Why is cross-selling so difficult? For starters, it's "selling squared." Before you can sell anything to the client, first you must sell the relationship partner, who controls the client, on granting you access.  The question on that partner's mind is "What's in it for me?

Client trust is a valuable asset that any lawyer must protect, including against potential sales clumsiness by well-meaning partners.  In cross-selling, the relationship partner will act much like any corporate gatekeeper, for the same reasons of self-interest.

It's a negative lens akin to that expressed decades ago by the late Woody Hayes, longtime Ohio State University football coach, who favored a running game described as "three yards and a cloud of dust" and who was often quoted as saying "only three things can happen when you pass (a completion, an incompletion, and an interception) and two of them are bad."

Here's the relationship partner's version of Hayes's foreboding: "If I grant you access to my client, three things can happen, and two of them are bad. And even the good one is a potential threat to me."

  • the client loves you and is grateful for my introduction
  • the client is unmoved either way
  • the client reacts negatively

Unless you first sell the controlling lawyer based on his or her self-interest, you're likely to get lots of smiling, head nodding and creative excuses, but little action ("I've left messages, but nothing yet."  "His calendar is a killer right now.")  

Of the two human motivators - opportunity for gain and fear of loss - fear is the stronger by far.  

You must show the controlling lawyer how a problem inherent to the client's business situation contains a need that your additional service will satisfy. Therefore, your colleague's failure to introduce you and your insight into the problem is actually a failure to help the client. At some point, somebody else will initiate this discussion, and the client will wonder why it wasn't your firm.

 The final threat is that, if not you, somebody else will solve this problem. As long as the underlying business problem remains unresolved, it's an easy point of entry for a competing lawyer. The risk of providing a potential entry point for a competitor represents a much larger threat to the relationship than the (relatively) minor risk of potential client reaction to your cross-sale approach.

What you've just done is conduct a simple version of our Cost of Doing Nothing discipline. Before you pointed all this out to him, your colleague may have felt he had nothing to lose by maintaining the status quo. He now realizes that doing nothing, i.e., not introducing you, creates unnecessary and unacceptable forms of risk.

Mike O'Horo

Now, when you're with the client, make sure you back it up with a problem-investigation worthy of an accomplished lawyer, not some tiresome "let's tell you all about us" presentation approach.