Whether you are a consultant, a sales person, a project manager or a manager, there will be times when it is both commercially useful and personally rewarding to develop a ‘Trusted Advisor’ relationship with somebody.
If you have been fortunate enough to have had a trusted advisor yourself of course, you will know the benefits you have gained for the relationship – but turning this around, what are the tangible benefits in you becoming a Trusted Advisor to your clients or other contacts? And what do you need to do to reap these benefits?
In our Advanced Business Development programmes, we are often asked by clients to help them build more effective, long term relationships with their key customers and have developed an approach to this which is inspired by the work of David Maister, particular in his aptly-named book ‘The Trusted Advisor’ which is worth a read if you want more detail on this subject. This article briefly summarises our approach and Maister’s research.
What are the real benefits of ‘Trusted Advisorship’ ?
Given that it takes a significant time investment to develop these types of relationships, we always ask this question – often in the format “The more clients trust you, the more they will….?”
The answers that come back are fairly consistent and often include:
|Reach for your advice||Share more information that helps you to help them|
|Be inclined to accept and act on your recommendations||Trust your instincts and judgements|
|Bring you in on more advanced, complex, issues||Give you the benefit of the doubt and forgive you when you make a mistake|
|Pay your bills without question||Involve you early on when issues begin to form|
|Refer you to their friends and business acquaintances||Warn you of dangers you might avoid..|
All valuable, tangible stuff of course – so how do you develop these relationships?
The Trust Equation
Trust is one of those words we use casually, as if everyone knows what it means. In fact, we often use it to say many different things. What one says is not always what the other hears. The transition from “old” to “new” economy makes this particularly clear.
For example, the phrase “trust takes time” used to be self-evident. It was about relationships, coming to understand others, becoming acquainted. Accountants sometimes joke, “It takes 7 years to become a trusted advisor”-seven years being the statutory limit imposed by the SEC on any one person maintaining the primary client relationship….
In truth, however, it never took time, it took repeated experiences, and the acquisition of repeated experiences took time-lunches, meetings and the like. Nowadays, experiences can accumulate rapidly-and therefore so can trust.
Trust itself is a dual relationship-one party is trustworthy, the other trusts. Most of us talk as if trust is a simply understood relationship, but it is rich and complex. In Maister’s research, trust has four components, which can be arrayed in the form of the Trust Equation:
- C= Credibility – our expertise and experience – developed by the words we speak and how we say things – are they believable?
- R= Reliability – whether we regularly do what we say we will do – developed by the actions we take-are they dependable?
- I = Intimacy – do we provide a safe environment for difficult, sensitive issues to be discussed – are they discrete?
- S = Self- Orientation – our underlying motive – this has to do with attention- are they really interested in me or just their own business?
Credibility and Reliability are the two rational parts of the trust equation. They are also the areas in which most people spend most of their time trying to convince clients of their trustworthiness. These factors include credentials, predictability, dependability and familiarity. Professionals often rely solely on these two factors, thus missing all the non-rational levels that go into creating trust.
The Intimacy factor essentially has to do with a sense that the professional understands how the other feels, and knows how to deal with that knowledge. Empathy and discretion are the hallmarks of intimacy. From our experience, people often score themselves low on intimacy – it’s more difficult to build and requires good rapport building skills, being prepared to ask difficult questions and go beyond the pure organisational issues to more personal factors – “How will these changes affect you personally?” “What do you see as your next career move?” are typical questions that allow your customer to see you as being more than just an efficient professional
Self-orientation is below the dividing line, which means both that it reduces trust, and that it is probably more powerful than the other three factors. A high level of self- orientation on the part of an advisor means that his primary focus is himself; such an advisor cannot be counted on to operate in our best interests, or even to know what they are. The key question here is about motive and with a high (bad!) self-orientation score, a client may be wondering “they seem professional and prepared to go the extra mile, but are they really interested in us or just going through the motions?”
The most obvious form of self-orientation is selfishness; but it is hardly the only, or even the most common. Frequently professionals have only the best motives, and are unselfish-but they are also self-conscious and self-absorbed. They worry about their credentials, about how they are being perceived, about how smart or amusing they seem, and about whether they’ll get the job. To that extent, they are not focused on the client in front of them-and to that extent they won’t be trusted.
Think about how you evaluate a paediatrician for your child; most likely you put a great deal of weight on how he or she relates to both your child and to your concerns – and whether they are totally 100% focused on you – not how clever they themselves are or how great the hospital is…. The same is true of all clients.
Intimacy and self-orientation work almost entirely in the non-rational realm. This makes them uncomfortable for many professionals and therefore a real chance for you to stand out if you develop these capabilities…
Personal v Organisational Trust
We talk occasionally about organisational trust. In fact trust is found largely in the individual and interpersonal arena, not really in organisations.
The term “organisational trust” usually refers to the “R” component in the trust equation-reliability. When we speak of organisations we can trust, we usually mean they are clear and unambiguous, they are dependable, they have rules and procedures, which are transparent, they behave consistently over time, and they are accessible.
For the most part, we don’t talk about organisations as being “credible”-we talk about people as being credible. And while this is largely true for credibility, it is almost entirely true for intimacy and self-orientation. Corporations almost by definition are incapable of either – so it’s down to you!
Trust and Risk
Trust without risk is an oxymoron. “Trust” without risk-taking is not-it is either blind faith or a calculable bet. To trust requires that we have some knowledge of our situation and its risks-and that we are willing to make ourselves to some extent vulnerable and dependent on the not-guaranteed goodwill of another.
Trust thus begins with risk. A defining characteristic of trusted advisors is that they take personal risks early on, thus creating trust. A classic example is pricing. It feels “risky” to mention the potential price of a prospective project too early-the professional fears it will be seen as crass, or might scare off the client before the client has had a chance to hear the benefits side of the value equation.
But if price is not mentioned early on, it can become more difficult to mention later; to the point of being extremely uncomfortable and very embarrassing if it turns out that the parties harboured very different expectations all along. The trusted advisor learns that it is far better to take a small personal risk-that of being rejected early on-for the sake of reducing a much larger, and joint, business risk later on.
Thus a management consultant might say, for example, “Listen, I once embarrassed myself and a client by not mentioning price early enough. I don’t want to put either of us in a difficult situation-I’m thinking right now that this feels like a low six-digit number price. Were you thinking of an order of magnitude different, either higher or lower? I just want to make sure we understand each other.” Does it feel risky? Yes; but nowhere near as risky as having to quote a specific figure later after a series of discussions with no mention of price.
Trust, Risk and Fear
Arguably the root negative human emotion is fear. Below the surface of anger, jealousy and other negative emotions lies the fear of losing what we have, or of not getting what we want. A natural response to fear is to limit risk-taking-which in turn limits the opportunity for trust.
So overcoming fear turns out to be critical for the trusted advisor.
Fear in professional services takes several specific forms:
- Fear of not having the answer
- Fear of appearing stupid
- Fear of not knowing where to start
- Fear of being inaccurate
The natural responses to these fears include retreating or attacking, covering up our self- perceived ignorance, refusing to engage in certain discussions or to take what feel like risky steps into the unknown-particularly the emotional unknown. We reduce risk out of fear. Unfortunately, that reduces trust.
If a consultant or salesperson is afraid of not having the answer, he may dodge the question, or answer in a vague or blustery manner, or may simply say he’d prefer to get back to the client later with a more complete answer. All of these are risk-avoiding responses to the fear of not having the answer. The problem is, they avoid temporary “losses” at the price of creating longer-term honesty and trust. The potential for larger losses thus piles up.
This pattern of fear-based responses to risk is typical among lawyers, accountants and consultants-and not surprisingly so. All their professional lives they have been taught that the way to success is hard work focused on the rational mastery of their chosen technical field. When faced with a difficult client situation, it is a rare lawyer that doesn’t use the blunt force of his or her expertise and credentials to reassert his or her dominance of the situation. It takes personal courage to face fears head-on; yet that is the basis for trust. Is the HR/client relationship really any different?
Five Mistakes – How NOT to Be a Trusted Advisor…
Over-emphasise the Technical
This is the single most common mistake made by service professionals. You choose your child’s paediatrician at least as much by how they relate to you and your child as you do on where they got their degree; your clients do exactly the same with you. It’s not about your credentials. People want holes, not shovels. And managers want results, not techniques for getting them. Talk results, not expertise.
Speed through the listening process.
It is not enough to get the data. You also have to get the context. And the client must know you got it. And not just the rational data, the emotional data too. All of it. You may feel stupid paraphrasing, using open questions and waiting out pregnant pauses; that’s OK. The client will tell you when you’ve got it; don’t presume it until they say so.
Jump quickly to action.
Consultants are self-driven by the need to show results. Often clients are co-conspirators in this; they say “You’re the expert, you’ve got the data now, you’ve seen this before, what should we do?” This is a fear-based question on the part of the client, but it takes a lot of courage on the part of the consultant to say, “You know, right now I can think of four possible approaches, and I really don’t know which is right, and probably won’t know until we continue talking about this, so let’s do, and together we’ll begin to rule them out.”
Focus on answers.
It is not about answers, it’s about questions. Specifically about redefining the question. If clients were certain they had the right question, they could get the right answer from a database. What they want is not just an answer, but confidence that they have asked the right question.
Focus on me, not we.
Do you ever find yourself thinking ‘how can I control this meeting?’ or ‘I can’t handle any more scope creep on this’ or ‘They’re not confident of me I need to show them I know my stuff’ or ‘I’ll set the agenda.’ Then you’re acting in what you think is your best interest, not the best interest of you and your client together. Which really means it’s not your best interest either. Always share agendas with your client; learn to say you don’t know when you don’t know; and learn to say out loud what you’re thinking.
This article was developed by Greenbank, from our own work together with that of Charles Green and David Maister