Six crucial lessons to become and remain a trusted advisor
In a recent phone call, I told the CEO of my insurance brokerage that, after being a loyal customer for 15 years, I had moved my entire business to other providers. Given our longstanding relationship, I felt I owed him an explanation; not because I wanted to see someone fired, but because I wanted him to know my reasons for leaving so that he could put the lessons learned into practice.
It started about seven years ago when the person assigned to my business insurance seemed to lose interest in me. He was not aware of my renewals, had me do work that he could have done for me, and did not offer my insurance competitively. I transferred all my business insurance to another agency. A similar problem occurred last year with my personal insurance; I just didn’t feel like it was important to my agent. The last nail in the coffin came when my bank notified me that my home insurance had expired two months earlier without any notification from my insurance agent. I then contacted another agency, who quickly assigned me coverage at 10pm on a Saturday night.
While the CEO of the original brokerage was not happy that I moved my insurance business elsewhere, he was grateful that I took the time to give him feedback in a calm and constructive way. We ended the call on a very cordial note, and I’m sure if we ever met in a coffee shop, we would shake hands and exchange greetings.
I open with this story because for years I considered him and the agents of his company as trusted advisers. I openly shared my personal and business goals with them and believed that they advised with my best interests in mind. But after a while I realized that I didn’t feel important to them, and my personal and professional interests were no longer their main concern. The people who were once my trusted advisers now had exactly nothing to do with me.
So what is a trusted advisor? In my four decades in business, I have narrowed it down to six crucial principles:
- Listen carefully and then act thoughtfully – A trusted advisor takes the time to listen to the client, understand their perspective, and ask clarifying questions before drawing conclusions or providing advice.
- Never break confidences – A trusted advisor must provide an environment in which the client knows that confidential information will not be discussed with others. Relationships can be irreparably damaged with a single trust breach.
- Advise what you know, admit what you don’t know – A trusted advisor is confident in their abilities and skill sets, and freely admits when something is outside their area of expertise.
- Always keep commitments – A trusted advisor always fulfills the commitments when and as the client expects it.
- He is brave, respectfully sincere – A trusted advisor does not need to tell the client what they want to hear; But you must boldly and respectfully tell the customer what they need to hear. The trusted advisor’s job is to speak your mind; the customer’s job is to decide what to do with it.
- Take the initiative with the client – A trusted advisor ensures that customer time is useful and productive, and that resulting actions are tracked.
Being a trusted advisor is not something that clients (regardless of whether they are internal or external to your organization) automatically bestow; it takes a track record of demonstrating these six principles through actions that elevate someone to trusted advisor status. Below are six crucial lessons I’ve learned about what it takes to become and continue as a trusted advisor:
- The last impression is as important as the first: Of course, leaving a positive first impression is critical to becoming a trusted advisor. However, every impression made thereafter is equally important. A great trusted advisor is consistent in the impressions he makes with a client. Whether it’s the first, second, or 100th impression, the trusted advisor is consistent in their level of performance and the customer comes to expect great service.
- Treat the customer as if they were your most important customer – If you accept someone as a customer, it is your job to make them feel important. The client doesn’t care about the other clients they serve and how much or little business they represent. Your job is to provide the agreed upon services while letting the client know about your business matters to you.
- Focus on issues first, then sales – When I meet a new client, I ask them to think about the three most important problems that keep them awake at night. During our meeting, I am very frank about the issues that I think I can help with and those outside my wheelhouse. My ability to focus on client issues and then determine if and how I can best help establishes my foundation as a trusted advisor and secures consulting commitments.
- Align your urgency with the customer’s urgency – In my opening story, my new insurance advisor understood the urgency of quickly linking my homeowners insurance. He aligned his urgency with mine and finished the job. Now I am a delusional fanatic.
- Track 100 percent of the time – This one is really easy; If you say you’re going to do something on a specific date, for Pete’s sake, do it. If there is a good reason why you cannot meet a commitment by an agreed upon date, please notify them as soon as possible. Letting a due date come and go without any notification not only erodes your credibility, but could also affect subsequent activities that depend on your delivery.
- Do not hammer the screws – You may have heard the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Your job as a trusted advisor is to know what you are good at and what you are not good at, and then focus on solving the problems you are best qualified for. Overselling your expertise to perform a job you are not qualified for is similar to trying to hammer screws. You have the wrong tools for the job and you can create problems for both you and the customer when you are not equipped to solve the customer’s problem.
Becoming a trusted advisor is something that is earned through behaviors and actions and can be quickly eliminated if taken for granted. Consider these lessons to help you not only earn Trusted Advisor status, but maintain it as well.