Cross-Selling: A Key to Growing a Successful Firm

Cross-Selling: A Key to Growing a Successful Firm

In most law firms, an effective system is seldom in place for encouraging and coaching cross selling among the leaders of various practice areas. Each silo remains pretty much focused on serving clients and business development within its practice area. Typically, very limited thought is given, or action taken, by silo leaders to help generate incremental revenues in the other practice areas of the firm. That’s too bad and a huge waste of talent resources.

Failure to Facilitate Cross Selling Can Have Damaging Long Term Consequences. The lack of an effective approach to cross selling can have serious consequences,including:

• Leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars (and, in larger firms, millions of dollars) of lost revenues on the table annually.

• Leaving the door open for other law firms to get a toehold in client organizations by providing a service and solving a problem clients were unaware their current law firm could provide. It happens.

• Creating an environment in which practice area leaders view themselves almost as internal competitors (for status, internal resources and compensation) versus being strategic alliance “partners” with the other practice area heads, all committed equally to building all the profitable revenue streams of the firm.

There Are Legitimate Reasons Why Practice Area Partners Do Poorly Cross Selling Firm Services. Successful cross selling is keyed to skills and a mindset that many lawyers just are never taught and never develop. Few, if any, law schools teach law students how to build and grow a successful law practice that includes coaching aspiring lawyers to be effective at networking and developing long-term strategic relationships and alliances, either externally or, equally important, internally.

In law schools, the focus is on teaching to solve legal problems using case studies and case law. Lawyers graduate and enter the profession with their focus on being the very best they can be at successfully completing transactions, whether it is settling or defending a lawsuit, putting together M&A documents, completing a sophisticated real estate lease, negotiating a licensing deal, filing a patent or forming a new company. It’s a transaction mentality and an important skill-set that lawyers develop and obviously need.

However, in this challenging global economy, being good at completing transactions successfully is only part of the equation for developing a successful law career and a thriving firm. And the transactional part of the client work can easily be taken away and given instead to an equally good in-house or outside transaction lawyer, often faster and at a substantially reduced rate. In this intensely challenging economy, rest assured that clients are either shopping their legal work or planning to do so. That’s not necessarily a good spot for a lawyer and his or her firm to be in without backup plans.

The broader aspect of serving the client requires a different mindset, one that is focused not just on specific transactions but on working hard to make the client as successful as possible. The successful lawyer today and certainly in the future will be the one that becomes the client’s trusted business advisor versus just being their lawyer. There is an enormous difference which too few lawyers really understand.

Networking and Relationship Development Skills Are Needed to Become a Client’s Trusted Advisor. Being the client’s trusted advisor requires skills that are critically important and often overlooked. Being a trusted advisor means really understanding the client’s business, all aspects of it, and being able and prepared to bring a variety of resources to the client situation.

The key to being a trusted advisor is to be constantly focusing on helping the client profitably grow their business. That should be the business model for any successful lawyer and law firm. One aspect of this is to be consistently involved in bringing new relevant resources (information, new contacts, new ideas, and new opportunities) to the client. In turn, this means developing a robust network packed with exceptional people having important information and their own resources.

Networking is a skill that is every bit as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Unfortunately it is seldom taught at any level of our school system, but it should be. It should be a core part of any curriculum. Certainly this is true for colleges and law schools as well as high schools.

High school teachers, by choice, spend the bulk of their time cloistered in small classroom settings. At the university level, professors work in semi-isolation doing some teaching, writing grant requests, grinding out research and publishing papers—all critical efforts to becoming tenured. Since their success is largely independent of their abilities to network and develop extensive win-win relationships, either internally or externally, these people skills are not among their priorities to personally develop and subsequently teach.

Everyone networks to varying degrees starting as young kids going to birthday parties, camps and sleepovers. Young people network in high school and college when joining teams and clubs. Most of us network at work and in the community. It’s just that a few are really skilled in the area and the majority is not sufficiently up to speed.

Everyone, even the best networkers, have hang-ups that can impede effectiveness. The excuses heard most often from professionals include: “I am too busy. I don’t like talking to strangers. I feel uncomfortable at events. I don’t see the benefits. I don’t belong to any groups. I was never taught. It’s not required by my firm. I am not a salesman. I don’t like cold calling. My mother taught me to not talk to strangers!”

In many major law firms, egos and arrogance can get in the way, with some lawyers believing that networking and working hard to develop win-win relationships is not something they have to do to succeed. That attitude eventually can be a career and firm killer.

Networking and the Ability to Develop Win-Win Relationships Can Be Learned. There are books devoted to the subject. YouTube is loaded with relevant content. There are an endless range of networking groups to join and networking events to go to. And there are coaches that specialize in coaching professionals to hone these skills.

Within all law firms there are the “rainmakers” who obviously “get” the importance of excelling as a networker and connector. If willing, they can be important mentors to others within their firm.

Unfortunately, in many law and other professional firms the “rainmakers” often thinkthat networking is a skill that either people are born with or not. They doubt these skills can be taught. Ego can be a harmful thing.

Keys to Being a Strong Networker. There are obviously key factors for becoming an excellent networker and developer of win-win relationships, including:

• Buying into the whole concept that networking is a critical skill that all lawyers need to develop. It is a skill that will change lives, accelerate careers and drive the growth of the parent firm. Without sufficient commitment and conviction to get better it is doubtful a lawyer will ever get good in these areas. You are either a believer or you are not.

• Practice talking with everybody, everywhere, all the time. Good networkers get over their hang-ups of feeling uncomfortable talking with strangers. Practice, in this case, makes perfect. You will be amazed at how many interesting people you meet and opportunities you spot just by “bumping” into them.

• Set aside time every week for meetings with new contacts. Meet people for breakfast or a late afternoon coffee. In addition to handling targeted billing hours, a lawyer should be spending 5 to 10 hours a week meeting new people and building new relationships. It can fit into even the busiest schedule.

• Be likeable and genuine in your interest in other people. In a nice way, get good at learning about other people. In “probing” with good questions be looking for ways to do something good for them. Add value to relationships—all relationships.

• Find relevant events to go to and groups to join. And don’t just attend. Find ways to carve out a leadership role. There are great networking opportunities at all kinds of events (weddings, bar mitzvahs, class reunions, industry conferences, for example) and in all sorts of groups including local charities, alumni associations, industry associations and clubs of all types.

In event and group networking efforts, get involved with things that reflect your passions and interests. Nothing wrong with joining motorcycle clubs, bird watching clubs, nature photography tours, wine tasting clubs. Exceptional, relevant people can be met in almost all situations.

I am a huge believer in professionals and their firms creating their own unique events and their own networking groups. Done right, these can even become new revenue sources.

• Always carry your business cards. They are light and don’t take up much space. Never leave home without them. Too many lawyers (and lots of other semi-successful professionals) make excuses when asked for a card when they are at a personal-type event—one of the kid’s games, something sponsored by their church or temple, or a funeral. Why miss an opportunity to exchange cards? It is never inappropriate if done in the right spirit and with taste.

• Spend part of every day connecting people in your network with each other. Everybody responds well to being introduced to a new potentially valuable person. Starting every day by spending 10-15 minutes being a connector will pay off big time. Email makes this easy.

• Follow up effectively and promptly. Follow back up after meeting someone within 24 hours or sooner, before they forget the meeting. And follow up on whatever promises were made during the meeting. Being reliable is one aspect of becoming a trusted advisor.

• Develop an effective database so you keep good control of contacts. Having piles of business cards laying all over the desk doesn’t cut it. Get organized.

• Build a personal brand. We are all brands. Lawyers need to work on their professional brand which can include writing for relevant publications and blogs, speaking in front of groups and having a solid online presence on LinkedIn at a minimum. Too many lawyers have terrible, incomplete weak LinkedIn profiles. Why waste a free marketing opportunity to build your brand? LinkedIn is one of the first places people go to find out about others. An ineffective LinkedIn profile can shut doors with potential clients before it is obvious they are even there.

Working at Internal Networking Can Be as Important (or Even More So) as Networking Externally. The same networking and relationship development skills needed to become a trusted advisor to external clients are exactly the same skills needed within a law firm to stimulate trust, friendship, confidence and knowledge among practice area partners so that meaningful cross selling happens and the silos can be brought down.

Most firms never really address this opportunity other than by having random partners periodically complain that other partners never send them new work. Most law firms have periodic partner meetings. In the large firms the partners may get together only once a year. This level of meeting and talking will never crack the silo code. In multi-office law firms, the silo mentality both exists among the various offices as well as among the various practice areas of each office. It’s a double whammy.

Firms with a real commitment to encouraging and practicing high impact cross selling will budget the time and money to create the right culture and systems. At each location, a monthly informal dinner meeting among the various practice area heads will go a very long way toward building the familiarity, trust, confidence and knowledge among the partners needed to drive a successful practice in a team environment.

Besides being important for cross selling, strong internal networking programs can accelerate the development of younger firm associates and round out the development of the non-“rainmaking” partners.

 The Pay-Off From Being Viewed as a Trusted Advisor Can Be Huge. Most business leaders, i.e., the lawyer’s clients, lead a very lonely life trying to grow their businesses. All struggle with finding exceptional people to help them. Lawyers with their ability to keep clients out of trouble and deal with tough issues when they do occur are perfectly positioned to become trusted advisors so long as clients recognize the value added that the lawyers bring to the relationships through their understanding of client businesses and through their robust network of personal connections.

Lawyers with the right level of client business knowledge and valuable personal connections will run very little risk of ever being replaced by a transaction-oriented lawyer willing to work for lower fees.

Good people in any role are too tough to find. The good ones won’t be replaced.

 Specific Actions Are Needed to Spur Cross Selling Within a Law Firm. Effective cross selling and cross referring won’t easily happen until it is part of the firm’s culture with a real top-down commitment to making it happen. This is particularly true of larger regional, national and international firms.

In a law firm with a silo mentality and structure there simply isn’t the recognized need and opportunity to make it happen. There generally is neither incentive nor time devoted by each practice area leader or among partners heading dispersed offices learning in-depth about the other practice areas or other offices, which includes:

• Knowing each area’s client base. Who are they? What do they do? What are their challenges? What are the unique challenges of my firm in this specific focus area? How can my area or office possibly help?

• Knowing each other’s team members, both other partners and associates. In most law firms we have seen, there is very limited knowledge about the professionals working in the other practice areas and other locations.

• Knowing in considerable detail the nature and scope of the legal work being done by the firm’s other practice areas. What billing rate will the work support? Who are the major competitors?

What Has to Happen to Bring Down the Silos and Power the Growth of the Firm? The firm’s leaders need to commit to developing a true “partnership” environment and culture within the entire organization. That means everybody, including the receptionist, the secretaries and rest of the back-up support staff, understands and can talk about the firm’s mission and core competencies.

Why not give everyone in the firm business cards? Why not provide all of them with the tools, including some coaching, they need to play their part (big or small) in helping profitably grow the practice? For one thing, in most professional firms I see, the leaders have not developed and communicated to the entire team the common 30 second profile that everyone should use to describe the firm that employs them. This is also an issue on LinkedIn, with everyone having their own way of describing their firm.

Ramping up effective networking and relationship development internally so that everyone feels responsible for the success of all parts of the firm’s practice doesn’t take magic. It does take encouraging people to talk with each other…in the coffee room, on the elevator, walking to the parking lot, passing each other in the halls and in dedicated sessions devoted to sharing client information and firm opportunities and challenges.

How often do you ever see the head partner spending a few minutes talking with the receptionist, the first person clients and potential clients meet when they get off the elevator? Why not? Changing a firm’s culture is critically important to future successful growth. Get everyone involved in the growing process. Work to get everyone developing a deep interest in understanding and contributing to the various parts and people within the organization.

The power of developing a culture of collaborative networking and relationship development, both internally and externally, is mind boggling.

Source:  New York Law Journal

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