Trust Me, I’m an Expert!
I recently had the opportunity to speak to MBA students many of whom were aiming for a career in the world of consulting and professional services. A significant number stated they would like embrace a role where there is c-suite level interaction, strategic issues to develop and being able to convert their newly minted business acumen into business benefits for the client organisation.
Having worked within the sector with two of the ‘Big Four’ global professional service firms there is a great emphasis placed on project and team-based work and as Tom Peter’s points out, ‘To win today you must master the art of the project.’ This comment applies to any business role but especially the world of professional services, be it investment banking, consultancy, legal services, architecture, etc., where fees are usually based on a project or program completion basis.
However, there is one title within the professional services arena considered to be the gold standard in terms of prestige and being viewed as part of the professional services elite. This is the much sought after but rarely awarded title of ‘Trusted Advisor’. Many executive education programmes I have designed and delivered are focused on this elusive domain name with senior level professionals searching for ways in which their clients will view them as indispensable and the first point of call when a sounding board is needed.
So what is required to commence the journey towards trusted advisor status? Much has been written about the topic and perhaps unsurprisingly many of the traits illustrated by true trusted advisors have less to do with technical skills and more to do with who you are as an individual, a professional and a person. Based on my experiences and research conducted into this area here are some key attributes associated with being a trusted advisor.
1. Staying in touch with your clients even when there is no project or program work happening. For many this is a big ask in a world of compressed time and trying to create a sense of work/life balance. However it does pay dividends as clients like to be contacted as long as you have something to say or share. I have often provided information and insights to clients that are tailored to their sector and the issues they face. Even if the information has already been seen by the recipient you will get the credit for thinking about the client’s issues.
2. Putting the client’s needs above your own is something that David Maister includes in his seminal book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’ where he says, “There is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client. We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.” For many this might be a big ask as chargeable time is a mainstay of professional services in many ways. However if the client sees that your behaviour and philosophy is focused on their needs then a closer alignment and loyalty is almost inevitable.
3. Clients are many things but they are also humans and as humans we like people who like us and show an interest in our pursuits and interests. Professor Robert Cialdini, author of ‘Influence: Science and Practice’ shows documented evidence that one of the key principles of influence and persuasion is actually ‘Liking’. We like people who like us and show us they like us. Show your clients that you like them and it will create the foundation for a better relationship on a professional and personal level.
4. Trust is a vital part of becoming a trusted advisor. If your client feels they can trust you it will make for a closer relationship. Trust can be gained in a number of ways including delivering on your promises and ensuring nothing is left to chance. Another way to gain trust is to let your client know quickly when there is something you or your organisation are not best placed to deliver on. By admitting where your service proposition might not be the ideal one you are building trust with your client and building on the premise that you are looking out for their best interests by suggesting a better alternative.
5. Clients love experts because they often take away some of the risk of making decisions. So be a credible expert in your field of knowledge because it will build a sense of great authority for you. Trusted advisors are experts at what they do and confident in providing advice. Focus on your area of expertise and be the font of knowledge for your client. Another one of Professor Cialdini’s ‘Principles of Persuasion’ is that people are more easily persuaded by others who they regard as credible and authoritative experts.
6. Authenticity is greatly sought after. In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken!’ and this is especially true when it comes to leadership as clients often look to the trusted advisor to lead them through their issues with relevant solutions. Authentic leadership is also about being yourself, more, but with skills. Those skills should add to your abilities to interact with clients but never replace your authentic self. So if you need to be a better presenter, take a presentations course but don’t emulate another presenter because your client will quickly see that it is not the authentic you.
7. Make an emotional connection with clients. Many professional advisors find it difficult to talk about topics that are outside of their, sometimes, narrow field of expertise. Clients have lives outside of the office and may value being able to interact on topics that may include their personal passions and areas of interest. Connecting with your clients through communications that includes stories, anecdotes, examples, analogies, imagery, visual aids, and even some light humour. One client speaker on a professional services leadership programme happily admitted he valued the opportunity to call upon his professional advisor for a social meeting when he was in town – based on the fact that he was a great advisor but also a great person to interact with.
Becoming a trusted advisor has many benefits as it creates a relationship between client and professional that relies on a number of strands and not just great technical work. Clients and professionals are all busy people and when you are able to develop trusted relationships it eliminates time wasted in looking for the right person who ‘fits’ with your organisational and individual needs. However, it is not an overnight phenomenon and just like any other meaningful relationship it needs care and attention but the benefits to both parties can be substantial and lasting.
Interesting stuff. How would you say being a trusted advisor differs from being an exec coach? Is it just semantics?
While there may be similarities, the role of an executive coach can earn the right to a much more personal relationship. I have worked with some excellent executive coaches who effectively challenge and stretch the coachee’s thinking and behaviour. While the framework for coaching is managed up front with clearly agreed expectations the professional advisor is usually unfamiliar with the behavioural change expertise that most executive coaches understand and implement.