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 . 


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5 thoughts on “Trusted Advisor 

  1. Vijay, I believe the best test of “trusted advisor” status is when you can tell a client what they need to hear, even when they don’t want to hear it. Clients don’t necessarily have to like you in order to trust your advice. (Although it helps considerably.)

  2. Pingback: Team GB lessons from Rio 2016 – a tech and HR perspective – diginomica

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