The challenges of cross-selling

Many law firms tell us they wished their clients had a greater understanding of what they do, but they feel that promoting their additional skills and expertise could be viewed as “pushy” or overly “salesy”. They worry about jeopardising great client relationships. As a result those lawyers worried about damaging their professional reputations sometimes regard “cross-selling” as a dirty word and an activity to avoid. This article explains how you can develop your existing client relationships in a professional way to encourage clients to purchase new services from your firm.

When done well, cross-selling can bring immense value to both client and law firm alike. But what does good cross-selling look like?  At the very heart of good cross-selling is a positive motive or a genuine desire to improve service for, and add even greater value to, the client. This may come as a shock to those lawyers who view cross-selling as a way of simply securing additional fees from a client relationship. This viewpoint and the ambition to sell more services or “flog” more products often makes the lawyer’s self-interest very apparent. No matter how they introduce a new service or area of expertise, their approach invariably comes across as pushy. A colleague of mine has a great saying when it comes to cross-selling-he says “you don’t have to be greedy to look greedy”, and it is very true.

In contrast, when a lawyer genuinely has a client’s interests at heart (for example, when they are looking for what they can do to help the client achieve their business plans and goals), suddenly cross-selling shifts in focus and benefits both parties.  It shifts perspectives away from service lines and towards the challenges and opportunities clients are facing. The good news is that we’ve met many successful law firms who are becoming more proactive in the area of client review meetings and other points of contact with clients. In doing so they are developing a deeper commercial understanding about their clients and the goals and ambitions they have. This insight goes a long way in earning them the right to recommend colleagues whose expertise will help the client achieve their goals. When the client recognises that their lawyer is genuinely seeking ways to help them, they are more willing to accept the introduction and explore how that new expertise could benefit them with a particular issue.

Successful cross-selling is achieved through dialogue with a client-this type of interaction provides the most timely and appropriate opportunities to introduce additional services, advice and support.  But knowledge of the client and their world, and expanding their understanding of ours, is only a part of good cross-selling. To be able to offer more valuable solutions to clients, a lawyer needs to be aware of the different capabilities and expertise their own firm has to offer. This is sometimes more difficult than it sounds. As firms become more successful and bigger in size, communication between different departments fragments. Fee-earners knowledge becomes limited and dated.
Many law firms are beginning to recognise this and are making great strides in tackling the issue. The best initiatives bring people together. Humans tend to remember more when they hear, see or experience something, rather than when they read it. Internal newsletters, intranets, emails and memos can be very good, but if solely relied on they become buried in the mountain of other written communication that lawyers face on a daily basis.

A law firm that we encountered was very good at bringing their people together to talk, share experiences and gain ideas. They set up inter-department secondments, they created communal coffee, eating and other social areas and they organised inter-department events.  The results were very impressive. With greater trust and understanding of their colleagues a large number of opportunities for developing client relationships were identified.

Another challenge to good cross-selling relates to the cultural set-up of many firms. Law firms, like many other professional organisations, often function around individuals managing (and some say “owning”) particular client relationships. In this situation the strength of the relationship is often between the individual in the firm and the client. If that individual goes, often the client goes with them. Introducing colleagues to a client can therefore pose a risk for some lawyers. They may feel that their relationship with the client will be taken over or they will be out-shadowed in some way. They may sense there will be a personal loss of financial reward by introducing others. And they may fear that other people in the firm could sour or damage the relationship if they are brought in and then perform poorly.

It is often these fears that prevent many service lines and expertise being introduced to solve client challenges and opportunities. Some law firms are, however, trying to tackle this difficult area. In doing so, they are focusing on building trust between fee-earners. One firm in particular is currently re-working their reward and remuneration structure so that the focus of financial reporting, reward and recognition is switched away from individual partners to the firm as a whole.

Trust is also largely dependent on how much individual fee-earners value each other. This will come from experience. Another law firm we’ve worked with is very active at bringing together fee-earners to work together on opportunities for the greater good of the client. They also communicate cross-selling success internally and use role models where needed.

Good cross-selling does exist and when lawyers achieve this, they can bring tremendous benefits to both their clients and firms. Cross-selling works well when it is done with the client’s interests at heart and not as the team or firm’s latest initiative to boost fee income.