One of the areas we are most commonly asked to advise on is cross-selling. Why is it the area that professional services firms always come back to? It is seen as something that should be “easy” and so viewed as something that should be offering the biggest returns; we have all seen the stats about selling to existing clients vs. new ones, haven’t we? Those stats breed frustration when they aren’t played out and that leads to questions being asked about what is getting in the way of cross-selling.
Here we explore the top five reasons we see as to why cross-selling isn’t always as successful as the statistics suggest it should be, along with some ideas to overcome them.
1. A lack of understanding about what selling is
The biggest myth that gets in the way of cross-selling is that selling is somehow “pushing something that someone doesn’t want.” Visions of used cars and door-to-door salespeople still abound when professionals think of “sales”. Indeed, many professionals still shy away from the term “sales” feeling more comfortable with the phrase “business development.” Whilst some firms have started to recognise the need to bring in experienced sellers, this is still the exception, so much so that when it happens it makes news.
This myth gets in the way of cross-selling. Selling is the art of converting opportunities that arise, either as a result of marketing efforts, or perhaps that have arisen by chance. Selling is the art of demonstrating value on an individual level. If done well, the buyer is persuaded by the value and the sale will occur. This view of selling shifts the focus from the seller to the buyer; this shift if applied to cross-selling, makes efforts here much more likely to succeed.
All too often the starting question for a cross-selling exercise is: “what departments or practice areas do we want to cross-sell”? A better question would be: “which departments or practice areas would add the most value to this particular client?”.
Thinking and finding out about each client’s specific challenges and problems is much more likely to generate cross-selling opportunities.
2. Need to be able to give answers
Finding out the client’s challenges. That sounds easy enough, right? It should be, but professionals are used to having the answers. Often the need to offer an answer gets in the way of cross-selling.
Opportunities aren’t discussed because they fall outside the scope of a professional’s area of work. Questions aren't asked because professionals don’t feel they know enough about the other areas of their firm to answer. Some professional services firms try to correct this problem by teaching professionals all they need to know about the other areas of the business. This often leads to professionals feeling even more underqualified and resisting these conversations yet further.
Clients aren’t looking for immediate answers. Understanding that is the key to getting past this particular challenge. Understanding whether challenges fit different service lines or product offerings is helpful, but getting to the bottom of what the client needs is critical. If this is shared internally (see 3 and 4 below) the solution ("answer") can be offered by someone else in the business.
Showing your clients that you have spent time getting to know them, finding out what they need, and then offering a solution is much more likely to result in a positive engagement than glossing over issues and offering an immediate response.
3. The wrong person is doing the selling
This reason is the by-product of 1 and 2. The lack of understanding of what selling is and the need to offer answers means that cross-selling is seen as something that someone else has to do.
If a law firm has a property team and the firm has decided to cross-sell employment, the efforts to “cross-sell” tend to focus on when to ask to introduce the relevant employment partner. If “successful”, the employment partner then sets up a meeting to discuss all that they can do. This rarely works. The person who holds the relationship needs to be thinking about opportunities beyond their area of work.
What challenges does the client have that could be met by other areas of the business? It is the desire to add value and solve these challenges that should lead to other areas being brought in, not an internal need to push a particular practice line. Selling starts by discovering what the client needs, not by introducing people or products that the client doesn't want.
Most professional services firms still work in silos. They have no idea what the other areas of the business are doing, nor what clients they are servicing. Of course, the bigger firms will employ teams and technology to break down the walls that exist between groups. Others will use a sector focus to help shift the attention from product/service lines to clients. However, notwithstanding many professional services firms are still guilty of siloed behaviours.
An article written by a colleague and shared by a professional in a different part of the business helps raise awareness of what the business does in a simple and effective way. Nevertheless, how many professionals are guilty of only sharing articles that they can talk to; either because they are written by themselves or by someone else in their team? When planning an event, how often do professionals think about the needs of clients in other parts of the business, or is the focus their clients and their issues?
Virtual working has made it easier for silos to exist. Those "watercooler moments" with members of different teams have gone. It is harder to get a sense of who is busy and on what. Making sure that your firm has opportunities to meet virtually with other teams is important. Internal communications are vital. They break down silos – whether that be by increasing awareness of new clients won, work being done, or increasing general awareness of issues that are coming up in certain parts of the business.
5. Limiting beliefs
This reason is often going on under the radar. It won’t always be present, but it is rarely discussed, and bringing it into the open and reflecting on its influence is powerful. Often what gets in the way of cross-selling is an internal dialogue that the professional is having. “Having to cross-sell will show me up as not being any good at sales.” “This is supposed to be easy, what if I fail? “What if I can’t answer the questions my client asks of me, or worse still I raise an issue which my colleague thinks is stupid?”.
Add to this the fear of annoying the client by “pushing something they don’t want” and the perceived risk that maybe this exercise is going to result in someone delivering a bad service and losing my client and it is easy to see why some professionals steer clear of anything to do with "cross-selling".
Cross-selling isn’t easy. Yes, the statistics show that it is easier to sell to an existing rather than a new client, but that doesn’t make it easy.