Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Trusted AdvisorIt’s the holy grail of Professional Services – to become a trusted advisor to your senior clients. To be viewed – and sought out – as a source of valued advice and support.

In this short video I review the key steps you need to take to become a trusted advisor and valued partner to your senior clients.

How To Become A Trusted Advisor: A More Clients TV Video

Video Transcript:

So you want to become a Trusted Advisor to your senior clients?

The benefits from a business development perspective are clear: if you’re the first port of call for a client with a critical business problem then you’re in a tremendous position to help shape that client’s thinking, to build a deep understanding of the situation, and to establish strong credibility through the discussions.

In other words, you’ll be in pole position to win any related work.

And if you’ve established a position of being able to help and offer good advice across a broad range of issues – not just in your own specialism – they you become an indispensable partner – not just a supplier.

But becoming a trusted advisor doesn’t happen overnight. The position’s got to be earned – and that takes time and it takes consistent action.

How To Become a Trusted Advisor

The clues to what to focus on are in the name – trusted advisor. You must establish both a trust-based relationship with your client; and you must be viewed as a source of valuable advice.

Building trust can only be done by demonstrating and proving trustworthiness over time. The client must come to believe that you understand them, you have their best interests at heart, and you will deal with them with candour – always being honest about what you can and cannot do, and taking a long term perspective rather than seeing them as a short-term sales prospect.

When the Huthwaite Group studied client’s perceptions of professional service salespeople, they found that of the key elements of trust (in their words: candour, competence and concern) it was the area of showing concern and empathy for their clients where professionals performed the worst. Much worse that their counterparts in product sales.

Accountants, lawyers and consultants are trained “to be professional”. To be objective, fact-driven and solution focused. They’ve been conditioned into feeling they must constantly demonstrate their cleverness and expertise in order to be credible.

But all of this mitigates against showing genuine human concern for clients and their challenges.

It’s not that professionals don’t care about their clients – far from it. But they must learn to express this concern in ways which clients can appreciate. Using our listening skills, for example, not to gather ammunition for our next verbal gem – but to build genuine and deep understanding of a client’s situation.

When it comes to demonstrating that you can provide valuable advice, this again must be demonstrated over time. Every interaction with your senior clients is a chance to either advance their perception of you as a source of valuable insight, or not.

First you must “earn your spurs” – earn the basic right to be listened to by your senior clients. You do this by demonstrating competence in the areas for which you have been hired. Until you have done this, attempts to advise on wider areas will fall on deaf ears – you need to demonstrate your basic capabilities first.

But many professionals stop there. They limit their interactions with clients to talking about the work at hand and the specialism they focus on.

Over time, this causes them to be pigeon-holed as merely a technical specialist. Someone who can be relied on to deal with specific topics – but not a trusted advisor who can help with more challenging problems.

To establish your trusted advisor status you must demonstrate that you can give valuable advice outside your specialism. You must demonstrate you knowledge of business in general, and of the client’s business and industry specifically. This means you must do your homework.

As a professional you must know the key issues of the day. In business and industry generally. In your client’s industry more specifically. And if you can, in your client’s company.

As you get closer and closer to your client, they’ll also begin to share issues that are personal to them and their role. But at the start, it’s the more general industry and company issues which you must focus on.

Always make sure you’re up to date with industry news – and ask the client about their opinions. Put out tentative hypotheses to gently establish the fact that you’ve been thinking about their industry and their company. Highlight a recent move a competitor made and ask them how effective they feel it was – and be prepared to give your tentative views too.

Don’t push this too far, too early. I’ve seen many junior consultants and aspiring partners rush far too fast into trying to “coach” senior clients long before they have earned the right.

Instead, recognise where you are in your relationship: Have I established my basic competence? Have I created an impression of strong general business knowledge? Have I demonstrated useful insights into key business problems? View the development of your relationship as a ladder you climb step by step – and hand-in-hand with your client at every step.

Do this and you will set yourself well apart from the vast majority of professional services business developers.

Do it really well, and you’ll find that the clients you develop your trusted advisor roles with will support you for many, many years.

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Comments

  1. says

    Ian,

    I could not agree more with your hypothesis. For the first half of the article I kept thinking, but not too fast, but not too fast, then you covered it.

    I would only add this advice; when entering the relationship know your niche and deliver only on that niche. When people ask what you do is this your response?

    “I am a consultant.”

    “Really, what kind of consultant?”

    “I am a sales consultant, and I have worked with every type of company in every way. Actually, I can do marketing and operations too. Really, I am a one stop shop for business advice.

    If it is, you are digging a ditch and you may not know it.

  2. says

    I certainly wouldn’t argue with what you are saying Ian. The caveat I would add, is that there are clients who are better at respecting the ‘trusted advisor’ role that others. In a rush to achieve that status, a person may give over more than is required of a normal business relationship, and those who are quick to take advantage can then assume that is the precedent for the forthcoming relationship.

  3. says

    So True, Ian. Until that trust is developed (or “earned your spurs” as you say), most everything falls on deaf ears. When a trusting relationship has developed between customer and salesperson, the customer has confidence that the salesperson is watching his back, and that’s a valuable position to be in. I made the mistake once of trying to coach one of my clients too early in the process. It was the wrong thing to do and I learned from it.

  4. says

    I guess that’s the art – knowing when to broaden to become a business advisor rather than just a specialist (especialy important if you “own” the relationship on behalf of a full-service firm) and when to stay focused on your niche to earn your credibility.

    Ian

  5. says

    Trusted Advisor seems to be the buzz word in all kinds of sales today. Not only that but it also appears to be in most of the marketing and sales material that companies put in front of prospects. So with so much emphasis and with much discussion around ‘how to’ then how come there is so much ‘why aren’t we’?
    My guess is that the following are the root causes:
    Becoming a trusted advisor is as much a culture issue as it is a marketing strategy. If you have sales people or account executives on staff that have been in the business for more than 10 years then you have a culture issue as well as a training issue.
    Trusted advisors are typically confinded to the areas of ‘professional services’ i.e. legal, accounting, engineering and sometimes banking. If you interviewed most consumers you wouldn’t find them describing sales people as ‘trusted advisors’
    Sales people don’t get paid for providing information. Actually when a sales person provides information to a prospect chances are the incumbent provider gets paid.
    Lastly those companies that have attempted the trusted advisor approach have failed to drive revenue. The sales people became accountable to sales calls instead of sales results.
    I agree that for long term mutually beneficial results then the ‘trusted advisor’ is the ultimate relationship. But companies need to do more than just talk about it and put it in their marketing material.

  6. says

    I’d agree with a lot of what you say Tony. As I say in the intro to the article, becoming a Trusted Advisor is the holy grail for professional services (that’s my specialist area after all). But as you say, it shouldn’t necessarily be the goal for all sales people.

    I would say though that it’s my experience that other sales areas are moving towards this model. Not transactional sales, or low value sales. But in the area of large, complex sales the establishment of a trusting relationship is vital. When a buyer makes a huge investment in a product or service that they must live with for many years and where there’s going to be an important element of ongoing service and support – then they will want to buy from someone they trust.

    I don’t want to push the issue too far – becoming a trusted advisor is most important for professionals, not all salespeople. But I think it’s worth considering that in some situations, “normal” salespeople may have to adopt elements of this role. Salespeople don’t get paid for providing information – but in the right place at the right time, it can work to help move towards a sale.

    Ian

  7. says

    I have to say trusted adviser status is something that can be achieved even in transactional retail sales, but it has to be ingrained in the corporate culture.
    I’ll use Joe’s Sporting Goods as a example. I go there for almost everything because I trust the professional opinion of the staff. frequently go there just to ask questions before fishing a new lake or buying new equipment because the customer service is excellent, and the information the give is accurate. I pay a bit more that I would at a Big 5 or other chain, but I’m willing to pay it for the additional service I get. I think the same can be said of chains like the Apple Store and Starbucks. A sale could not get much more transactional than Starbucks, but the staff there is knowledgeable, and offers great advice. if you want proof go in to a store and pretend you have no idea what you are doing.
    The trick is all three of these companies have that ethic ingrained into the soul of their corporate philosophy.

    Thoughts?

    -Brad

  8. says

    Since everyone is focused on being a ‘Trusted Advisor’ these day’s I have decided to elevate my game and become the ‘Emotional Favorite’.

    The ‘Emotional Favorite’ is the person the buyer knows, likes, trusts, and want to see succeed!

    People buy based upon emotion. They justify their decision to others with logic AFTER THE FACT.

    To become the ‘Emotional Favorite’ you need to understand the psychographics of your target customer.

    Psychographics are the aspirations, values, and AIO (Attitudes, Interests, and Options) variables of the buyer.

    The more your psychographics align with the buyers psychographics the more likely you are to win the business.

    Being the ‘Emotional Favorite’ has many benefits but the primary one is the fact that when decision makers experience a ‘Trigger Event’ and become dissatisfied with their current supplier they call you before they call anyone else.

    Research shows that when you get to these motivated buyers before your competition your odds of making the sale are, on average, 75%.

    According to CSO Insights data being the trusted advisor only gets you a 55% close rate.

    Your will close 37% more sales (75%-55%/55%) simply by going beyond the Trusted Advisor status and becoming the buyers ‘Emotional Favorite’.

  9. says

    Research shows that even a customer who is perfectly satisfied with your company, your products, and your salespeople will nevertheless leave you for a competitor who offers a more attractive deal. That thought should disturb your sleep, because most salespeople, even good ones, do no more than satisfy their clients.

    Satisfaction isn’t enough. A genuinely loyal customer is one who values something about your company so highly that he or she stops shopping for better deals. If you have any customers like that, the overwhelming likelihood is that the thing they treasure so highly is the relationship that has been developed.

    ‘Loyalty’ implies a relationship. Who must build it? The salesperson.

    How can salespeople become so valuable that their clients turn a deaf ear to competitors? Action Selling identifies three roles that every successful salesperson must play.

    Orchestrator: This role has to do with leveraging resources and coordinating selling activities in ways that demonstrate how the salesperson’s relationships and his or her company’s resources can provide valuable solutions to the customer. For instance, the salesperson might bring in a technical expert to help a client think through a problem.

    Consultant: Like a doctor diagnosing an illness, the salesperson asks questions that effectively uncover the client’s most important problems. Then the salesperson recommends solutions specifically targeted to those concerns.

    Relationship Builder: The consultant role is essentially reactive. As a relationship builder, the salesperson moves beyond “asking where it hurts.” The salesperson takes an active interest in helping the client’s company improve its competitiveness, becoming a trusted “advisor” and valued partner in the client’s business. In the relationship-builder role, the salesperson serves a universal need that does not go away – the client’s need to keep getting better at what they do.

    Another term for relationship builder is loyalty builder. Relatively few are able to shine in this most advanced role without additional guidance and practice. Those who do, become black-belts – masters of loyalty. To their clients and to their own employers – such masters are worth their weight-in-gold.

    Look us up if you want help with this.

    To Your Success.

  10. says

    A trusted advisor never stops looking for ways to become more valuable to their clients. Mainly through questioning skills, but also by orchestrating their own companies’ resources on the client’s behalf, they act like business partners rather than just salespeople.

    A “salesperson” represents a supplier that can be useful for addressing particular needs in particular ways—as can other suppliers. A business partner is committed to the client’s success every day, in every phase of the client’s operation where the partner can possibly be helpful.

    A salesperson who becomes that kind of partner forges a bond that is very difficult to break. The client begins to turn a deaf ear to the salesperson’s competitors, not because their products and services and prices aren’t attractive, but because the relationship is too valuable to give up.

  11. says

    Ian-
    Nice post. I fear that the “trusted advisor” has become a catch phrase like thought leader or solution and is rapidly losing it’s real meaning. The trusted advisor model is well suited to only a segment of the professional services world. A competent professional would be welcomed by many potential clients. Thanks again…lwf

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