Specialist – the art of cross-selling

Many QS firms tell us that 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’ and jeopardise great relationships. 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 your intentions. If, at the heart of a cross-selling attempt, there is a desire simply to sell more services or ‘flog’ more products, then our self-interest will come across in all we do.

In contrast, when we have 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.

This means changing our view of cross selling away from service lines and towards the challenges and opportunities our clients are facing. Many successful QS 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 to listen and learn more about the client’s current situation, its plans for the future and challenges on the horizon.

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 QS team needs to be fully up to date with the different 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 knowledge becomes limited.

Many QS 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 QSs 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

There is another challenge to good cross selling, which touches on the cultural set-up of many firms. QS 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 also communicate cross-selling success internally and use role models where needed.

Good cross selling does exist and can bring tremendous benefits to both clients and their QS 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:

  1. Understanding the client’s world
  2. Presenting additional capabilities in a more timely and targeted manner
  3. Fostering greater communication internally amongst their people
  4. Overcoming detrimental cultural issues
  5. Defining, communicating and rewarding good cross-selling practice
  6. Giving support and guidance to those lacking confidence in cross-selling

In doing so, QSs 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.