How to become a trusted adviser

The landscape for professional services provision has changed – and the pace of change is so dramatic it threatens to leave some service providers behind


David Maister’s seminal book The Trusted Adviser defined how, back in 2000, clients gave their trusted advisers a trust score, based on four key criteria: credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-interest.

The idea was to keep your score as high as possible above the line and as low as possible below the line.

Traditionally, firms have thrown all their energy into the first two elements. It has always been about their unrivalled technical expertise; their superb client list; their ability to guarantee seamless delivery, hitting deadlines and solving problems.

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But that just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Technical excellence and an ability to deliver are assumed. Credibility and reliability might get you in the door. But they won’t get you up the stairs to the boardroom. From the client’s perception, they’re just the starting point – “of course you’re an expert…”

Globalisation, commoditisation and market disruptors mean that in 2016 clients will be looking far beyond your track record to decide if you are the firm for them. In the same way advertising executives no longer sell things based on their features or benefits, clients will be asking you – “so what?”

To become a trusted adviser in 2016, you’ll need to take your assumed technical expertise, add it to your deep knowledge of the client’s inner-most world and then give them some relevant advice to achieve a critical commercial outcome

The “so what?” question is the 21st-century’s answer to the customer relationship management revolution of the 1990s. And as those same clients have become more sophisticated in their needs and demands, their expectations of their trusted advisers have gone through the roof.

By asking you “so what?”, clients want very quickly to understand how well you know them – their business, their ambitions, their values, their pain points and their drivers. Even if you can show them you do understand all of those things, they then want to know, specifically, how you’re going to apply that knowledge to help them live happily ever after. Intimacy, in Maisterian terms, has becomes an intrinsic ingredient in that elixir of the promised land – commerciality.

To become a trusted adviser in 2016, you’ll need to take your assumed technical expertise, add it to your deep knowledge of the client’s inner-most world and then give them some relevant advice that not only enables them to achieve a critical commercial outcome, but helps them to feel good along the journey.

And when we understand the trusted adviser’s challenge in these terms, it becomes clear collaboration is not just a “nice to have”, warm and cuddly word, maybe as part of your list of values that sits on a new shiny website. Collaboration suddenly becomes a central facet of commerciality. To differentiate yourself, win new high-value business and keep your key clients, collaboration has to be lived day to day in every conversation your people are having with clients old and new.

The other upside of being able to develop a workforce that has deep intimacy with clients, delivering commercial advice and collaborating every time they fire off another e-mail, is that it will also keep your score below the line low. Very low indeed.

And if you can do that, then you now have a more commercially viable way of keeping your self-interest score down than just dropping your fees every time a client says jump.

Now here comes the really interesting bit. Because it turns out, all those things that you need to do, to keep key clients and attract new high-value work, are exactly the same things you need to do to keep your high performers and attract the best-quality talent.

Whisper it quietly, but your people think exactly like your clients.

And bearing in mind that Generation Y are behaving even more like clients than we’ve ever seen before, if you’re going to have any chance of staying afloat in one of the most fluid job markets of the last three decades, you need to start getting pretty intimate with those Gen Yers’ drivers and values too. The same collaborative approach needs to be applied to them. When it comes to retaining and attracting the very best talent, developing a long-term commercial relationship with them is down to whether you can map out a mutually desirable win-win future together.

You can’t just get a carrot or a stick out anymore. Those donkeys have evolved into Arabian thoroughbreds. And the courses they can choose to run are high in number and varied.

But let’s take a step back and ask ourselves that very same “so what?” question. What does all this mean in practice?

Well, what the market-leading firms are doing is threefold.

Firstly, they are training their people to develop their external “how” skills. In the old days, these were dismissed as soft skills. But times have changed. What the innovative firms have realised is that all that investment in the “what” skills – the technical skills needed for those high credibility and reliability scores – is wasted if their people can’t put the “what” into practice in a way that is relevant to their clients. Without those “how” skills, which as it turns out are anything but soft, building that intimacy score and keeping self-interest low becomes impossible. While their people look commercial, they can’t behave commercially.

Secondly, they are training their people to develop their internal “how” skills. So instead of lots of convoluted models and complex theory about what leadership, people management and project management should look like, they’re focusing on teaching their people how to actually live it. Day to day. Conversation by conversation.

And, thirdly, what these same innovators have all realised is that when we talk about how our firm can stand out from the crowd and attract the very best clients and high-performing talent, we’re actually talking about a series of outcome-focused conversations. We’re talking about an alignment of the “what” and the “how”. It’s an alignment of credibility, reliability and intimacy – all with a single goal to develop long-term, profitable, win-win relationships with our clients and with our people.

To do this we need to develop a joined-up, integrated communication strategy that starts with our long-term commercial goals and feeds all the way down to the way our receptionists answer the telephone. An outcome-based approach to communication which marries the “what” and the “how”, elevating our firm high above the crowd.

The landscape for professional services provision has changed. And with this change comes huge opportunity for those firms that can build trusted relationships which keep them ahead of the curve.

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For more information on how leading firms are developing an outcome-based communication strategy to achieve their commercial goals and training their people to win high-value business and retain their top performers, please visit www.pcalaw.com