Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Written on 02/08/2022
Michael Fleming


1. The Trusted Advisor: Is in it for a long term relationship not short term gain

I recently worked with a global professional services firm who surveyed hundreds of their key clients to ascertain what they thought of the service they were receiving and how they felt about their relationships with their key contacts in the firm.  In our work with the firm to help develop skills around the relationship building phases of the business development process many of the partners and directors had told us that they were worried that by keeping in touch with their clients in between deals and project assignments they might be annoying them and becoming a bit of a pain. In fact a strong theme that emerged from the client survey was that a lot of their clients actually felt rather unloved.  They said that they would actually prefer a lot more contact with their advisors outwith the confines of specific fee-paying projects.

The firm actually extracted from the survey feedback 45 different ideas suggested by the clients for ways of and reasons why the advisors might get and keep in touch with their clients!

You have to be prepared to invest some time in meeting, calling, emailing and generally staying in touch with people, even (in fact especially) when you don’t actually have any fee-paying work on the go for them.  

2. The Trusted Advisor: Puts clients’ interests in front of their own

As David Maister puts it in The Trusted Advisor, “there is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client.  We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.”

Putting clients’ interests in front of their own can be really hard for lawyers because they’re always under huge pressure to record chargeable hours and hit billing targets (and of course those things are really important).  The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by not going ahead with a piece of work even when that means foregoing a lucrative job for the law firm.

3. The Trusted Advisor: Is genuinely interested in their clients and their businesses

Dale Carnegie was bang on when he said “You can make more [clients regard you as their Trusted Advisor] in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”  

OK, Dale actually used the word “friends” but the philosophy behind this is still sound and applicable to professional advisors trying to be regarded as Trusted Advisors.  Trusted Advisors are genuinely interested in their clients, personally, and in their clients’ businesses.

4. The Trusted Advisor: Works really hard to understand the client's underlying interests not just surface “wants”

As Steven Covey so succinctly puts it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People -  “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”.

There is more to being a Trusted Advisor than just jumping whenever the client asks you to, the only question you ask being “How high?”  It’s vital that you take the time to dig below the surface.  Try really to understand why clients are asking you to do certain things or to work in a certain way.  What’s motivating them to do that?  What underlying interests are causing them to take up certain positions on matters?

5. The Trusted Advisor: Is reliable - does what they say they will do

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

This one’s obvious isn’t it?  So I don’t need to say much, do I?  Say what you’re going to do and then do what you say you’re going to do!  Deliver on your promises.  Even the small ones.

6. The Trusted Advisor: Is credible (but doesn't feel the need to try too hard!)

Credibility is important.  Authority is one of the major recognised factors of influence.  Clients are more likely to trust and be persuaded by people who they regard as credible, authoritative experts.

So – become an expert!  Seriously.  Go on all the right courses, read all the relevant technical books, write lots of articles for the trade rags and get some more letters after your name (just don’t feel the need to put all of them on your business card!)

7. The Trusted Advisor: Gets up close and personal

Even though your clients and contacts won’t all become your best friends, it would be a good base point that they at least all liked you!  Likeability is a huge factor of influence.  The old adage about people tending to want to do business with people they know, like and have come to trust really is true.  

An in house General Counsel in a corporate expressed it beautifully in his response to a client survey conducted by one of our law firm clients recently - “Get to the point where if I was in town I’d feel comfortable to ring you and ask you out for a beer”

8. The Trusted Advisor: Connects emotionally

Lawyers  spend a lot of time constructing complex, technical, logical arguments to persuade their clients why they should engage them for particular work.  I’m not saying that logic doesn’t have a role to play but too many professional advisors spend too much time polishing their logical arguments and not enough time thinking about how they might better connect emotionally with their clients.  Trusted advisors understand that it’s vital that they try to make an emotional connection with their clients.  The good ones do it by using stories, anecdotes, examples, analogies, imagery, visual aids, and even some light humour.

9. The Trusted Advisor: Is genuinely passionate and enthusiastic

“Flaming enthusiasm, backed by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success.” (Dale Carnegie)

Genuine passion and enthusiasm about your work, your clients, and your desire to help are impressive. Your body language and your verbal language should exude energy.  Everything about you either says or doesn’t say “energy” – what you choose to wear, your comportment, posture, use of animated gesture, facial expressions and voice.

Yes of course you need to appear professional, but far too often, when they get in front of clients, lawyers appear to have had a personality-ectomy!

10. The Trusted Advisor: Is authentic

“Be yourself; everybody else is taken” (Oscar Wilde)

It’s imperative that you find your own style for all of this.  I’m not suggesting that you all end up looking and acting exactly the same – with your firm’s strap line tattooed on your forehead.  Trusted Advisors are authentic, genuine, real, individual people.

The trick is to find a style that makes you appropriately memorable!