Becoming good advisor takes more than having good advice to offer. Trusted advisor needs three basic skills: earning trust, building relationship and giving advice effectively.
Evolution of client-advisor relationship starts with Subject Matter or Process Expert, then it added Affiliated Field, next step is to become Valuable Resource and last phase is Trusted Advisor. Those phases correspond to Service or Offering-Based, Needs-Based, Relationship-Based and Trust-Based.
Becoming trusted advisor requires an integration of content expertise with organizational and interpersonal skills. And you need to care about your client. Benefit of developing trusting relationship is that you can deploy the best individual skills (listening, reasoning, problem solving and imagining).
Every time you hire professional services you are forced into act of faith. You want somebody that you can trust to do the right thing. It is the same when you try to gain trust from others. Trust must be earned and deserved.
Some features of trust are:
- it grows – trust results from accumulated experiences,
- is both rational and emotional – trust is a lot richer then logic alone and it is a significant component of success,
- is two-way relationship – you can’t force trust,
- entails risk – creating trust entails some personal risks,
- is different for the Client and the Advisor – in trust one does the trusting and one is trusted,
- is personal – we don’t trust institutions, we don’t trust processes, we trust people.
Giving advice is not only technical is also emotional. It is not enough for a professional to be right. An advisor’s job is to be helpful. Excellence in advice giving requires not only the right attitude, but also careful attention to language. Advisory skills are similar to the ones of teacher. They need to bring client from point A (where they are now) to point B (better knowledge, deeper understanding). They need two skills: they must have good understanding of point A (this can be achieved with questioning and listening) and they need to set up proper plan for step-to-step reasoning process that will take client to point B (this process is usually termed Socratic teaching. By all means advisor and teacher should avoid lecturing. It is old jokes saying – lecture is the fastest means known for getting ideas from notes of teacher to notes of the student without passing through the minds of either. Advisor should also avoid making stand to early in the process. A good process for the advisor to follow is:
- Give them their options.
- Give them education about options (including enough discussion for them to consider each option in depth),
- Give them recommendation.
- Let them choose.
Building relationship is third part of advisory skills, that you need to have in order to serve as Trusted advisor. In order to do that, you have to learn about customer mindset, you need to proactively work with them and offer them some value without returns, you need to be consistent, you work with each client as they are unique, don’t look for familiar situations so that you can use previous experiences, but rather find out what are specific of each client and adjust to them, you need to earn a right to give advice and sometimes only be there to give sympathetic ear and be prepared to ask a lot of clarification questions in order to clarify the ambiguity. One of good approaches towards help is to use request instead of demand. Coupled with use of compliments and not flattery and with showing appreciation, it is a good way to do it.
Together with developed skills that we mentioned, advisor must develop also proper mindset (attitudes).
- Ability to focus on the other person
- Ego strength
- Inclusive professionalism
Ability to focus on the other person is connected with knowledge of collaboration. And this knowledge is sometimes harder to acquire then knowledge about content. This is especially true for professionals that in the development of their career jump from professionals to advisors. Since their drive as professionals was to focus on achievements and they focus on their own performance.
Sincerity is important step in gaining trust. It is true that sometimes you simply can’t care for everybody and you can use some techniques in short-term engagement in order to get your job done, but if you aim at long-term relationship then you need to act and feel in sincere and honest way.
There are four components of trust:
- Credibility (Words)
- Reliability (Actions)
- Intimacy (Emotions)
- Self-orientation (Motives)
And trust equation is Trustworthiness equals Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy divided by Self-Orientation. And you need to be good in all components.
Credibility is content expertise plus presence, you need to be credible and show credibility. Credibility is both rational and emotional. Reliability is action oriented, is repeated experience of links between promises and action. Reliability in emotional sense is the repeated experience of expectations fulfilled. Intimacy is the risky part of trust, if it goes wrong, consequences are very big. It is more about who we are as any other aspect of trust. There is no greater source of distrust than advisor who appears to be more interested in themselves than trying to be of service to the client.
If we use trust equation to calculate Trustworthiness, we would quickly realize why cost of developing new customers are 4-7x times harder to cost of doing business with existing ones…because factors like reliability, credibility, intimacy and lower self-orientation are much higher or at least should be at existing customers.
There are five distinct steps in development of trusted relationship:
- Engage – Attention becomes focused.
- Listen – Ears bigger than mouth: acknowledge and affirm.
- Frame – The root issue is stated clearly and openly. Using formulation of problem statements, hypotheses and point of view built around what is important to client. Framing is usually the point in the process where the client becomes consciously aware of value being added by the advisor.
- Envision – A vision of an alternate reality is sketched out (it should be sketch together with customer and without trying to offer fixed solution of the problem prematurely). This is point in the process when client recognize his true goals and define them in a way that they are realistically achievable.
- Commit – Steps are agreed upon; sense of commitment is renewed. Client in this phase can see what it will take to achieve goals.
All phases demand different skills from advisor. Engage requires the skill of being (credibly) noticed. Listening requires an ability to understand another human being. Framing requires creative insight and emotional courage. Envisioning requires a spirit of collaboration and creativity. Commitment requires the ability to generate enthusiasm and sometimes ability to manage down overenthusiasm.
Engagement is starting point in developing trust. We must engage quickly around something that is really meaningful to the client. Sometimes study client industry and understand it can earn us right to engage. When facing existing customer and working at engagement phase, we can address competitive, personal and career issues that are relevant to our client. But we have to be careful about timing. We need to define topics, that are urgent and topics that are important, and address them accordingly. If you have only five minutes start with urgent and then touch important, if you have more time, start with important and then also work on urgent. Add value. Just having a meeting isn’t enough. If you can’t add value, postpone the meeting. Wait until you can add value. It will be worth the wait.
Listening earns you right. But you should listen actively and not passively, and you should acknowledge that listening is also about emotions not only rational analyses. There was research that showed that business people can only listen to 30-60 seconds without their mind being distracted by some other thought. Ariel Group communication-training group from Cambridge teaches idea of reflective listening that is followed by supportive listening and finally listening for possibility. When listening we should let the speaker set the structure, because we will hear his/her story and we will get better insight. But we can use agenda-setting discussion in the beginning in order to clarify client wish for the meeting.
Framing is the act of crystallizing and encapsulating the client’s complex issues (and emotions) into a problem definition that, in an objective manner, provides both insight and a fresh way of thinking about the problem. Framing can be rational and emotional. Rational is very common for advisors and lawyers. The effectiveness of the advisor does not lie so much in the invention of the next (proprietary) paradigm as it does in finding the way to lead a particular client, with particular problem, into seeing the relevance of an old (new) paradigm. Emotional framing is first and foremost about the courage to take personal risk and surface hidden emotions. One of the techniques for emotional framing – for saying thigs that cannot be said even though everybody knows them – is naming and claiming.
Envisioning is energetic phase. Instead focusing immediately on solution when framing is finished, building vision of potential future with client can have enormous motivational affect. In this phase focus on descriptive sentences ask questions about things like benefits, end states or outcomes. Wording like: “…where it is, we want to go and what it is we’re really trying to achieve…”, can be used.
Commitment is about confirming that client understand what will be necessary to solve the problem and is willing to do what it takes to achieve the goals. Without commitment advice is merely the expression of opinions. Client usually commit for one of two reasons: either they are feeling pain or energy around a topic; or they have been captivated by something new, different and totally appealing. Commitment in the context of the trust process differs from simple action planning in two respects: it is joint, and it is personal.
All those activates are very common but a lot of times they are not followed for different reasons: from perceiving it too risky(usually perceived risk are risk to credibility and risk to intimacy) to be jumping into action before all steps are done (this is usually done because we focus to much on ourselves, we believe in selling only content, the desire for tangibility and because we are searching for validation).
Trusted advisor should be able to adapt to different client types. Some difficult types of customers are:
- fact clients,
- I’ll get back to you client,
- you’re expert, dummy client,
- let me handle that client,
- let’s go through this again client,
- or don’t understand client,
- my enemy’s enemy is my friend client,
- just like, you know, come on client
- oh, by the way client
Companies that can create trusted relationship with clients have better chances to be hired. In order to serve as trusted advisor and caring professional, you need to integrate services and sales. Sometimes the bestselling technique is to not sell, but to commence the service process. Some advisors don’t like to sell, but good sales are good services and to be professional we need to point out possibilities. Some other techniques to build trust with client are:
- Involving the client in the process
- Making reports and presentation more useful and easier to pass on
- Helping the client use what we deliver
- Making meetings more valuable
- Being accessible and available
When we start with projects first impressions are always similar to short honeymoon, since client believes that someone competent will work on their problems, but we need to deliver quick smaller results in order to show them that we are working on their issues and that we can deliver what customer is expecting. We must keep customer in loop. We must always tell the truth and not what customer wants to hear. We should love our work. We should try not to make our answer only technical. Don’t ask for follow-up work too quickly. And we need to work with client even outside our projects and sales opportunities. Advisor needs to build relationship plans not only sales plans. Clients want a business partner and not a false friend. And in case when client is big account and relationship between companies are built on more levels and with more involved individuals, role of relationship manager is critical. Role of managing all relationships, supporting own team and client team is essential for building strong trusted relationships on company level.
Cross-selling is opportunity to use trusted relationship for additional business with existing clients, but it had to be done carefully. Cross-selling is like meeting your prospective in-laws for the first time: They’ll probably like you, but you’d better not take it for granted. We need to be careful since cross-selling introduces new services, new people, but in a light of familiarity of relationship where elements of trust, credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation where build on something else and can actually be quite lower for new services, people, areas of business.
Quick impact list to gain trust:
- Listen to everything
- Note what they are feeling
- Build shared agenda
- Take a point of view
- Take personal risk
- Ask about related area
- Ask great questions
- Give away ideas
- Return calls unbelievably fast
- Relax your mind