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Why collaboration eats cross-selling for breakfast

Cross-selling should be treated with contempt. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be servicing clients by joining with your firm’s other practice groups, writes Sue-Ella Prodonovich.

The way to do this is by collaborating and working together to receive a mutual benefit. Joining forces to better service a client is a much more effective way of winning work and building a sustainable business.

With that in mind, here’s my guide to how professional services firms can collaborate effectively.  Or as I like to call it ‘Why collaboration eats cross-selling for breakfast’.

First of all, it pays to remember that collaboration means different things to different people. So before you can begin collaborating, you need to come to a common understanding of what it means within your firm.

Are you looking for a best practice approach to client-centred service – one that draws in all parts of your firm and gets them working towards a common goal? Or will it be a cross-firm way to solve major problems and streamline practice groups? Or maybe you want to come together to take an agile approach to the way you build and manage cross-practice teams.

Collaboration could mean bringing together a group of experts in your firm to solve a client’s problems by looking at them through different lenses. It could mean taking a broader team-based approach to first meetings and scoping matters.

Or it could even mean collaborating with external experts to provide more diversity when it comes to exploring scenarios and ideas.  

Define what it means to you and what you hope to achieve before you set about working out a way to achieve it.

Identify behaviours
Collaborating may be about knowing what makes others tick. But before that can happen, we first need to know ourselves.

Dr Heidi K. Gardner’s research identified seven behavioural dimensions to help professionals gain awareness of their behavioural tendencies, understand their teammates, and turn these into catalysts for collaboration. From measures of inherent levels of trust in others (‘Wary’ to ‘Trusting’ scale) to your approach to risk (are you a ‘Risk Spotter’ or a ‘Risk Seeker’?). 

So your first step in collaboration is knowing the range of personal styles you’re working with and matching your approach to suit. And the good news is there’s an easy psychometric tool to help (in the same way tools like Myers-Briggs have helped many professionals).

Shine a light on the firm
Now that you know yourself, it’s time to get to know the firm – or at least to identify those areas in which you excel. Build a catalogue of concrete examples showing aspirational behaviours and successful outcomes. In doing so, you’ll create a shared narrative while building knowledge and demonstrating successful outcomes across the firm.

Here are three ways to do this.

1. Use case studies
Uncover and showcase your firm’s ‘hero’ stories. These should cover the arc of the relationship with the client by including:

  • Background on the client relationship.
  • What triggered a collaborative approach – was it by accident or design?
  • Details of how people collaborated and what bought them together.
  • The surprises or new insights they discovered.
  • And outcomes.

2. Uncover the client’s voice
Interview clients about their views and experiences with your firm. When you do, Dr Gardner recommends you “use a systematic, open-ended technique that involves them identifying and analysing specific situations when they were (or weren’t) served in a cross-silo way by your firm and the particular results”.

Dr Gardner says that merely asking a client their general opinions about collaboration is unlikely to reveal deep insights. She also notes that it will “almost certainly [be] riddled with biases (recall, confirmation, etc.)”.

Instead, she suggests you should ask the client for concrete examples and give them notice of this before any interview so they’ll have time to meet your request.

3. Use financial evidence
Money talks. Few things are more compelling than illustrating the upside of collaboration in financial terms. So, where you can, try to demonstrate the benefits of collaboration numerically. For example, compare the loyalty, reference value, revenue or margins your firm generates from clients using multiple services with those using just a single service.

Build collaboration into your ecosystem
Your ecosystem extends beyond your firm and into other companies, including consultants, clients and other experts. You can also embed collaboration into your relationships with each of these groups to gain an advantage. It’s a great way to engage the experts you regularly brief when tricky problems arise, senior alumni, or referrers who know your client or industry sector.

The concept of collaborating with partners outside your firm isn’t new. Japanese companies have had ‘keiretsu’ networks for a long time. By building a similar ecosystem of collaboration, you’ll add diverse views to your thinking, give yourself the opportunity to differentiate yourself from rivals or generate cost advantages, according to Mark R. Kramer and Marc. W.Pfitzer.

Either way, it’s a win/win for you and your clients.

In short, collaboration can be the key to propelling your business forward and gaining a bigger piece of the pie for all your practice groups. Best of all, it does this in ways that genuinely benefit the client – something that can’t always be said for cross-selling.

Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping professional services practices sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients and become more profitable.

Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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