by Andrew Sobel, author of “It Starts With Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue“
You’re great at what you do. And people clearly value your expertise and domain knowledge. That’s as it should be: Knowing your stuff is your ticket to entry in a competitive business market. But if you want to build lasting client relationships, don’t get too hung up on your “expert” status. Clients don’t want experts who talk at them all day. They want trusted advisors.
Experts focus on the transaction. Advisors take a broader outlook, giving clients an expansive outlook on their problems and the potential solutions, and emphasizing the long-term relationship — even when there are no fees coming in.
Here are a few reasons the “expert” mindset often fails.
It’s “me” focused. An expert mindset focuses on your experience instead of your clients. You may run the risk of overwhelming clients with breathless serenades about your products, services, methodologies, and the details of your résumé.
It causes tunnel vision. In 1980, when the old AT&T commissioned a top consulting firm to estimate the market for cell phones in the year 2000, they forecast that there would be only 900,000 cell phones. The “experts” were off by 108 million because they lacked the imagination to see the potential for mobile phones…and AT&T missed a huge opportunity to get an early start in the market.
It vastly narrows your scope. Harry Truman once quipped, “An expert is a fellow who’s afraid to learn anything new, because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore.”
As an expert, you may enthusiastically pitch your solutions, whereas with the advisor mindset, you ask thought-provoking questions and listen deeply. As an expert, you accept the client’s definition of their challenge. As an advisor, you reframe the challenge in order to define the total problem and the total solution. The result is greater impact and more value.
You can make the shift from expert to advisor. Here are a few behaviors to embrace as you seek to become a trusted advisor:
Prepare smartly for prospect meetings.
Don’t spend hours and hours researching the company. Much of that will be a waste of time. Likewise, don’t spend most of your preparation time rehearsing your “message.” You’ll get too fixated on it and build in rigidity. Skim background material looking specifically for two things: facts about the company that stimulate an idea or “hook” you might use to engage the client, and things you want to ask questions about. Focus as much on the individual as the company: What is the background and career history of the person you’re meeting with? What can you learn about their personal style? The more you understand about them, the faster you will be able to build rapport when you meet.
Find commonalities and similarities.
Engage with clients around common interests and experiences, mutual acquaintances, life’s concerns and challenges, family, and so on. Search for what you have in common, not how you are different. This accelerates likability and trust.
Be curious about your client as a person.
Curiosity drives a thirst to learn about knowledge and other people. It motivates you to ask thoughtful questions, empathize, and build a rapport with your client. You might ask questions like, So what do you think about… (a current event, trend, some breaking news, etc.)? How would you compare the culture here with the culture at your old employer? What has been the most important leadership development experience in your career so far? What are you working on that you’re most excited about?
Set the agenda: Why are you there?
This is a crucial part of establishing a collaborative peer relationship with the other person. It demonstrates confidence. For example, you might say, “I understand we’ve got one hour scheduled for this discussion — is that right? (pause) I wanted to share with you my approach to building clients for life and describe a couple examples of how I’ve helped other firms improve both their new client acquisition and their ability to grow and retain existing relationships. Then I’d love to hear about your efforts to grow your client base and what your most important priorities are right now. Is there anything that you’d like to make sure we cover?”
Walk in confidently as a peer (without being arrogant).
Treat your client like a colleague or friend, not as a superior. Be polite and courteous, but not deferential or fawning. The first sale is always yourself. If you don’t believe you have something valuable to share with others, they won’t believe it either. If it’s a new prospective client, you might even say up front, ‘I’m sure that at the end of our discussion, we’ll both know if it makes sense to continue the dialogue…’
“Show” by using engaging client examples.
These should be very brief and conversational. Don’t tell your prospect all the details. Instead, focus on three things: the original problem the client wanted to solve; the approach you took (which ideally illustrates the uniqueness of your solution); and the results or impact. Hint: Make sure you have permission to give the name of the company and the executive you worked with. This adds heft and believability to the example. If you don’t have permission, then disguise the example.
Have a conversation and use a whiteboard or flipchart if appropriate.
Don’t rely on a slide deck or brochure to make yourself credible. If you have frameworks or diagrams you want to show, draw them on a flipchart or whiteboard. It’s called “pencil selling” and it’s far more engaging than projecting a slide. Use slides only as a leave-behind.
Ask credibility-building questions.
These are questions that inherently demonstrate your knowledge and experience. You make a statement and then flip it into a question. For example: “It sounds like gaining more collaboration to serve your clients across organizational silos is an issue for you. In looking at my other clients, the three most common barriers to collaboration I see are… (then list them). But I’m curious, in your organization what particular obstacles are getting in the way?”
Ask implication questions.
This is a powerful way to better understand your client’s agenda. I recently met with a prospective client whose new strategy was quite public. My opening questions with the CLO were, ‘I’m familiar with your new strategy aimed at repositioning your firm in the large corporate segment. How is this impacting your priorities in learning and development? What new capabilities and skills do your people need to develop to facilitate this shift?’ Similarly, you could ask implication questions about external trends or competitive changes.
Ask about their aspirations and the gap between the present and future state.
This simple paradigm can help you understand the scope and gravity of virtually any issue. It goes like this:
1. What are your aspirations and goals for X? (X=the business or area of discussion) What do you want your business/this area to look like in two to three years?
2. What is the gap between the capabilities you have today and the ones you need to support your aspirations? (What is getting in your way?)
3. What capabilities do you need now build to bridge this gap?
Share what’s working for others.
Come to meetings ready to share a few successful practices that other companies in the same industry are using. This is a great way to give added value and build your credibility with skeptical clients.
Summarize your conversation and discuss next steps.
During meetings, take five or ten minutes to summarize the discussion and then proactively suggest a next step. This could be another conversation to go deeper, or something else, like meeting other executives in the organization. I recommend offering something of value to encourage further dialogue. For example: “Would it be helpful if I put together a one-page outline of how I would approach this challenge? Then we could meet again next week to discuss it.”
Evoke their curiosity.
This is your secret weapon. You can do this by mentioning new information and insights that you can subsequently share during your next meeting. You might suggest another client you’d like them to meet, or perhaps offer to interview other members of their team to in turn present a point of view on their challenge.
If you don’t make the shift from expert to advisor, you’ll be a tradable commodity who is one of many solid “experts” or product salespeople clients can choose from. This will keep you thinking small, being reactive, and settling for a diet of what I call “little mice.”
A lioness cannot live on mice alone — she simply can’t catch enough of them each day to survive. Being an advisor allows you to make big catches: those longstanding, mutually prosperous client relationships that can keep you fed for years to come.
Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships, and recently published “Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships“. His first book, the bestselling “Clients for Life“, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to “Power Relationships“, his other books include “Power Questions“, “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships“.