How consultants learned to stop worrying and love the cross-sale

Here’s something that we’re pretty sure no human being has ever said before: “I had a great experience at the Apple Store the other day. I only went in for a new iPad but by the time I left, they’d convinced me to get a new keyboard, a set of AirPods, and an upgrade to my phone contract. I probably spent two or three times as much as I’d been planning to!”

While it may not have the best reputation, cross-selling is as integral to the professional services industry as it is to consumer retail. If anything, knowing how to cross-sell effectively has only become more important in recent years. Most large firms have made a conscious decision to diversify their service portfolios, and the boundaries around different parts of the industry have started to look increasingly porous. An executive search firm may also offer workforce management consulting services; a strategy firm may have a product design sub-brand. For the modern professional services firm, sustained growth is dependent on your ability to seamlessly move customers around between the different component parts of your business.

But in spite of how important it is, cross-selling is something that many people in the industry feel a sense of discomfort about. Relationship managers at consulting firms typically go to great lengths to position themselves as trusted advisors and confidants to their clients—someone clients can go to for honest, unvarnished advice. Cross-selling often feels like it debases the relationship due to the way in which it reminds everyone involved of the commercial dynamics at play. After all, how can any partnership be built on a foundation of trust when one party has a financial incentive to extract as much revenue as possible out of the other?

Fortunately, we have some good news for any consultants reading this blog. In a recent study, we asked buyers of professional services about their attitudes towards cross-selling: 37% of the clients we surveyed told us that they had no problem with their relationship managers trying to sell them additional services under any circumstances; and an additional 52% said that they were happy being cross-sold to, but only under certain conditions. While it should be noted that this study was conducted in the US, and cultural factors certainly play a role in shaping opinions on this topic, it is undoubtedly the case that there are at least a few major markets where clients are relatively relaxed about cross-selling.

Buyers, it seems, understand the rules of the game and don’t begrudge service providers for playing it. That said, there is a big difference between the firms that approach cross-selling correctly and those that do so without the requisite degree of tact. In that same study, we also asked clients to tell us the specific circumstances in which firms could try to sell additional services without compromising the integrity of the relationship. And we found that there were three primary criteria that needed to be met.

Firstly—and somewhat obviously—the firm trying to cross-sell must have met or exceeded the client’s expectations for the piece of work they were originally contracted for; it’s no use trying to sell to someone who’s already soured on you. Secondly, the firm needs to have a proven track record in the area where they’re trying to sell, backed up by case studies and testimonials. Clients don’t want to feel like you’re taking advantage of their positive feelings towards you to turn them into a guinea pig for a new service you’ve been developing.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the client has to feel that the attempt to cross-sell is the product of a genuine belief on the part of the person doing it that they will actually get value out of the service in question. In other words, clients hate the idea of cross-selling for its own sake. They want to see evidence that you have put time and effort into understanding the complexity of their organisation and the specific challenges it’s facing. And that your attempt to get them to buy additional services from your firm is motivated by you identifying a need that you think your firm is well-placed to address, not because you have a revenue target to hit and bonus season is approaching fast.

It’s understandable that consultants—most of whom see themselves as practitioners first and salespeople second—would approach cross-selling with a certain degree of trepidation. But that trepidation ought not to get in the way of deals that could potentially prove advantageous to client and service provider alike. Cross-selling can be a powerful tool in the arsenals of professional services firms; but only in the context of client relationships that are built on a foundation of honesty, transparency, and empathy.