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People don’t buy professional services the way they buy other products or services. The purchase professional services in one of two ways:

  • They buy from people they are familiar with, that they trust and respect.
  • They ask for referrals, leaning on the trust that their network has with firms.

In either case, the firm has achieved “trusted advisor” status, which is what opens the door for opportunity. In this article we’ll describe what a trusted advisor is, what behaviors they exhibit, and how you can become one and train your team to do the same.

What Is a Trusted Advisor?

This phrase was originally coined by David Maister in his book of the same name. He argues that above all, a trusted advisor cares more about the client than they do themselves. They care more about the relationship and being useful than winning any one engagement.

The Elements of Trust

Maister identifies 3 common elements of trust.

  • Integrity. This means “doing the next right thing.” At every stage of a relationship, our goal is to act as a steward of our client’s resources, and give them the same advice we’d give ourselves if we were in their shoes.
  • Help them arrive at their own answers. Your role is to advise them, not make their decisions for them. In an ideal world, you gently guide them toward the solution, and make it seem like it was their idea. Doing so maximizes the level of investment they have in owning the execution of the idea.
  • Build strong relationships. Consulting is ultimately about people working with people. Trusted advisors are great at building and cultivating relationships with current and prospective clients, and they invest in those relationships over time, even if there is no immediate payoff.

Maister’s coauthor Charles Green later created the Trust Quotient to break down the elements of trust even further. He identifies 4 variables:

  • Credibility: Not just being smart, but being smart for them. This means you’ve done it before. You are speaking from a place of competence.
  • Reliability: This is a function of making promises and keeping them, repeatably over time. In the words of Dan Sullivan, you “show up on time, do what you say you’ll do, and say please and thank you.” Set the deadline and hit it. Tell them when you’ll get back to them and do so. If you need to renegotiate a commitment, do so immediately.
  • Intimacy. Trust-based relationships have an element of candor to them. Not necessarily about each other’s personal lives, but at least about one’s professioanl ambitions, hopes, fears, goals, etc.
  • Self-orientation. With the first three variables, the more the better. With this it’s the opposite. Self-orientation refers to how much one is thinking about their own needs and goals relative to the client’s. Getting back to Maister’s definition of a Trusted Advisor, you want to demonstrate the opposite.

How to Become a Trusted Advisor

So given these elements, what are some tangible and practical ways to develop trust with clients? Some suggestions:

  • Above all, focus on serving. In every interaction, ask yourself and your team how best to serve the client. Consider making service a key part of your Point of View  or Manifesto, and incorporate discussions on service into your operating cadence as a firm.
  • Make promises and keep them. Again, trust is built over time, by repeatably showing clients that you’ll do what you say you’ll do. Encourage your team to become students of task management systems like Getting Things Done. Develop a standard in the business for being people for whom things don’t fall through the cracks. Be the most organized and disciplined people in the room.
  • Share liberally. Many professional services firms are too precious with their frameworks and methodologies. Giving away your secrets is a fantastic way to demonstrate credibility before working with you.
  • Don’t just tell them what they want to hear. In most organizations there are inherent power dynamics that prevent senior leadership from getting the truth. Give it to them straight (at least as you see it). If you have bad news, communicate it to them. Even if it means you sacrifice an engagement in the process. Think of it as a long term investment in the relationship.
  • Don’t embellish. In professional services you are effectively selling your thinking and problem solving abilities. You’re selling what you know. This can create a strong incentive to act as if you know the answers even when you don’t. You must resist this temptation. It’s okay to say you don’t t know something. This is easier when you feel secure in yourself and your abilities. Before important meetings, Jerry Colonna suggests saying to yourself, “I belong in this room” to ground yourself.
  • Use socratic questioning. One of the best ways to help clients get to answers themselves is to get better at asking questions. Socratic questioning involves gently guiding the client in the direction you want them to go by asking a series of questions vs. simply giving them answers or telling them what you think. It also allows you to disagree with them without being disagreeable.
  • Restate their problems or concerns before moving forward. A powerful tool from executive coach Matt Mochary is to clarify before providing recommendations. Gety in the habit of saying, “What I’m hearing you say is …. is that correct?” This makes sure you avoid misalignment around the problem before jumping to solutions.
  • Ask what they’re hoping for in an interaction. Sometimes when clients are talking about problems they’re not actually looking for solutions. Sometimes they simply want an opportunity to vent to someone who’s not inside their firm. Sometimes they want reassurance that they’re making the right call. Asking, “How do you think I can best help you here?” can be a powerful question to get to the essence of the interaction.
  • Give them options. Maister suggests laying out the various approaches they could take, educating them about each (including ramifications and potential second or third-order effects) and providing your personal recommendation if warranted.Again, the goal is to not give them the answer, but to equip them to arrive at the answer themselves.
  • Show, don’t tell. Build credibility by demonstrating your expertise, not by talking about how experienced you are. If your intro deck or website speaks to your credentials, don’t spend the whole meeting giving reciting your accomplishments. Spend the time educating them and providing value instead.
  • Be disciplined with the use of your CRM. While CRMs are typically thought of in the context of a business development process, being consistent about adding data on existing clients (and reviewing them at regular cadences) can be incredibly helpful in continuing to build rapport. Take notes during interactions, log them in your CRM, review them before future calls and at a regular cadence during your account review process.
  • Practice active listening. The most charismatic people make you feel like the only person in the room. But that’s hard to do if you’re typing while they’re talking or simply waiting for them to stop talking so you can start. Keep your laptop closed. Keep your phone in your bag. Take notes with paper. Summarize what they said to ensure understanding. Ask thoughtful contextual follow up questions.
  • Learn your client’s jargon. Every organization has their own tone of voice, and a big part of that is the language and parlance they use. Become a student of it. Use the words they use, even if you use a different word in other settings. Consider keeping a glossary of terms as part of your project documentation that you add to over time to ensure everyone is talking about the same things.
  • Do your homework. Before you walk into a business development meeting, know something about their company. Read recent news. Read their annual reports if relevant. Read their team bios if they have them. If they are active on social media, see what they write about. Once they become a client, create a Google alert to be notified when they’re in the news.
  • Be vulnerable first. The best way to create intimacy is to model it. By volunteering something you might be struggling with yourself, you are more likely to get the client to open up as well. Be careful about how you do this though, as some struggles might undermine your credibility or create a perception of risk in the engagement. And generally keep it professional - if you talk about your divorce your client might worry about your level of engagement.
  • Ask them about their career ambitions. During coffee or a client dinner, ask them what they’re hoping to accomplish over the next 10 years. In a way, your job is to help them land their next promotion or move their careers forward. By knowing what those ambitions are you’re more likely to be able to help them along the way.

Trust Takes Time

While you can’t microwave trust, you can speed it up through the clear articulation of your firm’s Point of View (and its relevance to your clients), and through the consistent application of an Authority Marketing program.

But ultimately trust is earned in delivery. In all the little things you do and don’t do to build intimacy, demonstrate competence and reliability, and prioritize your client’s success.