cross-selling communities

The logic for cross-selling in professional services is compelling. Large clients and accounts that buy one service – say intellectual property advice or transactional support – frequently face challenges in a variety of areas in which the incumbent has real expertise, supported by the fact that they are generally seen as ‘trusted’ and will already have a good working knowledge of the issues the client faces, both internal and in their markets.

Despite the logic, cross-selling does not always happen and there are many reasons why. People may not feel sufficiently rewarded for introducing colleagues to their clients. They may not know enough about what colleagues are doing or indeed about the range of additional services their firm can offer. There may be a lack of self-confidence as well as a lack of faith in their colleagues and their abilities. There may be a ‘silo’ mentality in which departments keep themselves to themselves. There may be regulatory issues. There may be client resistance. And the barriers of language and culture may amplify all of these when trying to foster cross-selling across national boundaries.

So what can be done? One answer is to borrow from research in the social sciences.

building and clarifying the vision

People often demonstrate greater unity if they are excited by a vision, an idea or a common task. Framing the need for increased collaboration in cross-selling in the right way is an important step.

building motivation

Reward systems that encourage collective behaviour as well as individual performance will help, and reward can come in a number of ways, not always pecuniary (although this is often a vital ingredient). There seems to be stronger interest in sharing and collaboration when reward systems take greater account of collective effort.

Encouraging the opinion-formers to engage more openly will also add weight to the argument, as people are frequently influenced by the actions and commitments of similar respected others.

It is natural for someone to feel they are taking a risk and may lose a degree of control if they ‘give away’ something that ‘belongs to them’ and the art is to create the feeling in people that there is something ‘in it for me’ in return.

building trust and mutual confidence

Account and client ‘holders’ or ‘owners’ are less likely give something away if they do not know, and do not trust the receiver, which in the case of cross-selling means their colleague in another department, specialism or country. Trust and mutual confidence grows the more one person knows about another, so time invested in social interaction is an important ingredient.

building networks

The most effective collaborative groups often contain members and evolve structures that ‘span boundaries’, bringing in information from outside the group, introducing the group to work and contacts outside their immediate field of vision. Active networking and conscious planning to build new networks will help here.

building and communicating knowledge and information

Knowledge about clients, their interests and needs; knowledge about service offerings; stories about how specific successful cross-selling ventures were brought to conclusion. All these deserve to be wider known because it helps open-up the thinking of market-facing professionals, provides ammunition and ideas, and helps them to be more aware of new opportunities. Equally, and this links back to motivation, encouraging and rewarding communication between appropriate people helps to make knowledge sharing a self-sustaining and ongoing process.

building groups of the ‘right’ people

It is a truism to say that the greatest progress will be made by people who are in the strongest position to bring it about. In practice, for important clients and large accounts it means bringing together key individuals with the right levels of authority, influence, technical ability and market standing. Underpinning this, they also need to be interested in doing something about cross-selling as well as having the ability and strength of character to bring about these changes, possibly against a degree of resistance and even cynicism from long-standing colleagues.

building skills and personal confidence

Although best left until later in the process, education, support and reinforcement of the personal skills needed to approach existing clients with new ideas will be a critical component. Why ‘later in the process’? People are often more open to support and reinforcement if there is a clear context, which can only come as the group starts to build a clearer picture of the directions it wishes to take.

‘cross-selling communities’

Truly effective cross-functional working groups emerge, often as a result of experiments and pilots. There is small but growing evidence of professional services firms experimenting and investing in bringing together small communities of individuals who have the capacity and likelihood between them to create new opportunities. They spend time together ‘socialising-with-purpose’, finding out about each other and what they have in common, sharing stories and engaging in ‘purposeful conversation’. As relationships develop so does the capacity to challenge as well as support, and this spirit of continual inquiry, aided by a constant flow of new information from outside, helps keep thinking fresh and relevant. Successful outcomes are rewarded in a collective way, often through reinforced social standing.

These communities regularly need to be supported by external catalysts, who not only influence the early ways in which the individuals interact but also help resolve issues of conflict should they arise.

Truly effective communities emerge, they cannot be made to happen. But aligning some of the input factors can help tilt the balance.

new product and service development

In addition to addressing the challenge of cross-selling, the concept of these truly collaborative communities is also being applied to new product development, where representatives of different specialism’s and markets come together to examine common areas and identify how these could be exploited.

what can you do to help build communities?

Choose the ‘right’ mix of people. Engage with the opinion formers, supporters and role models and provide them with the right levels of support. Encourage individuals to make open commitments. Devise pretexts to bring the communities together. Communicate the vision and business goals effectively. Provide the right degree of structure for discussion. Publish and circulate stories. Keep up the pressure but allow for periods of reflection also.

achieving results – follow-up and support

The outcomes from experiments such as these are ideas, intentions, and often a high degree of interest and energy. The real test is the extent to which this gets translated into practice. ‘Revenue Initiatives’ – tightly focussed and project managed processes that help bring new ideas to market quickly and effectively – can help. Appropriate performance measures, explicit commitments from individuals and groups, clear expectations of those who are accountable for the outcome are all important.

Effective cross-selling is a commercial ‘no-brainer’ but it does not always happen to order. It needs to be fostered and encouraged. Engaging head as well as heart can help create the right fertile environment.


The ideas in this note are drawn from experience and are informed by research and books including:

  • ‘Hot Spots’ Lynda Gratton. Berrett-Koehler Publishers
  • ‘Cross-selling Success’. Ford Harding. Adams Media
  • ‘Influence. Science and Practice’. Robert Cialdini. Allyn and Bacon

Morley Potter. June 2011

© Scott-McGregor 2011. All rights reserved.