Collaboration versus cross-selling: “No, I don’t want fries!”

Let’s clear up some confusion between “collaboration” and “cross-selling”.  One reason that smart professionals resist collaborating is that they are getting mixed messages.  Firm leaders are often pushing partners to “cross-sell,” but partners have surely heard what CXOs uniformly report to me: Clients hate to be cross-sold.  Specifically, they hate when their adviser who handles one domain “offers” introductions to other partners in the firm who can provide service in their own narrow domain – for instance, the tax expert who proposes his real estate colleague to do strictly real estate work.  It’s the professional equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?”  This sort of traditional cross-selling risks appearing more self-serving that value-add for the client.  If you give the clients the impression that you are more interested in generating incremental revenues for your firm than actually solving the problem that keeps them up at night, their suspicions about you will seep into other aspects of your relationship: how closely they think they need to monitor the bills, for example.

Instead, what clients want is for their advisers to understand their issues deeply enough to offer sophisticated advice and to line up the right team to deliver it – no matter where in the firm the needed experts reside.  This form of integrated client service that often crosses practice groups and other siloes is what we mean by collaboration.   It demands that partners have a genuine curiosity about their client’s business, along with the confidence and capabilities to walk into a meeting with a one-question agenda: “What keeps you up at night?”.  Partners are often astonished at how much their clients are willing to reveal, and these deep insights are the required foundation for adding value through collaboration.

What do you think?  When *is* pure cross-selling viable and valued by clients?  What angles are we missing?  As I push forward with client interviews, what questions would you want answered on this topic? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

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14 thoughts on “Collaboration versus cross-selling: “No, I don’t want fries!”

  1. I think a lot depends on the industry. For example, IT is often seen as a black hole; a cost center to be viewed with suspicion. Everything feels like a cross-sell when you can’t necessarily gauge the risk or ROI of the task at hand, or keep up with rapidly changing services and pricing. Clients are willing to entertain (and often *want*) the cross-sell if there is well-established trust, and a demonstrable understanding of their overall business goals. Exposure to the subject matter expertise you’re proposing shouldn’t happen for the first time as an offer to sell that service. If it is a genuine business need, that need should have already been identified in some strategic understanding with the client (i.e., collaboration, as you’ve identified.) If it wasn’t, it may point to some greater need in client management, or a discussion about the needs and scope of the overall relationship. Whether it’s collaboration or a cold cross-sell, the same ingredient is required: trust, and follow-through. The rest is just timing.

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  2. I think this is the single most important distinction for Business Development in Professional service Firms. ‘Cross-selling’ is a buzz word at pretty much every law firm with which I have worked, and it shouldn’t be – as a term, it should be dropped immediately and never used again in my opinion. The very phrase itself implies that there is disconnect, silo or chasm within the firm which has to be ‘crossed’ in order to provide different services to the same client.

    I would be very surprised if ‘cross-selling’ in its purest form is ever truly valued by clients, especially not compared to a collaborative approach by a firm that really understands the client’s business and challenges, bringing into play the right areas of the firm to service those needs as becomes relevant.

    I think it would be really interesting in your client interviews to ask them to consider the law firms that they use the most and see if they are conscious that those firms ever overtly ‘cross-sold’ to them, or whether instead those firms invested the time to truly understand the client’s business and then brought in different areas of the firm as appropriate – my money is on the latter.

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  3. Whether cross selling is valued by a client or not will come down to two things in my view:

    1. how strong is the relationship between you and the client? If it’s not strong enough then the authenticity of the cross-sell will be called into question – it’s just too clunky

    2. have you spent enough time understanding the client issue and thinking through where the cross-sell could add incremental value. If the cross-sell is effectively almost a knee jerk reaction to a comment made by the client in an early meeting the cross sell could again be unappreciated

    If you get these two things right – cross-selling has it’s place. BUT, collaboration wins every time!

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  4. I agree with the proposition and Amey’s comments resonate. Client feedback suggests they want nuanced understanding of their needs which is often best understood by 1. Asking them 2. Deploying the organisation’s capabilities collectively. And collaboration between individuals within the organisation is what delivers 2.

    Blunt cross selling is a turn off to many clients nowadays, or may be a response to a polite request.

    Having said that, great relationship managers are able to align the client’s needs with the organisation’s capabilities which is put in a way that is compelling to the client and genuinely characterised as a response to an understood client need. You are effectively collaborating with the client.

    At least that is what I am seeing more of.

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  5. Heidi, I think you are spot on. Clients want the best advice from the most qualified person to answer the question. And it is up to the client partner/manager to identify that need and source the right person. The client never sees that as “cross selling” but more as problem solving.

    As practices grow, the challenge for firms is ensuring all client facing staff genuinely understand the capabilities of all within their organisation so the right resource is quickly and confidently identified.

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  6. This is a significant issue for lawyers and their firms. The problems with “cross-selling” as it’s traditionally done is that it is the lawyer talking at the client rather than participating in a discussion with them.

    But there is a way to turn the process on its head, creating an environment where the meeting is basically controlled by the client. It requires a bit of planning, and the lawyers who participate need to listen rather than talk. But every time we’ve helped a firm change its traditional cross selling process into a cross buying exercise, it has produced files – often immediately but always within a month.

    There is an article about this at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/end-dreaded-cross-selling-pitches-get-clients-buy-instead-bliwas?trk=mp-author-card.

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  7. Looking at this from an economist firm’s perspective, I also agree that this is the distinction that matters. We work a lot for the public sector, so we actually both cross-sell and collaborate. We cross-sell because the problem of one government is often also the problem of other governments. On the other hand, when engaging with SENIOR policy makers, we go much more for collaboration (the ‘what keeps them awake at night’). So: 1. Horizontally (same topic) – we cross-sell a bit (e.g. across EU Member States when they all face the rise of China and worry how to respond to it = problem is the same, solution is different, but lessons from other EU Member States can be shared). 2. Vertically = collaboration: we help one government with one issue and then also link to the other (internally mobilising very different resources). The ONLY situation where collaboration in a broader sense does not work is if governments are really fragmented with their own turfs themselves – then also collaboration in a broader sense is not appreciated.

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  8. Dear Heidi

    I think you are spot on with your thinking here. I have seen several businesses change advisers because they felt it was just hard sell all the time – the perception being that the adviser had fee targets to meet and that is what drove their ineterest in introducing the client to various other business lines. Most clients still believe we charge by the hour and so any potential angst on the part of the client about what the adviser is doing with their time (when they are out discussing business issues) needs to be dealt with up front. Similarly, advisers need to deal with the potential internal conflict that can be created by spending non-chargeable time with clients when typically most firms set chargeability targets. Everyone’s interests should be aligned here but its remarkable how internal systems and perceptions can encourage the wrong behaviours in advisers ie not going out to have exploratory conversations with clients because of the potential impact on their chargeable time !

    I am interested in what your work on collaboration may show in terms of the best systems that PSF’s have for ensuring that PSF teams really do colaborate internally and remove the conflicts which I refer to above.

    In terms of questions for clients, I think it would be interesting to explore the form and frequency that clients prefer for sharing the “what keeps me awake at night” issues with their advisers. As advisers, we all want access to the C suite executives and how do the CEO’s feel about regular adviser catch ups. In my experience the client senior executives want that access but I am not sure we are as good as providing it as we should be.

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  9. Trust, trust and trust again. If the relationship has enough of a track record such that the trust level is there, then the client is going to be interested in how else the advisor can assist by recommending solutions to other problems outside their field of expertise. The best indicator is when the client says ” Oh and by the way.. while you are here, do you have anyone who knows about ##? We have a problem emerging in that space and I immediately thought of you guys and wondered if you have expertise in that area?”. The trick is knowing when the relationship is solid enough that the client could ask that question, but you have got in first and offered just what they were thinking. We have a “client listening” program where our CEO and marketing Director ask essentially what issues keep the interviewee awake and whether there`s anything we can offer to assist. It seems to work better with Government than private sector clients for some reason, so research along the lines you suggest would be most interesting.

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  10. In my experience clients typically want ‘no risks, no fees, no surprises’ alongside high quality advice, and we are always in operating in permanent tension with that position. It is only ever in crisis circumstances (a financial restatement, a takeover bid, risk of business collapse) that the fee tension dissipates. Even my very best (loyal and satisfied) clients don’t like the fee proposals I put on the table…it’s a point of negotiation, and frequently a point of profound tension with procurement teams.

    In other words…PSFs are paying attention to what clients choose to pay for and how they actually behave in the sales cycle, rather than what they say about cross-selling. I have never…in 15 years as a partner…had a client say no to me when I’ve offered something like “Hey Heidi, we’ve got lunch in the diary next week…do you mind if I invite [ ]…who’s doing some really interesting things in the [ ] space. I think they would be a great person for you to get to know”. I do lots of collaboration, but equally do lots of cross-introduction as well….and it works. That’s why PSFs keep pushing it….in the hands of good networkers and relationship builders cross-selling is highly effective at growing the business. And – your central point – that clients want people to understand their issues…..how do you get to understand their issues without introducing specialists to get to know them?

    If you asked those same executives who said ‘I hate being cross-sold’…”Do you ever take introductory meetings to interesting people that your friends-in-business recommend?” I’d be amazed if many said no.

    Finally, if clients don’t like this…then they’re use of procurement functions is a mistake. Procurement functions work on the basis of creating preferred supplier status making it easier for an incumbent provider in one area to introduce a colleague in another, particularly if the terms of that organization’s master services agreement is preferable to the others out there. To wit…cross-selling is expressly rewarded!

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  11. Heidi, I think you are correct. I have one note of caution. In my experince, a number of clients have not yet reached the position that they don’t like, or aren’t requesting, the “cross sell”. I agree with David Nickson that this is especially the case in the situation where the service concerned is being procured in a separate function – outside of the function that will actually be using the service. In that situation, it is much easier for procurement to ask a question about what other “services”, “Practice Groups”, “regions” or “sectors” can you sell us to meet our legal needs. These processes are not open to asking the question you propose on your one item agenda. Similarly, in the same way clients often want an ABA – but are worried about not having an hourly rate – there are a number of clients that still expect to be sold to in this way.

    However, once you are procured and on a panel, or if you have a relationship/matter that is off panel, then what the client cares about is that you care enough about its business – and the individual needs of the instructing person/team you are dealing with – to know/anticipate what expertise you will need to bring to bear from the firm to meet those needs. How you deliver that type of client experience needs to be tailored to each client. For some it will be the type of meeting you mention – but for others it will take the form of the cross introductions David mentions in his post, or inviting your client to sessions with peers from other clients to talk about industry trends and issues and how they are addressing those, or simply calling outside of the matter cycle to ask “how’s it going?”

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  12. Hi Heidi. I agree with most of the comments here. The question for me is whether you can articulate a genuine benefit for the client. If your client has an existing pain point, then a recommendation is often welcome. So you need to know (a) that they client has that need, and (b) that your firm has someone who can (truly) help. So it is up to you to identify both of those things. The former is about knowing your client’s business – the ‘what keeps you up at night?’ – and the latter is about knowing your own offerings well enough to know when they might be useful (and in technical areas that may not be easy).

    Generally if they have no current pain point – the work is being done fine somewhere else for example – then unless you can articulate a particular added benefit you can offer, the ‘would-you-like-fries-with-that-because-I’m-a-nice-guy?’ is just annoying and blatantly self-serving. If there is a particularly strong relationship with a client it can work. But they have to really love you.

    I don’t think the benefit articulated to the client has to always be about ‘collaboration’ at the firm end though. These can be stand alone services. Some synergy between practise groups would be a nice example of a benefit to the client, but there are many other potential benefits – her current provider might be letting her down, your service might just be cheaper, more sophisticated or innovative, geographically closer, come with added-value services, or save her time and energy for some reason. Or she might just prefer dealing with less service providers or invoices every month. But if you can’t articulate a genuine benefit to the client, I suspect you are probably doing more harm than good.

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  13. Like all things in life, in life timing is everything.
    If companies outline a specific need or requirement they have to an adviser, I think there is almost an expectation that if you have a discrete solution then you offer it up. I believe this is best done by trying to use a ‘quality over quantity’ approach and being very selective about other members of a professional services firm that you introduce to a client.
    But really knowing and understanding the individuals in the client that you are dealing with is also crucial. Some may be more open to hearing ideas and meeting a range of people from a professional services firm, while others would view this as being too intrusive and are looking for a more nuanced approach.
    This topic leads to a key issue in account management around professional services, which is an inevitable point where a client has a particular issue or is open to an introduction to another member of a professional services firm who may not be best in class. As a partner of the firm do you introduce your colleague regardless, or focus more on the long-term relationship with the client by pointing them in the direction of another adviser who you may feel is actually best practice. In the latter case it is critical as partners that areas of expertise in your own firm that require improvement are identified and addressed.
    :
    Some key questions of interest here:

    • As a CXO, do you ask your professional advisers for their view on who is best in class in advising on a certain field across the board, as opposed to only within the advisers’ own firm?
    • In an era of specialisation and complexity in the delivery of professional services, do CXOs still value the concept of a single account manager representing a firm, or do they expect to deal with a range of individuals on a regular basis?
    • Where this team approach is used, how adept are professional services firms at ensuring that each member of the client team is briefed on the company and its key issues, or do CXOs feel they are constantly going over old ground with different firm representatives?

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