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Cross-Selling: Be a Client Champion by Taking an 'Outside-In' Approach

Professional Services Marketing Handbook editor Nigel Clark Explains How to Get From Cross-Seller to Happy-Buyer

In the Professional Services Marketing Handbook we explore five themes that should be top of any marketing or business development leader’s agenda: Growth, Understanding, Connecting, Relationships and Managing. We deliberately put Growth first because a firm’s aspiration, strategy and plans to grow will influence its approach and thinking on the other four themes.

Growth is now firmly back on the agenda for most firms, whether driven by market opportunity, client demands or organisational pressure to respond to competitive pressure and improve returns. This time around though growth plans are tempered by the corporate scars left by pre-recession adventures into new markets that proved only fleetingly to be ‘the next big thing’. Unbridled optimism has been replaced by more considered aspirations. An example of this more measured approach is how firms now prefer to follow a client into a new market, rather than forge that path alone.

Many firms have long put their existing clients at the heart of their growth strategy. Every self-respecting firm now has or is developing a key / major / core / relationship (delete as appropriate) client programme: a process that puts structure around and shifts the firm’s culture to focus on managing relationships with their most important clients. Theory and experience shows that if you focus more of your attention on the clients you already know and have strong relationships with then client satisfaction increases; cost of sales decrease and the firm finds a smoother path to more sustainable growth and profitability.

All this talk of growth and relationships brings back into conversation an old topic that seems to have been the ‘bête noire’ of marketing and business development conversations in professional services firms for as long as I can remember: ‘Cross-Selling’. I think I encountered cross-selling as a discussion topic at the first partner’s retreat I attended many years’ ago and it came up again last month at a workshop I joined. I can’t remember all of the conversation at the partner retreat, but the discussion last week didn’t make me feel we had moved very far in the intervening years.

My view on cross-selling has always been the same: it is the right topic but usually approached from completely the wrong direction. If ever people examine a situation by looking down the wrong end of the telescope, then cross-selling is it.

One idea we explore in the Professional Services Marketing Handbook is the premise that a marketing and business development leader in a professional services firm should aspire to be a ‘client champion’: someone who always explores an opportunity and identifies a solution with the interests of the client at heart. We go on to talk about how a ‘client champion’ needs to help their firm take an ‘outside in’, rather than ‘inside out’, approach to any situation. This means they need to look at a situation through the eyes’ of the client first, not the firm, to enable them to reach the best outcome.

Cross-selling demonstrates a classic ‘inside out’ mentality, which unfortunately is so prevalent in professional services firms. It describes the outcome in terms of what the firm is trying to achieve i.e. sell more ‘stuff’ to the client. It doesn’t say anything about what is the best solution for the client.

As an aside, I have always found it intriguing that professionals here are happy to embrace and use the ‘S’ word – Sales. So often professional services firms shy away from talking about sales – marketing and business development are far more acceptable terms – for fear of compromising their professional standards and credentials. It’s as if by prefixing the ‘S’ word with ‘cross’ it makes it more palatable or conceptual. Irrespective of the merits of using sales terminology, what combining the two words into ‘cross-sales’ doesn’t do is make the firm any more likely to succeed in getting the client to buy.

Another term for the same concept is ‘share of wallet’: how much of the money your client spends on a particular service or discipline comes to you rather than your competitors. Its maybe a bit more considerate than ‘cross-selling’ because it takes into account how much your client is likely to spend and who that is going to, but it’s not much better if what you are trying to do is see a situation through the eyes of the client first.
The truth is most clients are happy to engage in activities and discussions that will lead to better ‘cross-selling’ or an increased ‘share of wallet’; as long as they see you starting from their end of the telescope. If they don’t see that first then they’ll think the sole intention of your cross-selling activities is to increase the firm’s revenues and profits. As that offers no intrinsic benefit to them, they aren’t going to be too impressed and are unlikely to engage. It might even lead them to question the revenue streams you already enjoy.

You can convince the client you are starting with them, if you embrace the ideas and concepts we cover in the Professional Services Marketing Handbook on Understanding and Relationships. If you will excuse the pun, this will shift the focus from you as a ‘cross-seller’ to them as a ‘happy-buyer’.

If we start with Understanding, the key is to listen and demonstrate you have a genuine interest and desire to understand your client’s challenges and opportunities. Not just as they relate to your discipline or areas of service but in totality. Put your services and solutions to one side for a moment and just walk a mile in their shoes. Only then try and interpret what that means for your business and where you might help.

Once you understand their world, you can then work on the Relationship and how your expertise and capabilities can help them. And here you can add in what a real relationship – a partnership between the two businesses – can bring to the future success of both organisations. If embraced with genuine intent on both sides, this will open up discussions and opportunities – some maybe more challenging and confronting than at first you may want to consider – that will take you far beyond the limiting ambitions of a standard cross-selling campaign.

Of course, many clients are not looking for a partnership model and present challenges or barriers such as formal procurement or an unconnected, dysfunctional client organisation. Even if this is the case, the need to understand remains. It means you might just need to put even more effort into this step and build that true client picture.

The path to clear client understanding and deeper relationships is never the same, but if you attempt to skip these steps then your efforts to ‘cross-sell’ or increase your ‘share of wallet’ will prove short-lived, unsuccessful and sit on very shaky ground.

So the next time a partner or director of your firm wants to start a conversation or campaign around cross-selling, then be a ‘client champion’ and shift the discussion first to Understanding and Relationships and think about what it would take to turn the client into a ‘happy-buyer’.

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