Is your firm a vulture or a wise owl?
We all know the desired image but sadly the need for many firms to replace lost fee-income by selling additional services is potentially damaging the relationships with their most important clients.
A good friend of mine who is a senior executive in a major organisation tells me she is inundated with requests from her advisors for appointments to tell her about their other services that she might be interested in. She emphasises the word might. “How would they know? They only ever spend time with me on existing projects and I have seen no evidence that they are proactive in trying to understand the opportunities and challenges my organisation faces over the next year or so. I get the impression that the meeting is based on their agenda, which is clearly to sell me something!”
‘Lets exploit our client relationships’
A colleague and I often recall a meeting with a group of equity partners who were looking for some help with a cross-selling initiative. Like many other firms they had analysed their client base and realised that many of their key clients were buying only one or two service lines from them. It doesn’t take a great mathematician to work out the impact on profit if these clients were to take one or two additional service lines from the firm. Some plans had already been made. The words were not untypical:
- Set up meeting for Mike to talk about our employment services
- IP team to send out mailing campaign detailing services
- Target to increase billings by £250k over the next 12 months
The list, like many we see, went on and on! At this point my colleague asked a very simple question: “What’s in all of this for the client?” This was followed by a slightly uncomfortable silence.
We are fortunate to work with many firms that have achieved considerable success in introducing new services to existing clients. They all have one thing in common: they have the client’s best interest at heart. An inspiring managing partner we work with has a very simple mantra: ‘If our services do not offer a compelling advantage to our clients over and above their current advisors then we should not waste their time in attempting to sell it!’.
So ask yourself these questions:
- Does your firm aim to cross-sell simply to increase its fee income and profit?
- Are different parts of your firm bombarding clients with promotional material telling them about all your services? (Irrespective of whether your solution is more compelling than their current provider.)
- Are your formal plans mainly focussed on what you wish to achieve and your increased financial performance?
- Are your partners and fee-earners under pressure to go out and tell as many clients as possible about their service lines?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ then you may wish to stop and think about your current approach and the impact it is having on your clients.
Are you a professional advisor or salesperson?
We accept of course that a professional service firm is a business and needs to generate fees and grow to maintain a successful future. This is no different to your clients and they know you are keen to succeed just like them. So I guess the question is: Can you cross-sell without being seen as pushy and self interested?
The answer is yes! But only when you have achieved the status of being a valued and trusted advisor and when you realise what truly professional selling is and isn’t.
Building the motivation to buy
Many definitions of selling use the words persuading and convincing. The most successful firms we work with understand that sophisticated and intelligent clients do not wish to be sold to in such a way. They understand that the greatest success comes when the energy to consider and buy additional services comes from the client.
The word motivation is key. The most successful firms at cross-selling will have the deepest possible understanding of how a client is thinking. They will understand what is important to their clients and will know when and how to communicate additional services that the client will willingly wish to explore with them. They will be motivated to explore because they trust that there is real value in the service and that it will help their business protect itself from challenges or help them to seize opportunities in the future.
To do this well means that you need to not only understand the client organisation in depth but to also understand each individual you are in contact with. The iceberg principle illustrates the difference between the ‘surface level’ information that a client will easily share and the ‘beneath the surface’ information that often determines how they will respond to you and how their decisions are influenced.
Don’t cross-sell until you have earned the right!
The key here is genuine interest. When the client knows that you and your firm’s actions and advice always have the client’s best interest at heart they will become very open and receptive to your approaches in helping them with additional services. Moving too quickly can prematurely end a potentially beautiful and life long relationship.
Our advice is be careful! Whilst a client has developed sufficient trust to reward you with an initial instruction you may not have had sufficient time to embed that trust to the point where the client’s expectations of you and your firm have been exceeded. You need to invest an appropriate amount of time and energy to earn the r ight as quickly as possible to be seen as their valued advisor. Done correctly this should not take long and will allow you some early cross selling wins.
Thinking like a client – the only way to cross-sell
So far we have established some of the rights and wrongs of introducing additional services to clients. You need to have earned the valued advisor status. You need to have the client’s best interest at heart. You need to only consider introducing services where you believe there is a potentially compelling return for the client. You need to have a deep understanding of your client’s iceberg and what’s really important to them.
So you have achieved the above. How do you make a really informed decision as to which additional service to introduce?
The starting point is to stop being you and start being a client. This is sometimes difficult but it is a key mindset shift if you want to have the best chance of identifying which service to introduce, when to introduce it, and how. The best way to explain how to do this is to share with you an experience I had recently working with a particular firm with a number of key clients in the university sector. We began the workshop by first and foremost forgetting our profession and we moved our minds into those of a senior management team at a major university. We took the roles of chancellor, vice chancellor, finance director, property director, head of facilities etc. In these roles we simulated a management meeting and carried out a brainstorm on what might be occupying the mind of the senior management team over the next 12-24 months. We considered factors based on the simple PESTEL model.
Political • Economic • Sociological • Technology • Environmental • Legislative
After around half-an-hour we had identified 30 opportunities and threats that we were confident would be occupying the minds of the senior team. After further discussion we considered which of the firm’s services would be of compelling interest and real value in helping the client with the identified opportunities and threats. This discussion also included an assessment of other incumbent advis ors’ current delivery capabilities. After further debate we concluded that the timing and conditions were right to consider introducing two additional services.
This simple process helped my client avoid the trap of trying to sell everything. They carefully selected two services based on a deep understanding of the client’s world and where they were as confident as they could be that the client would be motivated to meet with them. They approached the client and they are currently in meaningful dialogue. This is what professional cross-selling looks like!
We’re not vultures…but we have been pigeonholed!
Many firms have built a great reputation for delivering excellent service. Sometimes the reputation has been built on the client’s exposure to only one or two of your firm’s capabilities. They often have no understanding of the wider capabilities of your firm.
Let’s say you have identified a compelling service offer for a specific client based around the thought process used in the university example above. The client however has no knowledge of your capability in this specific area. So what do you do?
If you have no reputation for the service you would like to introduce avoid diving in and asking a client for a meeting to tell them all about it. The answer is to take it slowly. Don’t dive in and ask for a meeting to tell the client how good you are. You need to earn the right. You need to build the motivation in the client’s mind for them to want to meet with you to explore.
In the example above my client was in a similar position. Their first actions were to build a high value promotional campaign to begin to position themselves differently in the client’s mind. So before they made the approach for a meeting they had built the client’s perception of their credibility, competence and compatibility in a way that the client saw them as being worthy of entering into a discussion in an area they had previously not operated in.
There is not enough space in this article to talk about how to build a high value promotional campaign. All I can say here is it definitely did not include brochures explaining their services! Every touch point was of significant value to the client and gave immediate and useable insight into how they could approach a number of key future opportunities and threats.
How to motivate your firm to do more
The most successful firms understand the thoughts I have shared so far in this article. Yet some still struggle to motivate fee-earners to be involved. Our experience over many years had led us to identify some of the barriers that exist. They include:
1. Lack of communication
2. Lack of knowledge of what other’s do
3. Lack of trust in other’s capabilities
4. Fear of loss of control
5. Not knowing how to cross-sell
6. Financial considerations/penalties
7. Lack of a real understanding of the clients business
8. The client’s current image of your firm
We know it’s not a perfect world but if you really want to be better here are examples of what some of the most successful firms have done to reduce the barriers:
What actions should you take?
Your firm is already successful. You offer a great service to your clients. It is likely that you have additional services that could be of real and significant value to those clients. So here are some simple actions to consider:
- Identify those key clients where you have truly earned ‘valued advisor’ status
- Bring a team together and simulate a senior management meeting thinking like a client based on the PESTEL analysis explained earlier
- Identify one or two key services where you have a compelling offer (over and above any incumbent)
- Build an appropriate hi gh value campaign to earn the right to meaningful dialogue with the client (where they are highly motivated to meet)
- Consider barriers in your firm and take actions to eliminate them
Consider again the actions currently being taken by your firm. Are your clients seeing you as vultures or wise owls?
And remember, stop cross-selling and start building the motivation to buy!
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