Evolving from an “Expert for Hire” to a Trusted Client Advisor

tips and methods to become a trusted advisor in the eyes of your clients

There is a paradox or dilemma in becoming a trusted client advisor. On the one hand, you must develop a deep expertise in order to build your brand, attract clients, and do great work on specific issues. On the other hand, you have to be more than just an expert to your clients, because expertise is a commodity. Many search consultants can find and present candidates, for example. But what separates out the truly great search consultant from the average one, at least in the eyes of clients?

What I have found is that you need to shed the expert mindset because it will hold you back. When it comes to developing long-term relationships, it can be your greatest enemy. You see, clients hire experts, but they keep advisors.

Here’s what I mean.

Harry Truman, who was president of the United States after Franklin Roosevelt, once said, “An expert is a fellow who’s afraid to learn anything new, because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore”— which gets at the notion that when we’re experts we want to stay within our narrow expertise at all times.

Shunryu Suzuki was a famous Zen teacher who came to the United States from Japan in the late 1950s. He wrote a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which he says: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.”

In other words, when we have the expert mindset we can become narrow and closed-minded in our outlook. We see limitations, not possibilities. We are risk averse. When we have the advisor mindset, however, we provide clients with an expansive outlook on their problems. Let me contrast these two mindsets by comparing experts with advisors.

Experts tell — after all, as an expert you have important knowledge that must be communicated. In contrast, advisors ask great questions and listen. The great artist Picasso once said: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Management sage Peter Drucker once said he was no longer a consultant but rather an “insultant,” a distinction reflecting the difficult, provocative questions he asks his clients. As professionals, we are trained to provide answers, but in many important respects, thought-provoking questions that help clients reframe their issues are more useful.

Experts are for hire to the highest bidder. Advisors have selfless independence. They are devoted to their clients but they balance that with objectivity and the willingness to say “no.” To be an influential advisor to your clients, you must look after their interests but also offer independent views, even if they are opposed to beliefs your clients hold dearly.

When you have the expert mindset, you think of yourself as a narrow specialist, whereas advisors are deep generalists. A deep generalist has a core specialty—a deep expertise—but they complement this depth with breadth—with more general knowledge about business and management and the broader context in which the client operates. Even if you have a highly-specialized area of practice, you still need to have a breadth of knowledge around your expertise so that you can contextualize your advice and avoid myopia. Advisors focus on learning in three different arenas. First, they continually refine and improve their knowledge of their core specialty; second, they become deeply knowledgeable about their clients and the “ecosystem” that surrounds them; third, they eagerly engage in broad-based “personal learning” that could include studying a foreign language, collecting antique clocks, repairing cars, or playing a musical instrument.

Experts have professional credibility, advisors build deep personal trust. There’s a difference. Credibility creates respect for your knowledge. Clients believe that your data is accurate and your information useful. But when clients trust you on a personal level, they know you will always come through for them. Trust, which is the glue that holds together every long-term client relationship, is much deeper than credibility. It’s a client’s belief that you will act in their best interests and personally uphold the highest standards of integrity and competency, both inside and outside the office. When a client trusts you, anything is possible—your recommendations carry more weight, and when you propose an additional sale, your client sees sincerity, not salesmanship.

Experts analyze, advisors synthesize. Experts tear a problem down into its constituent parts and analyze each one. Advisors are also good at analysis, but more importantly, they synthesize—they help clients see the big picture. To some extent, good analysis is a commodity, but good big-picture thinking is much rarer and it is treasured by clients. Our educational system emphasizes good analysis — breaking down a problem into pieces and analyzing each bit separately. Synthesis, in contrast, is big-picture thinking — finding patterns, identifying key issues, framing ideas in a way that clarifies them, and creating new ideas out of old data. Synthesis provides the new perspectives that clients are always looking for.

Experts also tend to be reactive. They wait for the call. And if they are proactive, it’s all about selling their particular solution. A common complaint that clients make to me is that their external service providers do not sufficiently connect to their agenda of critical priorities. Whatever work you are doing for a client, no matter how technical or specialized, you must always relate it to your client’s broader agenda of three to five major priorities or goals. So advisors are proactive—they are agenda setters who seek to understand, shed light on, and improve their clients’ most important goals.

This distinction is not academic. It has very practical implications. For example, when you have the expert mindset, you are only comfortable holding a client meeting when you have a specific idea to propose or something to deliver to the client. Advisors, in contrast, lower their threshold for a client meeting and end up with more face time with their clients. They know that they can go and have a great conversation with their client by talking about what they are seeing in the marketplace and asking some thoughtful questions about the client’s evolving priorities.

Here are six immediate things you can start doing — or do more of — that will put you more firmly in the client advisor, versus expert for hire, role:

  • Thoroughly explore and understand your client’s priorities and goals before you accept an engagement.
  • Spend time preparing more thoughtful questions for your client meetings.
  • Stop bringing so much paper to meetings. Try using a short, halfpage outline to guide a client discussion, rather than lots of slides or charts.
  • Get to know your clients as people. Try to understand where they come from, what their values are, and how they like to make decisions.
  • Don’t say, “My client knows what I do and will call when he has a need.” Be proactive and regularly go to see him with ideas and suggestions.
  • Add value between searches. This is the most important thing you can do, as an executive search consultant, to generate more leads and be seen as a trusted advisor.

Become a Proactive Agenda Setter

Have you ever been in a meeting with a client who seemed distracted? Perhaps you noticed their eyes wandering, or saw them reach for their smartphone. Or, have you tried to get an appointment with an executive who just wouldn’t make room in their schedule for you?

In both cases, the problem is the same: you are not connecting with and showing how you are relevant to the client’s agenda of critical priorities.

To become a trusted advisor, you’ve got to demonstrate that what you do is strategic to your client’s business. You have to show that you are proactively focused on their most important goals.

When a client views you as part of growth and profits, they can’t get enough of you. When you’re just a necessary cost, like buying gas for your car — a task no one loves – you can be cut at any time. That’s the heart of the difference between the order-taker and the agenda-setter.

Everyone has an agenda of three to five priorities or goals that they are focused on in their organization. It’s rarely more than five, because it’s hard to have eight or nine absolutely critical priorities going on — after five they tail off in importance. And usually it’s not less than three. Most executives will tell you they have three to five. As we’ll see in a moment, every client also has a set of personal priorities.

Your job is to understand, inform, and ultimately shape and influence your client’s agenda. If you don’t do this, you will remain an expert for hire — an “order taker” who will never truly have a seat at the table for important discussions.

You begin by learning about a prospective client’s agenda first through secondary sources, and then through direction conversations. Eventually, when you’ve earned some trust and respect, you can be bolder about sharing your own perspectives on their agenda.

Every client is different when it comes to their tolerance for having their agenda challenged by an outside advisor. So make sure you modulate your approach based on an understanding of your client’s temperament. Someone who is brand new in the job, for example, may be more open to strong views on how they should move forward, whereas someone in the middle of a successful tenure at their role may not look kindly on someone who is overly assertive.

Finally, some clients are absolutely firm on their overall strategy and direction. That doesn’t mean you cannot be an agenda setter. In that case you should focus on the implementation agenda — the key plans, programs, human resources, methodologies, and so on that all go into successful execution.

In most organizations, you typically have two levels of agendas that you have to understand. First, there is the company or overall organizational strategy. Whether you’re serving a small business or a large corporation, you should always know what the three to five key elements of the strategy are.

Remember, when a client says, “I would like to recruit a new head of marketing,” that is not his or her “agenda.” That is a symptom or subsidiary need that has been stimulated by their agenda. Your job is to be responsive to the immediate need, but also to push beyond it and uncover the higher level agenda that is driving the request.

What is your value proposition? How do you describe what you do?

You should describe yourself in a way that articulates how you help your clients. Yes, you are an executive search consultant. But that is a description of your activity—it’s a convenient label people have put on you. What you really do is more like “helping your clients find and develop the extraordinary talent they need to grow their business.”

Another way I like to put it is this: “I help my clients address three fundamental questions. These are:

  • What are the leadership needs of your future strategy? To grow your business over the next three to five years, what kinds of leadership talent will you need?
  • What leadership talent do you have today, and what is the gap between what you have now and what you need to achieve your goals?
  • How will you bridge that gap and acquire and develop the required talent?

How do you act like a trusted advisor when you’re dealing with a lower-level purchaser or procurement person who is mainly focused on price?

There are two answers to this. First, you do what you’d do with any other executive: you try and understand what their agenda is — what they are trying to accomplish. Now, the best procurement professionals are trying to get good value for their companies — and value has two sides, price and benefits. Can you help educate them about what you do and how you will add value? Can you help THEM do a better job at buying search services? Some clients are indeed mostly focused on price. The question for you is, do you really want to do business with people who only care about price or who make their decisions mainly on price? These clients are treating you like a commodity.

The second answer is that you need to eliminate this problem at the source. That is, you need to create more solesource leads for yourself. Here are some strategies for increasing your sole-source business: • Strengthen your differentiation in the marketplace. Focus on a very specific area of your industry or a particular type of talent.

  • Build your brand by strengthening your visible thought-leadership. In your area of specialty, do more publishing, speaking, writing, and so on — and, get your thought leadership out in front of clients and prospects.
  • Work your network more thoroughly. Segment it: stay in touch with the “critical few” (your 20-25 most important contacts) and your “middle few” or VIP prospect list (50-100 people) on a regular basis. Add value don’t just send them announcements about the latest search you completed!
  • Ask for referrals on a regular basis from your best clients.

Andrew Sobel

Andrew Sobel is the bestselling author of eight books on client relationships, including Clients For Life, Power Questions, and Power Relationships. His popular eLearning program, “Building Clients for Life” is distributed by AESC.

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