How To Be A Trusted Advisor Instead of an Undertaker

There are four levels of value you can create for your clients. The first level is the value found in your product, a level that, while being important, lends itself to being commoditized. The second level is the experience of working with you and your company, a level that is mostly table stakes, and better for B2C than B2B. The third level is tangible business results, or the ability to execute what the client believes they need, even though it isn’t really what they need. The fourth level is strategic outcomes, what the client really needs, and it transcends and includes the others. Put another way, people don’t buy drills, they buy holes.

While all the levels are critical, there is a significant difference between Level Three, which you know as solution selling, and Level Four, which you may not be aware of if you haven’t been here for a long time, and if you haven’t read Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away from Your Competition. 

The Reactive Nature of Solutions Selling

For a very long time, we have operated at Level 3. Our clients had problems and challenges, and we would ask them to share those problems with us so that we could design and deliver a solution. The reason we focused so heavily on eliciting the client’s dissatisfaction was so we could understand their problems and challenges, and occasionally their opportunity (but mostly not opportunities). Frequently, the client had a well-formed idea about their problem and equally well-developed opinions about the right solution. Over time, Level 3 value and solution selling became the norm, making it easy to commoditize salespeople and the organizations they represented.

The position of the salesperson in Level Three is reactive. Your prospective client has defined their problem, has a good idea about what they need to eliminate it, and wants to do something to solve the problem. The scenario described here is still true in some situations, even if they occur less frequently. You, as the salesperson, are responding to the client, instead of the client reacting to you. For the client to respond to you, you would have to be proactive in your approach.

The Proactive Nature of Modern Selling

I wrote a post about how I learned to sell differently. You can read it here.

Some salespeople discovered ways to get out of reactive mode and compel change before their clients recognized the need to change. Because of their experience working with their clients and becoming subject matter experts, they started sharing their ideas and insights with their clients, nudging them to change before they needed to change, or imposing them to do so when they began to struggle to produce results.

The difference here may seem subtle, but it’s a big deal. Instead of waiting for the client to decide they were dissatisfied, define their problem, and start looking for help, these proactive salespeople started to share the issues and challenges the client was sure to have in the future—and started building the case for change before their client’s started to suffer the negative consequences of maintaining the status quo. The proactive approach to compelling change instead of waiting to respond to your client is as good a summary as any when it comes to describing the difference between Level 3 and Level 4. It’s also a good description of where we are now in the evolution of sales.

If You Would Occupy the Title of Trusted Advisor

If you would be a trusted advisor, the very nature of the moniker requires that you prevent your clients from harm by offering them competent counsel. Waiting until your client is suffering when you could have done something to help them earlier eliminates any possibility that you are a trusted advisor. Solving the problem after your client after the fact isn’t nearly as helpful as preventing the harm in the first place.

Because I am hyperbolic as a way to be playful, let’s call it being the opposite of the trusted advisor, the undertaker. The undertaker prepares the body for burial. In many ways, the undertaker has an easier job. Your subject doesn’t argue with you about the need to change anymore. You need to act sooner.

Creating Level 4 value by being proactive, initiating change, and leading your clients isn’t easy (even though you can certainly learn to sell this way). The challenge in this approach is that you have clients who are reluctant to change, who fear that doing something different will make things worse, and who can’t agree on whether they need to change or how to change if they do. While this is difficult, it still puts you in front of your client (leading), and it offers you the chance to prevent them from being harmed.

Being Proactive and Taking Initiative

The concept of Level 4 or strategic value suggests that you need to be proactive about helping your clients and prospective clients change before they suffer the consequences for maintaining a status quo that is untenable. The idea here is the natural result of the evolution of sales as it responds to the changing world in which we live. As change comes faster and is infinitely more disruptive, the repercussions of a decision not to change are genuinely grave for many businesses (see taxis, television, book stores, hotels, radio, traditional retail, travel agents, etc.)

If you want to keep pace, it is no longer enough to know your product and solutions. You must now see a future your client cannot yet see, and take initiative to help them before they are harmed. You need trust to be able to have the conversations about change before it is clear to the contacts in your client’s company that change is necessary, but you also need the advice as to what to do about it.

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