Is It Possible to be a Trusted Advisor and Carry a Quota?

Everyone has been under a great deal of pressure throughout 2020, but some seem to be fraying around their seams. Two weeks ago, a troll hassled me on Twitter, which happens on that particular platform. Today, a troll attacked my friend, Charlie Green, on LinkedIn, of all places.

Charlie wrote a piece on The Biggest Trust Myth of All Time, and the troll went after Charlie, suggesting that one cannot learn to be a trusted advisor, something about which I care deeply enough to defend. As the troll backed off his original thesis, he suggested that one could not be a trusted advisor if they carry a quota, another assertion that is also incorrect. Let’s take these assertions seriatim.

Can You Be Taught to Be a Trusted Advisor?

Let’s begin by looking at what makes one a trusted advisor. First, you need to be trusted. Second, you need to provide solid advice and counsel around a decision. The question here is whether or not one can learn to be a trusted advisor, or if it is something beyond a mere salesperson’s competency and potential to obtain for themselves.

Let’s say that trust is a complex mix of character traits, like being honest, reliable, and credible, without being particularly self-oriented (Charlie’s framework, with my addition being the word “honest”). Is it possible that we could teach salespeople to be honest? Honesty is something the vast majority of salespeople learned as children, with the penalty for failing to be honest costing them much more than they might gain on any deal.

Is it possible that individuals engaged in B2B sales could learn to be reliable, keeping their word, following up and following through, and making sure they keep the commitments that they make while engaged in the sales conversation? There is plenty of evidence that supports the assertion that, should one struggle with reliability, they might be taught some methods for improving their consistency. All but the most stubborn can take good notes and manage a calendar and a task list.

Credibility, however, is a horse of a different color. This attribute is more difficult in consultative selling. Credibility means you know about what you are saying. Developing credibility means working to acquire the business acumen, situational knowledge, and experience that provides you with a deep, contextual understanding that allows you to play sense-maker for your clients. While this feels like a character trait, it is only a character trait when one has done the work to be in a position to offer their advice and counsel.

No matter what I have written here, neither you nor I can decide whether you are a trusted advisor. And neither can Charlie’s LinkedIn troll. You are not likely to ever hear your client call you their trusted advisor, either. You will know that they consider you their trusted advisor when they treat you as such, asking for your advice before making decisions, including decisions outside of your subject matter domain.

Money and Impartiality

It’s the lure of easy money. It’s got a very strong appeal. – “Smuggler’s Blues” by Glenn Frey.

With this challenge effectively answered and dispatched, we can move onto a more interesting, and in some ways, more challenging question about whether you can be a trusted advisor while carrying a quota. Because Charlie’s troll suggested this question after disclosing that he has a staff of past Fortune 10 board members on staff, let’s broaden the question to address whether or not one can be trusted advisor if they receive remuneration for providing the advice.

Imagine that three salespeople are competing for the same prospect’s business. All three are honest, reliable, credible, and completely other-oriented. They have all provided similar views about what the client should do to solve their problem. Each of these three are experts in their fields, all with excellent solutions for the client. Assuming they are all three potential trusted advisors, does making a good decision require that the client hire a third party to decide who should be their partner?

If that third party was paid by the company they were being asked to recommend, would their advice be any more impartial than any of our three potential partners?

Every day, salespeople refuse business because they know their solution isn’t right for the client. The “lure of easy money” is not enough to trade for their reputation and the future relationship.

Intimacy and Intentions

I confess that I intentionally removed one factor from Charlie’s trust equation, saving it for my argument’s crescendo. That factor is intimacy. It means that you know your client, understand what they need, why they need it, and how it will need to work for them. But it means something more than that. In The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need, I described it as “caring,” an idea the first publisher who asked for the book hated because he didn’t believe caring had anything to do with sales (a belief that caused us to part ways in under ten minutes).

In any category of human beings, you are sure to find some that are so self-oriented that they will take advantage of others in pursuit of money. However, most adult human beings are finely tuned to recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of them by the way they project their intentions, whether or not they recognize it themselves. In consultative sales, self-orientation is so detrimental to winning deals, that it has been bred out of those in B2B sales over generations by clients who provided feedback to bad behaviors by buying from their competitor.

Although some still believe selling is something you do to someone, it is—and will continue to be—something you do for and with someone. One of our three salespeople in the hypothetical will win the client’s business, and likely the one the client believes most cares about their outcomes.

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