I headed home from work the other day and decided to walk as it was an unusually warm day here in Chicago. I was keeping pace behind a man and woman who appeared to be professional services consultants like me and my colleagues at Hillard Heintze. The man was describing his frustration that a client had unexpectedly canceled an order and he could not understand why as he considered himself a trusted advisor to this long-term client. The woman asked her coworker when was the last time he had spoken to the now former client. The man replied that he had not spoken to the client in several months and was now unable to get in touch with the client after the email which ended the relationship.

Dictionary Definition

This conversation got me thinking about the definition of a trusted advisor. I recalled “The Godfather” movies I watched with my Dad when I was younger and remembered the deference given to Tom Hagen, the adopted son who became the consigliere and trusted advisor to the Corleone Mafia Family.

Combining the dictionary definition of “trusted” and “advisor,” you get “one who gives advice with integrity, ability and character.”

If you google “trusted advisor,” you get over 333,330 results instantly. While I did not do a deep dive into every hit, what was apparent is that a vast majority provided something whether it was a product or service. Most of the commentary shared reflected on the various stages that a client passes through to be considered a “trusted advisor” from the client’s or industry’s perspective. At the end of the day, it appeared the key metric was how much money was spent.

Not Just Checking the Box

The business world definition appears to be measured by revenue so as the client passes through a threshold, the provider checks a box and declares, “We are their trusted advisor.” Certainly that cannot be the bar; there has to be more rigor to being a trusted advisor. I believe there is – and it has nothing to do with finances.  If you ask your highest spending client if you are their trusted advisor, they will not say, “Oh yes, because after salaries and rent, you are our biggest expense and that is how we measure our trusted advisor.”

The first step in defining a trusted advisor is to realize that this role should not be defined by the provider of a product or solution, but rather by the client. This might be a hard concept to wrap your mind around especially when you consider how products and services are sold today. Nine times out of ten in pre-sales marketing, collateral, meetings and proposals, the provider is pitching how they are the trusted advisor in the industry. But really, are they? By whose definition? How is this truly measured?

The second step is so simple that it is easily overlooked – ask the client. Now I would not suggest that this is something to do in the “get to know you” stage as they have not even decided that you have a solution to their problem. That would be like asking someone to marry you on the first date. But as the relationship progresses and you help solve the initial problem that brought you together, this is a great time to explore how you might bring greater value to the client.

Becoming the Trusted Advisor

In my experience, after you have worked together and your contact starts introducing you to his or her colleagues, direct reports or bosses, this is a good indication that the relationship has moved beyond simple vendor. If your contact is championing you and your company with other members of his team and they are engaging you in conversations that are beyond the boundaries of the first project, then you are ready to explore whether the client considers you a trusted advisor.

Some clients may never have thought of having a trusted advisor. Make sure you’re in a solid position before asking the key questions:

  • Are you looking for a trusted advisor?” If so, what does that look like to your company?
  • What are the characteristics you’re looking for in a trusted advisor?
  • How do you measure your trusted advisor’s value?
  • What are your expectations of a trusted advisor?

4 Questions to Ask Your Own Team

Trust is difficult to earn, especially when the things a company values most are on the line. Asking your team these questions before entering into a trusted advisor position with a client will ensure that both parties have a more successful relationship:

  1. Can we be the trusted advisor to this client?  
  2. How are we uniquely qualified to meet their needs? 
  3. What impact would being a trusted advisor have on our client’s business and what would the impact be to our business?  
  4. Do we have the culture, people and processes in place to rise to this level and meet these needs?

Trusted advisor is a term that many providers measure and state with confidence based on their own metrics. But only a client knows if they view you as a trusted advisor and will champion you within their company. It is the client’s opinion that matters and you will only know if you ask the questions rather than define it yourself based on revenue. Avoid assumptions – ask the questions and you’ll be less shocked the next time you open a disappointing email from a top spending client ending your relationship.

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