Are you selling, or helping?Cross-selling, executed poorly, sends the wrong message to clients.

At the annual Legal Marketing Association conference in Austin, a vendor conducted a survey that asked attendees what their “highest-priority growth initiatives” were for this year. The leading answer was “improve cross-selling.” I don’t doubt the accuracy of the survey results; they are the conventional wisdom in the flesh. But there is a serious problem with that strategy: For too many firms, cross-selling puts the focus on what the client can do for the firm (Buy more services!) rather than on what the firm can do for the client (Solve more problems!). Simply put, clients don’t want to be cross-sold.

I know, I know: Cross-selling is just a convenient shorthand phrase for expanding the amount and types of work that firms can perform for their existing customers. It’s an article of faith that law firms and other professional service organizations stand a better chance of getting work from clients who already know them. So, when the alarm bells sound, and those find-more-revenue-now edicts come pouring forth, too many of us look to existing clients for fresh opportunities. That’s all understandable; unfortunately, it reinforces a bad attitude.

Having spent the last 15 months talking with important clients of major law firms, I can report that they do not like being viewed as fat wallets that you want to take more “share of.” Of course, they do understand the pressures that you face. They even appreciate the irony that their own organizations often launch cross-selling initiatives.

At best, clients chuckle about the visits they receive from their outside counsel who come around to introduce their freshly recruited lateral partners, with little thought to the pressing issues these new partners might help solve. Too often, the GCs report, these meetings become unmemorable blurs; a few weeks later, they can seldom recall which firm had just added an energy group in Azerbaijan or a Tier 3 team of REIT partners in north Dallas. At worst, the GCs say, these meetings dwell on the law firm and their lawyers, and represent a missed opportunity. As they say, if you’re going to take the time to come see me, please have something to say that I might find helpful.

To solve more problems, of course, the firm has to be aware of them. Sometimes that’s easy and grows naturally out of the circumstances of a transaction or a dispute. The same GCs who dismiss cross-selling speak favorably about the benefits of working with firms that, over the course of complex deals, identified unexpected problems and used partners to fix them whom the client had not known before. In one sense, the firms were cross-selling their partners. The clients prefer to think of the process as being cross-served.

Learning about problems can be humbling. It means asking questions and then listening to answers. It means looking for pain points, sometimes ones that are interpersonal rather than substantive. It can even mean reducing the intellectual inquiries and dialing up the empathy. It rarely means passing around a new, four-color version of an updated LinkedIn profile.

I’m belaboring this point because it’s about something more important than the future of cross-selling efforts. In a tight and difficult legal market, the attitude of law firms toward their clients is critical and influences whether relationships will grow or wither. Anticipating the problems of clients is a daunting challenge; as many law firm leaders have said, we don’t have freaking Ouija boards! But understanding the business and processes of their clients, and their ambitions and their fears, is all well within the core competencies of law firms.

Recently my partners at Bernero & Press held a workshop with a half-dozen in-house counsel and a couple dozen law firm partners and executives. We spent half the day on a client-experience mapping exercise. Using real matters, we talked through what’s referred to as a “client journey,” from the time a problem arises through its various internal and external permutations. The point of this effort was to understand what the client needed and how a law firm could help. The rest of the professional services world has been using this technique for more than a decade. Among the things that struck me that day was how nimble the law firm folks were at responding to the needs of the clients at the table. Once they understood what the client faced, the lawyers and administrators could find ways to ease or fix the problem.

There’s much to be said about client mapping and my partners will address that subject shortly in this space. But here’s the point: The exercise forces service providers to look at the world from their clients’ perspective. When the process works, a client will engage in an internal dialogue that goes something like this:

  • Whose side is that lawyer on?
  • Mine.

If you can clear that hurdle, cross-selling is no longer an unnatural act

Much of this is about attitude and purpose. Your clients are often pretty clear about what they want. You can listen to them and address their needs. Or you can continue to cross-sell.

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