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Cross-Marketing: Superb Principle, Tricky Practice

September 23rd, 2013 / - filed under Client Relationships, Law Firm Management

Cross-marketing.  Something we marketers love to talk about. Something firm leadership loves to push.  But it almost never happens with the ease and frequency it should.  Why is that?

Origination credit can create as many obstacles as incentives. Time and time again, we hear that many partners want to share, but their colleagues are disinclined to work as service partners when they can earn more on their own originations.  If this is true, it’s a sad commentary on what partnership means to some people.  Interestingly, firms with lockstep compensation systems, where partners of a certain class earn the same regardless of the rain they make, also struggle to get their partners to grow relationships for the benefit of the whole family. So what, beyond compensation, gets in the way?

Sometimes it’s a confidence problem.  I know that I can provide extraordinary service to this client, but I’m just not so sure about that group down the hall.  Why add a spoonful of risk to an otherwise healthy client relationship? You’d be surprised how this sentiment pervades even the most revered white-shoe institutions.  Yes, even at those firms where 99% of the partners attended the finest schools, clerked for the SCOTUS, interned at some fancy shmancy government agency and then went on to build enviable stables of Fortune 100 clients, even there partners worry that not everyone works to their standard.  The confidence problem is a good problem because it starts with a concern about the client.  Which we’ll get back to in a minute.

Sometimes, it’s the portability dilemma.  As we witness more and more lateral movement in the marketplace—lateral activity among Am Law 200 firms reached a three-year high in 2012—lawyers may be reluctant to spread around a large client in the event that the lawyer needs to bolt to a new firm across the street.  Easier to tote a client around like a handbag if you don’t share with your partners.  This is not ok.  Clients are not luggage.  Clients are people.

Most often, the obstacles are just practical.  There is no system in place to streamline cross-marketing and oftentimes, even in small firms, partners have absolutely no idea what their colleagues do for a living. Really.

Here are some takeaways to better cross-market and deepen client relationships:

  1. Adjust the philosophy.  As we say ad nauseum, the gating question should always be: How can I add value to my client? If your firm has more services to offer a client that would help the client’s operations, make an introduction.
  2. If you are not entirely confident in a colleague’s ability to serve your client, don’t make an introduction. Maintaining exceptional standards and willing to forego billings in earnest support of those standards is worthy and evidences a fine commitment to client relationships.
  3. Make cross-marketing a top-down imperative.  A Management Committee dictate.
  4. Someone needs to own a cross-marketing effort.  In a larger firm, this may be a team comprising the CMO, practice group leaders and COO/Executive Director.  In a smaller firm, it may be the managing partner.  Or everybody.
  5. Map & Measure. Regardless of firm size, even the most rudimentary system has benefits.  Take the firm’s top 50 clients (those that have been around for a few years) and assign a numerical value to the number of practices that service the client.  If most clients are served by a single practice, you have a long way to go, but what a rewarding road to travel.  Set goals.  Move a certain number of clients to the two-practice column.  Be crazy.  Go for three.
  6. Punish those who won’t share. Reward those who do.  Not merely in percentages, but reward in public statements about the future leaders of the firm.  Draft a mini case study about the firm’s success growing a particular client and circulate it in the firm’s internal newsletter.
  7. Wait. You don’t have an internal newsletter? How do you foster internal communications? How do you ensure that partners know the expertise and abilities and contacts of their peers? If not in an internal circular, find some mechanism to foster better relationships between your own.  Asking partners to sit down with others they know but don’t really know may just be the best strategic decision you make this year.

The fact is, even the most modest progress in expanding key client relationships can have a major and lasting impact on a firm’s profitability.  If you have a CFO, ask him/her to monetize it.  A CFO can prepare growth models that will make your head spin.  (In a good way.)  At day’s end, if partners are acting like partners and adding value is the price of admission, firms grow, clients pay, and cross-marketing is not a core strategy, but just the way you do business.