Jekyll or Hyde

Have you ever wondered why one of your clients didn’t consider your firm for a particular piece of work?  Do you sometimes feel that your client’s view of your firm and its expertise is limited?  Do you ever wish you could help a client more with their business plans and aspirations?

Many accountancy firms tell us that they wish their clients had a greater understanding of what they do.  This, however, poses a professional dilemma for them.  They feel that by promoting their additional skills and expertise, in ‘cross-selling’ to the client, they could jeopardise great relationships and come across as ‘salesy’ or ‘pushy’.

Cross-selling can indeed come across as such, but only when it is handled badly.  But when done well, it can bring immense value to both client and firm. 

So what is good and bad when it comes to motivating clients to buy more services?
The key to both outcomes is motive.  If, at the heart of a cross-selling attempt, our motive is to sell more services or ‘flog’ more products, then our self-interest will come across in all we do.

In contrast, when our motive has a client’s interests at its heart (for example, when we are looking to see what more can we do to help them achieve their business plans and goals), suddenly cross-selling shifts in focus and benefits both parties.  But it means changing our view of cross-selling away from service-lines and towards the challenges and opportunities our clients are facing.  But how do we uncover these?  Many successful accountancy firms are becoming more proactive with their client review meetings and other points of contact with clients.  They use activities such as:

  • Inviting clients to talk to fee earners
  • Attending clients’ industry conferences
  • Attending clients’ own meetings / conferences
  • Reading clients’ trade press
  • Investing non-chargeable time in building the relationship and adding value

Armed with this information, they gain a stronger position to offer assistance and ideas. 

Open dialogue
Successful cross-selling is largely achieved through dialogue with a client – often it provides the most timely and targeted way of introducing the suggestion of additional support.  However, some firms also keep clients aware of their capabilities by sending out targeted communications with an overview of relevant projects or deals they’ve completed.  They also use copies of any press coverage, which address alternative areas of their expertise, and they run seminars on particular issues affecting their clients (to which they invite other experts from the firm to present the solutions).

It is important to re-iterate that any communication made with the client should be for the purpose of expanding their knowledge of what we do in relation to a particular challenge or opportunity they face.  We should resist sending anything that could be seen by them as irrelevant.

But knowledge of the client’s 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 client partner and team needs to be fully up to date with the current capabilities and expertise their own firm has to offer.  This is often more difficult than it sounds.  As firms become more successful and bigger in size, communication between different departments fragments.  Fee-earners often work in silos and have less interaction with other areas of expertise.  Their knowledge becomes limited.

Many accountancy firms are recognising this and are 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 accountants face on a daily basis.

Internal communication initiatives that we have seen work well bring people together to talk, share experiences, gain ideas etc.  Examples of this include:

  • Inter-department secondments
  • Communal coffee, eating and other social areas
  • Inter-department or office events
  • Open plan offices

When people get together they talk.  Historically, it used to be the smokers who were the most knowledgeable in a firm.  Congregating periodically to satisfy their nicotine hunger, they chatted with fellow smokers and expanded their understanding of the firm.  Fortunately many accountancy practices are now finding more healthy routes to bring people together.

Firm Culture
There is another challenge to good cross-selling, which touches on the cultural set-up of many firms.  Tackling this rests largely with the senior management team.  Left untouched it can prevent any cross-selling attempt from being successful.  The challenge for a number of fee-earners is fear, fear of:

  • Loss of control over the client
  • Loss of financial gain
  • Damaging the client relationship

Accountancy 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.  In this light, the client portfolio carries very serious implications for that individual.  It holds their personal financial security.

Introducing colleagues to a client can therefore pose a risk for some fee-earners.  They may feel that the client relationship 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 firms are, however, trying to tackle this difficult area.  In doing so, they focus on building trust between fee-earners.  This often results in re-working the reward and remuneration structure.  In doing so 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 and so these firms are becoming very active in bringing together fee-earners to work together on opportunities for the greater good of the client. They monitor and manage the experience closely, so it is a positive one for all parties.  They also communicate cross-selling success internally and use role-models where needed. 

In time this often results in a cultural change for a firm, but at the end of the day clients are more delighted, colleagues are more supportive and staff are more loyal.  These firms tend to work more cohesively and are quicker at realising more opportunities for their clients, than those built around a number of individuals working under a corporate banner.

Good cross-selling does exist and can bring tremendous benefits to both clients and their accountancy firms.  Cross-selling works well when it is done with the client’s interests in mind.  To be successful in this arena, firms have to be more active at:

  • Understanding the client’s world
  • Presenting additional capabilities in a more timely and targeted manner
  • Fostering greater communication internally amongst their people
  • Overcoming personal fear, loss of control and other financial considerations
  • Defining, communicating and rewarding good cross-selling practice
  • Giving support and guidance to those uncomfortable or lacking confidence in cross-selling

In doing so, accountants can avoid being pushy or salesy when it comes to cross-selling and clients’ eyes can be opened to see their advisers in a new and very positive light.


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