Trusted Advisor 

Since the day I walked into business school couple of decades ago , I have been told that the definition of success would be for me to become a trusted advisor to my clients . It sounded logical , and I accepted it as an absolute truth and never really thought about it too much . Over time, I dutifully convinced others who asked me for career advice that they too should become trusted advisors for their clients . Thankfully – no one asked me exactly what I meant and accepted it as an absolute truth . 

That changed recently . A new hire didn’t take me on my word and pushed me to explain more on what I meant . I gave some half baked explanation and a few examples and ended that conversation – but I immediately knew I had failed . I don’t like to fail ( fast or slow) – and hence started thinking about why I couldn’t answer in a crisp manner . 

To begin to comprehend what being a trusted advisor to a client is – we perhaps should understand what “client” means . Someone who buys from you is your customer . So all clients are customers , but the reverse is not true . A customer who continues to buy from you for a long time , because they recognize the value you bring beyond any given transaction, and who in turn proactively adds value to you even if they are not buying anything from you ,  is a client  .  

Another way to think about this is – when your customer becomes a client , you become their trusted advisor as opposed to just a vendor !

My career at IBM  started as a BI consultant at a large semiconductor company . After two years of working there – I was bored out of my wits and asked the account partner to reassign me . He declined , and instead took me out to dinner . During dinner, I learned that he himself came into that account as a fresh hire out of college and stayed there till he made partner . He had his fair share of battle scars – certainly it wasn’t a bed of roses . On the flip side – he was one of the youngest partners in the firm too. 

I quickly learned that nurturing a relation I already had for two years is infinitely better than building a new one from scratch every few months . To cut the story short – I bought a house next to the client offices to be close to them , doubled down on finding and solving problems for them and at one point – I realized I know their business better than most of their own employees . I was still personally involved with that account when I made partner in the firm too, just like my boss had ( though I had to take on additional customers and turn them into clients to prove that I am not a one trick pony) .

There is an important aspect here that we often overlook – being a trusted advisor is less about the client company than about people in that company . Business is always done between people – not between companies ! All relationships – irrespective of levels, roles and titles – matter . People (both you and client employees ) move around roles and employers , and the trust you built with them moves with them . 

By no means am I suggesting that you should put all your eggs in one basket . There are times when a client has no reason to buy from you directly and you might start to doubt whether it’s worth spending any more time when you don’t have a near term pipeline . But if you have built a strong relationship – they could be a strong reference for you in another part of the company , or for another company . There is nothing more valuable in winning business than a strong reference from a happy client ! 

While I can’t possibly pinpoint when a customer has turned into a client for me in past – there are some characteristics that I find in common across all of them . They have asked me (and I have asked them) for career advice . We have known each other’s families well and have been invited for meals and drinks to each other’s homes . Calls and emails to each other are promptly returned . And finally – neither side expects the other to BS . 

A parting thought – While it’s really hard to become a trusted advisor , it’s real easy to lose that status . Trust is based on respect and transparency . When either side takes undue advantage – trust breaks and there is usually no superglue that will fix it back seamlessly .