Trust me, I’m not a salesman …

The Wall Street Journal accuses accountants of trying to sell their clients ‘anything under the sun’. At the same time, one senior partner told us ‘of all the business we are capable of carrying out for our major clients, I estimate that we win 15%. We are desperately poor at cross-selling our services to our clients’.

So is cross-selling a holy grail or a poisoned chalice for the industry, and where does this leave firms who offer a wide range of services? How can they respond to clients’ needs in an ethical way? Is cross-selling bad per se? Or does it depend on how, and why, it is done?

At a recent retreat, a senior partner was quoted as saying: ‘We need to squeeze more out of our clients’ and ‘we must exploit client relationships more’.

How would you feel as a client of hearing those words, especially if the next day your client service partner suggested it would be a good idea to arrange a service review meeting?

In addition, one of our clients instigated a cross-selling campaign with the intention of ‘winning a greater share of our clients’ wallets’. What if it was your wallet they were focusing their beady eyes on?

In another example, we recently asked the members of a key client team to describe a two-year ‘vision’ for their client relationship? This is what they came up with: achieve 40% of the client’s total spend; win major tax planning work; secure work in the US, Far East and Australia; target overall profitability to be 20% above the firm’s average.

On the face of it these are focused aims. But there is nothing here about what’s in it for the client. Were they planning to help the client increase market share by 10% in selected markets through the retention of more key personnel or reduce their overall spend on advisers by 25%?

Does it matter why firms wish to cross-sell? After all, everyone knows a firm’s main aim is to make money. Why might the ethics of cross-selling be relevant?

Depending on the purpose, different things will be valued and different behaviour will be the norm. If ‘a greater share of my client’s wallet’ is my purpose, anything that achieves that will feel acceptable, providing I do nothing illegal or unprofessional. I might, for example, try to sell clients all the services on offer, whether they are interested or not.

In meetings I might listen out only for problems rather than trying to understand the client’s situation. I will be tempted to pounce on opportunities until the client may start to feel punch-drunk.

The greatest shame is that we probably have something of value to offer.

The problem is, the client may have stopped listening after I tried to sell something he did not want.

But what if my, and the firm’s, avowed purpose is different?

What if I am focused on building long-term client relationships and am only interested in doing things that would add real value to the client’s organisation over the long-term? Then my behaviour will be different.

I might then invest time in understanding the business with enthusiasm.

I might find non-chargeable ways to help my contact. I might recommend non-competing advisers who can add something special even if their fees might come from the same pot as mine this year. I might even recommend competing advisers for work because they are better at it, at least in the short-term!

But I would also explore ways in which other services could be of value.

On that basis, I would be best placed to develop a multi-service relationship with the client.

I would be cross-selling.

Purpose is central to behaviour. So, rule one of ethical cross-selling is: ‘What’s in it for the client?’

Even if our motivation is pure, will our clients believe us? That will depend on how they see us. For ethical and successful cross-selling the key is to be, and be seen to be, a trusted adviser. Rule two of ethical cross-selling is: ‘Trust comes first – fee income comes later’. If you are a trusted adviser cross-selling is easy.

If cross-selling is a key strategy of the firm, the first priority must be to develop the skill of fee earners in building and maintaining trust.

It means developing their ability to convince clients of their credibility, competence and compatibility.

Credibility (meaning the client believes us) comes from confidence (in all situations, not just in talking about our ‘specialist subject’), initial impact, honesty and delivering as promised (everything, every time).

Competence (meaning the client believes we can do what we say we can do) is demonstrated through knowledge and expertise, a track record and by using searching (non-manipulative) questions as you seek to understand the situation and the client’s business – not just his or her ‘needs’ or ‘problems’.

Compatibility (meaning the client believes he or she can work with us) is built by demonstrating interest (not just taking the client out to lunch), active listening, adapting behaviour (not just ‘being ourselves’), showing we care and revealing vulnerability (which is in conflict with many professionals’ instincts).

Are these behaviours teachable? Yes – some. Are they all? No. The core values of the person cross-selling are critical. Ethical cross-selling is done by people with core values that characterise a trusted adviser.

These values must be more than skin deep and held strongly enough to withstand temptations towards quick rewards.

So, is cross-selling a bad thing? No, but it does depend on why it is done, how it is done, who does it – and their values.

The good news is that the ethical way to cross-sell is also the most effective way. Firstly your clients will prefer it (and respond to it) and secondly, you will be comfortable doing it. As a bonus, the name of your firm will never appear in the newspapers for the wrong reasons.

  • Paul Denvir is a founding partner of The PACE Partnership.

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