Does Being a Trusted Advisor Mean That You Don’t Sell?

I used to really like the term “trusted advisor.” It used to seem like a nice term to capture some of the behaviors and attributes of the best salespeople. As of late, I cringe when I hear the words because they are too often used along with the idea of not actually behaving like a salesperson.

What Trusted Advisor Means

The words “trusted advisor” mean that you have business acumen. It means that you have the experience, the training, the knowledge, and the subject matter expertise to be trusted to advise your clients well.

It also indicates a certain set of behaviors.

Being a trusted advisor indicates that you are disciplined and professional.

Being a trusted advisor means that you have the ability to diagnose your client’s business problems and challenges and then to make the right recommendations to improve their situation.

Being a trusted advisor means that you negotiate win-win deals, creating more value for all parties than might otherwise have been agreed to.

A trusted advisor is a change agent, building the case for change and managing the politics of change within their organization and their clients.

Being a trusted advisor means that you act to ensure your client achieves the outcomes that you have represented; it means that you manage the outcomes for your clients.

These behaviors, attributes and ideals are what make up a trusted advisor.

What Trusted Advisor Doesn’t Mean

Being a trusted advisor doesn’t mean that you never prospect. In fact, it is the knowledge, the training, the experience, and the subject matter expertise required of the trusted advisor that equips them to successfully prospect; they have ideas worth listening to.

Being a trusted advisor doesn’t mean that you never cold call. Again, quite the opposite is true. Trusted advisors are secure enough in the value that they create to open relationships with prospects.

Most importantly, being a trusted advisor doesn’t mean that you don’t sell or that you don’t ask for and obtain commitments.

The Myth of Impartiality

Now to tackle the big one: the myth of impartiality. Trusted advisors are in no way impartial. Before you vehemently disagree, let me make my case.

If what you sell is not going to create something of value for the client, and you are not going to be able to help them achieve the outcome that they need, you are duty bound to walk away from that deal. If you know that you are not right and that your competitor is right for them, you may certainly build trust by making the recommendation that they choose someone else.

But let’s look at another situation. You are a trusted advisor with a great solution that will more than achieve your client’s desired outcome. Your competitor is also a trusted advisor with a great solution (albeit different in some ways from yours) that will also more than achieve your client’s desired outcome.

Are you still impartial? (I’m not . . . I am damn partial and as biased as I can be!)

Being a trusted advisor is not built on being impartial. This impartiality idea is really about not selling outcomes that you cannot achieve for your clients and instead walking away.

Being a trusted advisor isn’t built on the idea that you are not selling something and that you should never behave like a professional salesperson.

A Trusted Advisor is a Salesperson, but a Salesperson May Not Be a Trusted Advisor

The idea of being a trusted advisor isn’t something separate from being a salesperson. It is a set of behaviors and attributes that great salespeople possess. A trusted advisor is, in fact, a salesperson.

The opposite isn’t necessarily true. You may possess the title of salesperson and still not be a trusted advisor. Being a salesperson (a successful one, anyway) requires that you build the skills, the knowledge, the experience, and business acumen to be a trusted advisor.

Know that being a trusted advisor does not absolve you of your responsibility to sell—or to behave like a salesperson!

Conclusion

The term “trusted advisor” used to mean that the salesperson had the business acumen to help their clients achieve better outcomes. It has now come to mean something less; namely, the false idea that trusted advisors don’t sell.

Questions

1. What does the term “trusted advisor” mean to you?

2. What behaviors do your clients believe are required from a trusted advisor?

3. What sales behaviors does a trusted advisor need to take?

4. Are you partial enough when you need to be?

5. Who do you need to be to be comfortable being both a trusted advisor and a salesperson?

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Comments

comments

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  • http://www.outsidetechnologies.com Andrew Rudin

    Hi Tony: great points here. I think ‘trusted advisor’ means different things to different people. It’s fiendishly hard to define, but being a trusted advisor to a client seems to boil down to one essential component: I give priority to my client’s best interests.

    If you buy into that idea, being a trusted advisor is elusive at best for salespeople. How does that objective square with achieving quota, and receiving commissions? For me, it’s a truly fine line, and there are situations in which veteran salespeople with high integrity view the same situation quite differently when it comes to acting in the client’s best interest.

    So, one question could be “when you’re receiving commissions, is striving for ‘trusted advisor’ achievable?” I don’t have the answer, but I shared some ideas on the topic in an article I wrote, “Hold the Trust, a Trusted Advisor Who Earns a Sales Commission is Just an Advisor.”

    http://www.customerthink.com/blog/hold_the_trust_a_trusted_advisor_who_earns_a_sales_commission_is_just_an_advisor

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      I will read your full blog post later tonight, and I may want to revise this response.

      As I see it the goals of serving clients and earning commissions are not at all incompatible. If you create value for others, there is nothing wrong with capturing some part of the value that you create. Despite free market capitalism falling out of favor (at least in the press), there is nothing inherently wrong from profiting from the value you create. In fact, many of us salespeople (and trusted advisors) spend our time trying to help our clients achieve greater profitability!

      If you sell an outcome you cannot help the client achieve in order to make a commission, then you are neither a trusted advisor or a good salesperson. It is certain that you will lose your commission, risk your reputation, and risk your company’s reputation for having done so. Are some willing to do so? Absolutely.

      Reaching quota is about having enough activity in the pipeline so as not to need any one deal to make quota.

      A

  • http://salesandmanagementblog.com Paul McCord

    Anthony,

    Like you I once was enamored with the “Trusted Advisor” term. And though I agree with your assessment of the new meaning of the term, I cringe when I hear it for a bit of a different reason as I believe that using the term is presumptuous. It isn’t the salesperson’s place to declare themselves to be a trusted advisor, it is instead recognition of value to be awarded by the client because the salesperson has proven themselves to be such. My previous enchantment with the term has turned to disappointment with anyone who has the temerity to award themselves a title that they have no business claiming.

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comments, Paul.

      I take your point that a trusted advisor needs to be what the client believes we are, not a moniker we give ourselves. But, I do think the attributes are worth striving for!

      As for titles, I still proudly call myself a salesperson!

      A

  • http://www.reallifeselling.com Mark Goodson

    Got to agree with you Anthony. I don’t see any contradiction between being a trusted advisor and being a sales person… we all have to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with “Mr Customer, I’m here to see if there’s any problems I can help you with. If I can help you that’s great… if I can help you and also make a $ in the process we’re both happy.”
    You may be interested in a post that I did last year on job titles http://www.reallifeselling.com/sales-culture/whats-in-a-title/

  • http://www.findnewcustomers.net Jeff Ogden

    Good post, but Trusted Advisor is something you demonstrate, not something you say.

    It take a mature, self-confident person to be a trusted advisor, but one still must find and solve problems — and book revenue.

    Jeff Ogden, President
    Find New Customers “Lead Generation Made Simple”
    http://www.findnewcustomers.net

  • http://ultimatesalesexecresource.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-c-level-makes-or-breaks-sales.html Christian Maurer

    I agree with Paul McCord, it is the client who decides whether a salesperson merits to be called a Trusted Adviser. The client might though not say so outright. How can a salesperson know anyway whether they have this status. A good indicator is when the client lets the salesperson engage in in buying cycle. Paradoxically, if one is called in for advise on a problem, one has not made it yet. A trusted adviser is never called in, he/she is always there and usually the first one to detect the clients problem. So they are probably fewer salespeople having trusted adviser status than you might believe. It is a big investment to get there. The benefit of the investment is first mover advantage leading to a competitive advantage.

    I therefore struggle a bit with Anthony’s idea that you can be a trusted advisor when cold calling.

    Christian Maurer

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comments, Christian.

      What worries me here is the question of how we get to “always there.” The conflict, it seems to me, is how we open the relationship. I believe that is the obligation of people in sales to open the relationship. To be a trusted advisor do you have to meet your client a conference? Do you have to be referred? What if you have a potential client who you know you can help, but have no relationship, no referral, and the next conference is six months away. Must you wait?

      We fail, especially those of us in senior sales roles, when we mistakenly believe that being a trusted advisor requires that we sit passively waiting to be engaged by a client. Waiting is not a strategy, and it does little to build your awareness of the client’s problems in a meaningful way (not to mention what waiting does to your sales results). Waiting does even less to build trust, which is always built over time. When the client has a need, is it better that they have known you for some time? Is the trust better enabled by your having reached out to them with a sincere interest in serving them? Is it better that they know the quality of your thought and your ideas? Is it better that you have spent time together, and that you have learned enough about their business to offer sound advice?

      How is trust diminished by calling to introduce yourself to the prospective clients you have the greatest ability to help? I don’t believe that it is; in fact, I believe that those with the ability to be trusted advisors possess the greatest ability to bring value to these calls . . . particularly the business acumen.

      I hope that being a trusted advisor doesn’t require passivity or waiting. If it does, then we in sales have an enormous challenge building a salesforce of results-producing trusted advisors who sit passively waiting for clients.

      A

      That’s my take, Christian. But I am certain there is plenty of room for disagreement!

  • http://salesandmanagementblog.com Paul McCord

    I agree, Anthony, that being a trusted advisor doesn’t mean you wait for business to come to you. But, then you don’t start your relationship with the prospect as a trusted advisor. You don’t even start your relationship as an advisor. You start your relationship with a prospect as a potential advisor. Once you’ve earned their business you work diligently to earn their trust and eventully become a trusted advisor. Prior to becoming an advisor to the them you are the one thing many advisors hate to admit–a salesperson looking for a new client.

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      I love your point here, Paul! Thanks for clarifying this point:

      Before you open the relationship, you are something far less than a trusted advisor! What you become is up to you!

      Your final line is where the rub is here. I believe you still must remain a salesperson, but that role is not in conflict with being a trusted advisor. If you can create value for people, what is wrong with trying to do so?

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  • http://www.ryanhanley.com Ryan Hanley

    Anthony,

    This is right on point. This article needs to get more run because I completely agree that people hide behind the Trusted Advisor label.

    No one wants to lay the Hard Press on someone… But you have to do the ask…

    Thanks,

    Ryan H., http://www.ryanhanley.com

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      You couldn’t be more correct, Ryan. You do have to do the ask!

  • http://www.clarityadvantage.com Karen Tunks – Clarity Advantage

    Great insights, Tony – couldn’t be more applicable to the banking industry. In fact, we recently conducted a survey of several thousand business owners in which we ask them for very specific counsel on where and how bankers can position themselves and focus to advise their clients and build trusted advisor relationships.

    The results and implications for bankers are pretty amazing. We’ll be presenting them live during a webinar on April 22:

    http://bit.ly/cR9LSg

    We also have a podcast episode around first steps to building trusted advisor relationships you may be interested in:

    http://bit.ly/dbnwhZ

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