and his business. The problem is that the client stopped listening some time ago when I tried to sell him something he did not want.

But what if my, and the firm’s, avowed purpose is different? What if I am focused on building long-term client relationships and am genuinely only interested in doing the things that would add real value to the client’s organisation over the long-term?

Then my behaviour will be different. Then I might invest time in understanding the business, with real enthusiasm. I might find non-chargeable ways to constantly help my contact and his business. I might recommend non-competing advisers who can add something special even if their fees might come from the same pot as mine this year. I might even recommend competing advisers for some of the work because they are better at it, at least in the short-term.

But I would also be exploring ways in which other services we offer could be of value. On that basis, and with the client’s blessing, I would be best placed to develop a multi-service relationship with the client and their organisation. I would be cross-selling.

Purpose is central to behaviour. So, rule one of ethical cross-selling is: what’s in it for the client?

However, even if our motivation is pure, will our clients believe us? That will depend on how they see us. For ethical and successful cross-selling the key is to be – and be seen as – a trusted adviser.

For that reason, rule two of ethical cross-selling is: trust comes first – fee income comes later. If you are a trusted adviser cross-selling is easy.

Therefore, if cross-selling is a key strategy of the firm, the first priority must be to develop the skills of fee earners in building and maintaining trust. It means developing their ability to convince clients of their credibility, competence and compatibility.

Credibility (meaning that the client believes us and believes in us) comes from confidence (in all situations, not just in talking about our ‘specialist subject’), initial impact, honesty and delivering as promised (everything, every time).

Competence (meaning that the client believes we can do what we say we can do) is demonstrated through knowledge and expertise, a track record and by using searching (non-manipulative) questions as you seek to genuinely understand the situation and the client’s business – not just his or her ‘needs’ or ‘problems’

Compatibility (meaning that the client believes he or she can work with us) is built by demonstrating interest (not just taking the client out to lunch), active listening, adapting behaviour (not just ‘being ourselves’), showing we care and revealing vulnerability (which is in conflict with many lawyers’ instincts).

Can you teach these behaviour patterns? In many cases, yes. Can you teach them all? No. What matters are the core values of the person doing the cross-selling.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

Ethical cross-selling is done by people with core values that characterise a trusted adviser. These values must be more than skin deep. They need to be genuine and held strongly enough to withstand the many temptations towards short cuts and quick rewards.

So is cross-selling all bad? No, but its bad reputation comes from genuine, and bitter, client experience. The ethics of the situation will depend on:

  • why cross-selling is done – the purpose;
  • how cross-selling is done – not through a process of sell, sell, sell; and
  • who does the cross-selling and what they genuinely believe is right.

Our experience tells us that the ethical way to cross-sell is also by far the most effective way. This is for at least two reasons. Firstly your clients will prefer it and secondly your fee earners will be comfortable doing it.

And, as an added bonus, the name of your firm will never appear in the newspapers for the wrong reasons.

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