Can cross-selling work in professional services?

Every managing partner of every professional services firm we know wants their people to do more cross-selling.  Few professional advisers, however, want to follow in the footsteps of bank managers who were once seen as trusted business advisers but are now regarded by many as peddlers of financial products.

In this series of articles The PACE Partnership examines if cross-selling can truly work and whether it is a holy grail or poisoned chalice for professional services firms?

  1. What is cross-selling and is it good or bad?
  2. Barriers to effective cross-selling – client management
  3. Barriers to effective cross-selling – internal communication and abilities
  4. Barriers to effective cross-selling – cultural issues
  5. How marketing and business development can help cross-selling
  6. It’s all about trust

Barriers to effective cross-selling – client management

At the heart of any cross-selling activity should be ‘what’s in it for the client?’  If we are trying to ‘flog’ clients a particular service, then they are going to quickly see through our actions and question their loyalty to our firm.  You definitely don’t have to be greedy to look greedy.

Client management is one of the key areas, which has a huge impact on whether any cross-selling is effective.  Unfortunately it is also an area that frequently throws up barriers.  In this article we will explain how our relationships with our clients can support cross-selling.

Missed opportunities

Unfortunately many professionals admit to being project or transaction orientated.  Whilst they may have tremendous knowledge, it is invariably about a very small part of the client’s business.  At the same time, many cross-selling opportunities that firm’s could get a glimpse of are not pursued.  This is because the professionals involved realise that the ensuing discussions may take them out of the comfort zone of the part of the client’s business that he  / she understands.  In realising their lack of real understanding about the client’s business, the professional feels they could be very exposed by some dumb questions and / or dumb responses.  They are of course quite right.  Without a true understanding of a client’s business, any cross-selling attempt risks going down like a lead balloon!

Understanding the client’s business

If we truly gain a deep understanding of our clients’ businesses, we will be in a stronger position to:

  • Develop our resources to provide solutions to their needs
  • Communicate to the clients how we believe we can help them
  • Bring in specialists from other areas of our firms, rather than risking the client turning to our competitors

The time to learn about a client’s business is not during an attempt to cross-sell another part of the firm’s capabilities.  Marketers and business developers should encourage their fee-earners to develop a full understanding of their client’s business.  This can be done by instigating or restructuring client review meetings, so fee-earners can:

  • Gain a greater understanding about what the client likes and dislikes about us and alter our service offering accordingly
  • Find out what is going on in the client organisation – the current issues, people movement etc.
  • Explore the future as the client sees it
  • Identify opportunities outside the expertise we are currently providing
  • Build a more secure relationship with the people we know on the client’s side
  • Expand our knowledge on the client’s industry and the macro factors affecting them

Such meetings will enable us to be in a better position to defend our client (if they become subject to advances from our competitors); it will also enable us to discuss any expertise we have which might be of value to the client in the achievement of their future plans.

Other tips on how to get to grips with a client’s business include:

  • Invite clients to talk to fee earners
  • Attend clients’ industry conferences
  • Attend clients’ own meetings / conferences
  • Read clients’ trade press
  • Invest non-chargeable time in building the relationship and adding value

It may sound a sensible business decision for a firm to insist that partners maximise their fee earning time at the expense of developing a better understanding of their clients and ‘what makes them tick’.  However (and quite rightly so), few partners will take the risk of cross-selling when an opportunity appears in a part of the client’s business they do not understand fully.

The client’s image of our firm

All too often we hear firms moan that their clients are ‘pigeon holing’ them for having a particular piece of expertise.  ‘They just don’t seem to grasp that we offer a wide range of services!’ we tend to hear them cry.

It’s true to say that the client has engaged us to bring specific capability and expertise to their business.  We can very quickly become ‘pigeon holed’ in their minds.  Different clients very often categorise us differently.  We may be one client’s property advisers and another’s employment specialists.

This makes it very difficult to cross-sell another service to a client that has made this de facto decision about the width of our capabilities.  The client’s perception and mindset makes it difficult for them to really hear what we claim when we speak of other capabilities.

As part of our client management we therefore need to continually market the breadth of our capabilities to our existing clients.  This does not mean bombarding them with irrelevant messages, but it does mean crossing our clients’ desks with messages of  ‘what else we are up to’.  Marketers and business developers often devise some incredibly creative and innovative solutions to get these messages across.

Whilst these messages are not meant to try and sell to our clients, they are meant to convey a perception that the firm doesn’t specialise in what the client currently uses us for.  When we execute new work or take on board new capabilities we need to make our clients aware.  The awareness that we are not ‘niche’ will assist our credibility when we attempt  to cross-sell other services at some point in the future.

Tips on how we can keep clients aware of our capabilities include:

  • Communications giving an overview of relevant projects or deals we’ve completed
  • Copies of any press releases or press coverage which addresses an alternative area of our expertise
  • Seminars that we hold on particular issues affecting our clients – to which we invite other experts from our firm to present the solutions

Again, it is important to re-iterate that any communication we make with the client to expand their knowledge of what we do has to be done with the client’s interests in mind.  We are not bombarding them with irrelevant material, instead we are sending them targeted pieces of information that relate directly to the issues they are facing.


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