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Q: My law firm can’t cross-sell. What are we doing wrong?

A: It’s not just you, it’s most firms.

In fact, most law, accounting, and other professional-services firms struggle with selling different practice areas to existing clients. The problem is that everyone thinks that everyone’s doing it better than they are.

Trust me, they’re not.

There are many entirely logical and reasonable internal obstacles that exist when firm management seeks to increase their passive-aggressive professionals’ cross-selling (or “cross marketing” or “cross-servicing”) efforts.

Cross-selling is actually a two-step sale.  Rather than a direct sale to a potential buyer, you first must (1) sell your own partner, the one who controls the relationship, on the idea of selling more services to their clients before you can (2) get access to that client to begin the sales process.  And that can be an extremely challenging endeavor.

My favorite summary came from an exasperated Executive Committee member at an AmLaw 100 firm who proclaimed “Cross-selling sucks!”

Further complicating the problem is that the reasons given for failing to cross-sell are usually in code.

Here’s what the lawyers say and what it means:

WHAT THEY SAY: “There are no additional opportunities with that client.”

WHAT THEY MEAN:  “I was so busy talking about myself during lunch that I never asked the client anything about her goals, plans, or legal needs.”

“There are no opportunities with this client outside of my practice area.” 

“I would not recognize a tax issue if it bit me, and do not want to look stupid in front of my client.”

“He promised to call when he needs us.”

“Yes, I’ve known him for over 20 years, but I have no idea what he does at his company. We talk about our golf games, our kids, and the Cubs, not his work.”

“We do not handle that type of law.” 

More often than not: “No, really? We do?” An internal-communication program kicked into high gear could help with this.

“I don’t think Harry would be a good personality fit with XYZ Co.”

Danger Will Robinson!  This could mean, “Hey, the billings from this client put food in my children’s mouths; I would rather send the work to another firm than risk having my partner Harry botch it or steal the client.”

Immediately discontinue further cross-selling discussions with that attorney; the barriers are insurmountable and life is too darn short.

“My client does not need an attorney in that area.”

“I’m getting enough work in my practice area to keep me happy, and I don’t want to look like a pig.”

“My client would think they are too expensive.”

If that’s a valid complaint, the firm has bigger problems to worry about than cross-selling. This probably means, “I’m too busy billing my 2,000 hours. I asked you to leave me alone.”

“My client is satisfied with its existing counsel.”

“I am not going to ask about anything outside of my practice area.”

[This is Part One of a two-part post. Click here for Part Two.]

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Bryan Schwartz says:

    You have nailed it.

    • Ross Fishman says:

      Thanks, Bryan. That education didn’t come easily. I learned the tough lesson in 1992 when I was tasked with creating a firm-wide cross-selling initiative for a 500-lawyer firm. Logically organized, it seemed to be a guaranteed success, but actually turned out to be a complete flop. I discovered that in my youthful naïveté, I’d entirely failed to consider the interpersonal issues, and thought that Partners would behave in the way that was best for The Firm. As you well know as a long-time firm chairman, that’s not an especially powerful motivator of lawyer behavior.

      Oh, to be young and idealistic again….

  • Andreia Gomes says:

    Great article! In my opinion and in my 16-year experience managing BD & Marketing at a law firm, we could summarize everything in one simple word: ego.

  • Cole says:

    My partner will steal my client

    My partner will &^&%$# something up and I’ll lose the client

    • Ross Fishman says:

      Or worse, Cole – “The client will like my partner BETTER than me. And I’ll STILL lose the client.”

  • Marcia Delgadillo says:

    Right on point as usual Ross. 🙂

    • Ross Fishman says:

      Thanks, Marcia. I must say, I wish I’d come up with all of these excuses through an intellectual exercise, rather than repeated failures. I started out presuming that, as owners, equity partners are as interested in the firm’s success as the average law marketer. As I matured, I came to realize that as much as they indeed want the firm to succeed, their personal success is a much higher priority.

      So, analyzing the goals and behaviors required of a successful cross selling program, I can see why my previous expectations were unrealistic.

      As he sacrificed himself, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock famously stated: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” With an attitude that honorably selfless, I fear that Mr. Spock would have been permanently stuck as an Income Partner.

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