Adviser: Wholesale approach

We were having a discussion in the office the other day about cross selling services – or rather the difficulties of cross selling successfully.

Like many practices, we have grown to a size where we have some specialist departments – payroll, tax consultancy, corporate finance and so on. These specialisms run alongside our general practice based on partners’ individual portfolios.

Our strategic objective is to increase the range of services sold to existing clients, but we seem to be strangely unsuccessful at achieving cross selling targets on any systematic basis.

It got us thinking about the possible internal reasons why cross selling has not been as successful as we had hoped – partners being overprotective of their client relationships, a lack of accountability by the specialist departments, and poorly designed arrangements for rewards arising from the sale of extra services.

Of course, there are many changes we could make in these areas to break down the internal barriers, which often have more to do with mutual trust and respect for colleagues than anything else.

But I suspect the answer has more to do with the clients’ perception of the advantage of referral to a specialist department. The service is delivered by different staff to those they know and have come to trust, who don’t have the same background knowledge of the client that is the hallmark of the general practitioner. So why come to us for this add-on service – why not just have a beauty parade?

The answer has to lie in exploiting the internal knowledge of the client to his benefit. We need to treat each extra service as an integrated project, seamless in delivery, using our knowledge to deliver efficiently.

And the irony is that clients want us to be proactive and come up with ideas of services that can help them make more profit, so we’re really pushing at an open door.

The steps to successful cross-selling start with doing the current work well, building the trust. Then assessing how well the project has been done, by some kind of satisfaction survey, however informal. The third step is to invest a bit of time in the client, really getting to grips with his problems, and understanding what is needed – this is anathema to most partners because it requires non-chargeable time.

But surely it is not wasted non-chargeable time, it is good solid investment in the relationship? Why do we not describe this non-chargeable time in a way that identifies it as ‘well spent’ rather than ‘wasted’ time?

In my firm, I think we miss a trick by not getting students, and indeed our non-chargeable staff, to keep the partners up to date with business intelligence about our clients’ industries. It’s often from the trade magazines that we can identify the clients’ needs and potential problems.

But essentially, it’s about being enthusiastic about the clients business, and really, sincerely, wanting to help them succeed. Sometimes we get so focused on our own internal firm issues that we lose sight of their problems. One day we will get it right.

Mark Spofforth is an ICAEW council member and partner at Spofforths.

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