How to become a trusted advisor 

I was at a meeting recently when someone mentioned research that showed on average a client has only enough time to manage a maximum of 7 ‘strategic’ relationships with suppliers. I know we could argue detail like ‘if what I have is of benefit to a client they would make the time’ but the comment did make me think: we are competing for time and mind share.

What would help ensure that we were considered a trusted advisor and that we have more a ‘strategic’ relationship with our clients?

I am not talking about Key Account Management either where the focus is on how we manage and plan around the biggest accounts that we have. This is more about the relationship dynamics and what we can do as individuals to create a relationship whereby we advise rather than sell to our client.

Most of us know to focus on benefits-based selling so that the client sees the real value of our solution in terms of what they will get as a result, but is that enough on its own to build a trusted advisor relationship? I think in most cases it isn’t.

If my mindset is on benefits selling I still fundamentally have a product focus: I am still thinking about articulating the benefits of my product to the prospect – albeit in terms of how it will help them. All too often I have seen this approach lead to conversations where the sales person is transmitting, rather than engaging in a true two-way discussion extending beyond the immediate sales need as a trusted advisor would.

Yes I know we have product to sell so at some stage we have to focus on that but if we are simply asking questions just to get to the ‘benefit’ of our product we are missing an opportunity to develop a truly trust-based and strategic relationship!

How do you know you have a trusted advisor type relationship with a client? What evidence would indicate it? This might be different for each of you but for me, the evidence includes:

  1. Relationship of equals: It’s not about the ‘roles‘ of salesperson’ and ‘client’. When we talk to each other it is as equals. The conversation is often about what is going on in the business, what the other person is facing in terms of priorities and challenges. Yes, you try and engineer these conversations with solution or benefits selling but I think the dynamic is different – we are still trying to get to the product sale. In a trusted advisor relationship, we are probably having more conversations that are not product specific. We are solving problems and, in doing that, we are adding value.
  2. Deeper level of openness & honesty: As a trusted advisor it’s okay to be a little vulnerable, to have a level of openness in the conversation that is often lacking from more tactical sales relationships. The focus is on co-creating rather than having to have all of the answers. The client is likely to admit to more personal concerns that they have, be open about the internal office politics etc.
  3. I have lots of contacts in the customer: If I think about my friends outside of work, over time I have been introduced by them to their friends. I think this is a possible indication of a trusted advisor client relationship as well. Rather than the Key Account Management tactic of planning to increase your contacts, in a strategic and trust-based client relationship, the client sees this expansion of your contacts as a natural thing based on how your relationship is. If you are really looking to add value and not doing it as some sales tactic to win a deal your contact won’t feel threatened. Over time, your contact base increases.
  4. My focus is on understanding rather than selling: With my most strategic and trust-based relationships, the meetings I have really don’t seem like selling at all. I might bring an idea along to discuss, I may have picked up on something the client said on the telephone or during the last meeting. The more I understand about the client, their role, challenges, priorities and worries the more I can help.

You might be thinking: this is no great surprise. You might be thinking: I do this with a lot of my existing clients. Actually though, when you really start to objectively review your client relationships, you often find that there is the potential to do a much better job on these.