The fear factor

Here’s the situation. Your firm has noticed the massive opportunities to cross-sell services to existing clients. Your research suggests that your clients are currently engaging other firms for services you believe your firm is better placed to provide. Your managing partner continually reminds you and your colleagues that generating work from existing clients should be easier than finding new ones and that the work is more profitable.

Your clients are loyal, know your firm does a great job for them and are fully aware of the range of services you offer now that you’ve got your marketing strategy sorted out. You have even put your client-facing partners through training to develop their cross-selling skills. So why has there been no significant improvement in this important aspect of your firm’s services?

After more than ten years working with a wide range of professional services firms, including many law firms, it has become apparent to me that leadership plays a pivotal role in declining whether firms are effective at cross-selling. The importance of its role is due to three internal challenges all firms have to face.

The fear of losing control

The expression ‘my client’ will be all too familiar to many readers. It is probably the single greatest barrier to cross-selling.

Partners feeling that they ‘own’ the relationship of a valuable client is how they compensate when there is a feeling of insecurity within the firm. Other professionals used to a culture of insecurity inside firms build their careers by moving from firm to firm taking their clients with them. With this attitude and experience individuals are often loath to introduce colleagues to ‘their clients’ if this would mean their ownership of the relationship was diminished. This feeling can be exacerbated if the professional worries that his or her colleague is considered as brighter, more knowledgeable, more personable or more client-orientated.

So, at first glance this major challenge to cross-selling appears to lie with the individual. But this is only partially true. Where this type of behaviour is widespread within a firm it is because the firm supports and fosters a culture of insecurity and fear. In this culture, professionals quickly determine that the path to success is to grab any opportunity that arises and avoid sharing the spoils with others.

These problems invariably start at the senior levels within the organisation and soon the whole firm reflects the behaviour of those who run it. That’s why it’s a leadership issue.

Trusting the capabilities of others

Professionals won’t recommend to clients the services of colleagues they do not trust. They may be even more reluctant if they believe such an introduction will one day backfire when the client recalls who made the recommendation in the first place.

This lack of trust may arise from evidence or a belief that a fellow professional is technically weak or does not have the skills to deal with certain situations or clients. Sometimes this weakness or lack of skill can pervade an entire practice area or whole office.

In most instances, however, any evidence of poor performance will turn out to be weak, unproven and exaggerated by rumour. But when it is combined with a lack of understanding of the real capabilities of the fellow professional or their practice area and an unwillingness to communicate on a sensitive subject, clients may come to believe that your colleague cannot be trusted.

So, when it comes to trust, perception is every bit as important as facts. Managing poor performance and controlling people’s perception is a leadership task.

Financial considerations

Employing people who do what is best for the firm is a core value of the most successful organisations. Employing senior management who tell people to do what is best for the firm whilst the individual suffers in the process is poor management and leadership. Why should any professional dedicate precious time and effort to cross-sell when the action will have a negative effect on them or their practice area?

Ideally, work should be passed to a different office to better serve the client. Disciplined, capably led firms can cope with this. However, if the discipline and leadership is not so good, professionals may be unwilling to surrender their clients as their fee income will be reduced and, as a consequence, the earnings of those engaged on the client’s work may also suffer.

In some firms the above situation may not apply. Cross-selling will entail no negative financial impact, but at the same time there will be no incentive to attempt it. Few people work merely for financial remuneration but it is a very tangible way of rewarding professionals. Encouraging behaviours that result in doing what’s right for the firm is most definitely a leadership issue.

Without a full appreciation of the part leadership plays, firms will lurch from cross-selling initiative to cross-selling initiative, all the while failing to deal with these issues.

Follow the leader?

Leadership is not so much about developing charismatic leaders for colleagues to follow doggedly but more about developing a firm understanding of leadership, particularly by partners and managers.

The business model of professional legal firms particularly emphasises the importance of the leadership role. The typical corporate business includes employees, subordinates, hierarchical management structures and distant shareholders. Professional firms, on the other hand, consist of partners, peers, associates and colleagues who share ownership of the firm.

These people tend to be intelligent, quick learners who aren’t motivated by pat speeches, clichéd vision statements or command and control. What matters to them is the day-by-day behaviour of the partners and the way they have formal management responsibilities. Most firms I have worked with have no difficulty identifying the values that underpin any necessary behaviour needed to cross-sell. Sadly, these values are often taken on board at the theoretical level but are not made use of day to day.

Leaders need to be able to influence and motivate colleagues to align their actions and behaviours to the strategies of the firm. Whilst most professionals have trained hard over many years to develop their technical skills, too few have been committed to developing their leadership skills.

Use your head

Leadership could be said to be a whole brain activity. Ordinarily, the work that professionals undertake and the technical training they receive could be said to develop their left-brain activities. Logic, reasoning, setting objectives, measurement, rules, discipline and organisation are all part of the world that many professionals understand. But these same professionals are also affected by attitudes, energy, drive, enthusiasm, ambition and feelings – all of which are right brain activities. It is these right brain or emotional brain issues that make all the difference.

As suggested earlier, some firms bring about rational initiatives to improve the firm but the commitment gained is purely at an intellectual level and very little action follows. Action depends on engaging the right brain. Anyone who occupies a formal leadership role; such as practice leader; chair of governance committee; office manager; any partner accountable for marketing, recruiting, professional development or any practice of project team, should develop a whole brain approach.

Motivate the team

The UK’s leading guru on leadership, John Adair, states that you can be a manager without being a leader but never a good leader unless you are a good manager. Management is about rules, procedures, guidelines, performance measurement and discipline. Good leadership requires all this. But it also needs to provide vision and be able to paint a picture in words of where the firm, practice area or team is headed.

‘Inspire me’ is increasingly the cry for professionals at all levels. Inspiration is about engaging and encouraging people through understanding of what motivates them. It is not about the quantity of words used but the quality of those words. It is also vital that anyone in a leadership role demonstrates behaviours that reflect the firm’s values. People follow what you do, not what you say. There is huge potential in getting a group of people to work as a team. Good leaders are good at building teams.

Having worked with thousands of professional staff over several years I have had the opportunity to get their views on how their leaders should behave in order to ensure real staff commitment rather than simple compliance. Here are four of their suggestions:

  • Behave with integrity, stick to your values in good times and tough times.
  • Be honest and trustworthy.
  • Be consistent and demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in your colleagues’ hopes.
  • Have fears, aspirations, ambition and feelings. You just can’t fake a genuine interest. 

How to apply leadership solutions to problems in cross-selling

Problem one: professionals fear losing control of their clients


  • Ensure senior people act as role models.
  • Identify and eliminate fear where it exists.
  • Eliminate negative role models.
  • Change the metrics for measuring success.

Problem two: professionals mistrust other people’s capabilities


  • Insist on the highest standards for all work.
  • Never accept mediocre work – even when it is profitable.
  • Offer support and training for under-performers.
  • Remove those that will not deliver to the highest standards.
  • Correct wrongly held perceptions.

Problem three: financial considerations


  • Understand the financial impact on fee earners of cross-selling.
  • Put rules in place outlawing ‘banditry’.
  • Encourage people to ‘do what is right’.
  • Act tough on those who break the rules.
  • Be prepared to move stewardship of clients.
  • Show real recognition – financial and non-financial – for cross-selling.

I know these work because I have worked with firms that well led and have applied them to make cross-selling a reality. They tend to be the most consistently successful firms: initiatives meet their objectives, people enjoy working there and they seem to attract the best recruits.


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