Overcoming Common Obstacles to Effective Cross-Selling

As a partner in a firm, one of the most cost-effective and underutilized strategies to grow your firm’s business is to sell additional services to your firm’s existing clients, commonly known as cross-selling. It’s effective because it shortcuts the trust-building process necessary to business development since it involves a higher degree of trust, typically fewer objections to your fees, and a higher closing ratio.

One of the most common mistakes we see lawyers make when first trying to cross-sell is to assume that by simply telling a “relationship partner” (typically the one who brought that client to the firm) that they can provide additional services to that partner’s clients, that should be enough to get them the work. That is not the case.

The key is to approach any cross-selling opportunity as you would any new potential business, by building your business case for why the firm, the relationship partner, and the client would benefit from expanding the firm’s service of the client.

One of the key components to building your business case is to uncover any obstacles that may prevent you from getting the work, and develop strategies to overcome them. Here are a few typical obstacles that you may encounter and the strategies you can use to overcome them.

1. Compensation issues

These issues tend to be the biggest internal obstacles in most cross-selling situations, and therefore must be dealt with at the outset. While any relationship partner will likely have a safeguarding mentality when it comes to his or her clients and origination credits, many firms have clear rules and guidelines about origination fee-splitting arrangements for getting new business from existing clients. Some firms have even created a special type of credit (usually called something different to distinguish it from the origination credit, for example, as “proliferation credit” or “matter origination credit”) to acknowledge those who expanded the client’s portfolio with the firm.

Understand what these rules are in your firm before approaching the relationship partner. If there are no rules or the decision on whether or not to split the fees is left up to the relationship partner, be prepared to have an open discussion about fee splitting. This is where the quality of your relationship with this partner and your preparation will make a difference in the response you get. You may also decide that under some circumstances you may be willing to forgo credit origination—perhaps it’s the first time you are in a cross-selling situation with this partner, or in order to get the work other people may need to be involved. Think about your moves strategically—it may serve you better in the long run.

2. Prior bad experiences

It’s not unusual for some relationship partners to be reluctant about cross-selling to their clients because of prior negative experiences when other lawyers at the firm serviced that partner’s clients. Perhaps communication fell apart, or the clients’ expectations were not met, or the case was mismanaged—whatever the issues are, it’s important for you to know and address them openly and directly. If you know about these issues, you can start by sharing your exact plan for making sure that doesn’t happen again. If you are not aware of any issues, ask the relationship partner if he or she is feeling reluctant about this cross-selling scenario and why. Once you know, you can address it head-on.

3. Discomfort

Even if they may not admit it openly, some relationship partners might be uncomfortable to make introductions to their clients about other people’s practice areas. The key to overcoming this obstacle is helping your colleague create an approach that feels comfortable for them and makes them look good to the client. Adopt the “give-to-get” mindset and arm them with tools that will make the cross-selling process both more effective and more comfortable for them. Rather than going to your colleagues asking for them to introduce you to their client (asking them for something), offer something of value to them. Maybe there’s a complimentary service you can provide to their client like reviewing a policy, doing a preliminary audit or checklist, or leading a seminar, etc. Then you establish the “KLT” (know, like and trust) factor with your colleague and might get in front of the client—and you’re doing so by giving, not by asking for work.

Also, don’t assume that your colleagues know how to spot issues in your areas of expertise—they most likely do not. So be sure to arm each other with a “cheat sheet” of targeted, open-ended questions that will help uncover any needs for each of your services with their clients in different practice areas. As one partner put it when sitting in on a meeting between her client and one of her colleagues at her firm who practiced in an entirely different and specialized practice area, “It was as if they were speaking in a foreign language!”

4. Competitors

Unless it is a new area for the client (new product line, new industry, new geography, etc.), chances are they already have a firm that handles what you want to offer to do for them. Don’t let that deter you. Learn more about why they chose their current firm to handle that part of their business. You may find that it was because “that firm was the lowest bidder,” or because “the CEO’s daughter-in-law is a partner at the firm,” or because “they have unique expertise in our industry.” Whatever the answer, you will get clarity about the client’s reasons for hiring and their level of commitment to their current legal service provider. This knowledge can help you shape your strategy going forward.

Dedicate time to developing and improving your rainmaking skills to make the cross-selling process most productive. These skills include your ability to connect and build rapport with your colleagues and the client, ask the right questions and employ active listening techniques, and uncover and address the client’s objections, among other things.

Cross-selling can take less time and be more profitable than many other methods of bringing in business because it is often the low-hanging fruit in firms—the quickest and easiest way to generate new business.

About the Author

Marla S. Grant is an attorney, certified coach, and co-founder of 20/20 Leadership Group, an international coaching and training firm for lawyers and law firms. Contact her at mgrant@2020lead.com.

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