The Six Paradoxes of the Successful Client Advisor
Paradox: "a person or thing exhibiting apparently contradictory characteristics"
In studying great client advisors all over the world, it has always struck me how pardoxical the role of trusted advisor is. Those who are best at it manage to balance a series of inherent tensions.
There is always a tension between spending time focusing on the client's needs and stated goals and advocating a product or service that you're really excellent at. If you only do the former, you may have lots of good relationships but never sell much business. If you only do the latter, you become a hammer looking for a nail, not a client advisor. You resolve this tension by sequencing these two drives. You lead with building the relationship–understanding your client and getting to know them. But then you have to engage your client around your product or service and how it can help them solve an important problem or capture an important opportunity. Ultimately you do both in equal measures.
2. Short Term/Long Term
Over the next 30-60 days you must write proposals and win new business. If you don't, you'll be on the beach, as we used to say. Over the next 30-60 days you must also engage in a series of activities to ensure your long-term future: You must cultivate your network, meet with old clients, write that article you've been putting off, make arrangements to get on a panel at a conference that's scheduled for next year, and so on. Great professionals are able to consistently balance the short and long term demands of their role. Those who don't end up stuck in a feast-or-famine cycle that is exhausting.
Clients hire experts, but they keep advisors. Your deep expertise gets you in the door. It is your calling card. You build your brand around it. But ultimately you are a fungible commodity if that's all you have–unless perhaps you're the top expert in the world or the only one in your field! Great advisors add breadth to their depth. They understand their clients as people, their clients' organization and industry, the general business environment, basic business concepts, and so on. Great advisors, in short, combine these two and eliminate the tension by becoming Deep Generalists. The trick is to then know when you should bring out your "expert" half that is great at analysis and when to showcase your "generalist" half that is great at synthesis!
How much do you give away to a prospect or even an existing client, and at what point do you draw a line in the sand and charge them? Today, this problem is especially topical as many competitors give away valuable services just to get a "toehold" with a new client. I've seen examples of well-known firms giving away–literally–millions of dollars in fees just to call a certain company their client. Here's my philosophy: Generally, err on the side of being generous with your time and value. If you add value–even if it's something small, like helping a prospect to think through a problem they face, or introducing them to someone who you think would be a good connection–you'll earn the right to be considered for their business. Eventually, they will want to draw you into their inner circle. Add value in between projects or transactions; add value before you're hired; add value long after the engagement is over. Now, DON'T invest days and days of your time with a low-level client on a non-critical issue! If it's the right client and the right issue, lead generously with value. Treat your prospect like they are ALREADY a client. That's how you win business.
Sometimes you must follow your client's lead and just go along with them. Other times you must challenge them. How do you know when to do one or the other? This is a constant tension when you work with clients. Here's how to look at this paradox: 1. At the start, be agenda sensing. Unless you're invited to opine, start by understanding your client's needs, priorities, and goals. Add value in the conversation as you do this, but don't try and "blow them away" with what you think is a "game changing" idea–that rarely works out well. 2. Try and influence first by asking thoughtful questions ("How did you arrive at a 10% target?") that gently challenge your client. Also, make observations about best practices you've seen and approaches that have worked for other clients. Your goal is to get your client to say, "I'm thinking about this a bit differently now…" 3. Finally, push and challenge when you've earned the right and have built up some credibility. You might get to this point in 45 minutes, or after 4 months–it just depends on you and the client.
Everyone has their "ideal" client. It's an ambitious, fast growing, innovative company. You have a direct relationship with the CEO, who really wants to make a mark. She takes a long term view and loves building long term relationships with trusted advisors like you. The client is focused on value, not fees. OK–Then you wake up. The reality is you've got one or two clients like this, you've got a few that are pretty satisfying, and you've got a handful that are difficult and frustrating. That's normal. The point is not to fret about the gap between your real clients and your ideal client–just work at it over time. Become more discerning about who you accept as a client. Pay less attention to the difficult ones, and double-down on the most promising ones. Be intentional about who you work with and who you keep as clients over the longer term.
These tensions are normal. The key is to reconcile and integrate them in your day-to-day actions and behavior. That's how you achieve balance and success.
ABOUT ANDREW SOBEL
Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build clients for life. He is the most widely published author in the world on the topic of business relationships, and his bestselling books include Power Questions, All for One, Making Rain, and Clients for Life. His clients include many of the world's leading companies such as Citigroup, Hess, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte, Experian, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain & Company, and many others. Andrew's articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, strategy+business, and the Harvard Business Review. He spent 15 years at Gemini Consulting where he was a Senior Vice President and Country Chief Executive Officer, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors.
He can be reached at andrewsobel.com