How to Build Peer Relationships with Your Clients

To become a client’s trusted advisor, you must be viewed as a peer. This doesn’t mean you must become a literal peer. If you work with a CEO, for example, you will never be their strict peer in an organizational or hierarchical sense. But if you want a seat at the table with them, they need to consider you as a peer in three areas: Professional acumenbehavior, and values. Let’s look at what these are and how you demonstrate them. In this blog I will cover point one, Professional Acumen

Acumen is, literally, “the ability to make good judgments and take quick decisions.” Clients want a peer who can partner with them to solve their toughest problems, capture opportunities, and achieve their goals. More broadly, I would define professional acumen as a valuable combination of five qualities:

Experience: Your client needs reassurance that you’ve addressed this same issue many times before, most likely in their specific industry and/or function. Or, that you have other, related experience that will provide a new and different perspective.

Can you frame your experience in a compelling and relevant way?

Expertise: Most of your clients are going to have expertise in your same specialty. In some cases they may know less than you, in others they may be equally or more expert.

Do you focus on your expertise and methodologies too early in your client conversations? Can you show, at the right moment, how it applies to your client's most critical issues?

Knowledge Breadth: Senior executives in particular will look for a peer advisor who has in-depth expertise AND knowledge breadth. They want someone who understands the interrelationships between different parts of their business–someone who has an enterprise-wide perspective.

In addition to talking about the specific, presenting problem that your client has, are you able to have broad-based conversations with them about their business issues?

Judgment: Clients face more strategic and operational choices than ever before. You establish yourself as a peer when you demonstrate your ability to discern between different courses of action and to help your client make tough decisions. Commodity experts and advisors make judgments differently. Experts combine facts and experience to make a decision. Advisors combine facts, experience, and a deep understanding of their client’s values, beliefs, and organizational capabilities as they recommend decisions.

Insight. Insight means having a strong sense of perception. That is, seeing issues clearly and being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Insight leads to idea generation and innovation, which are treasured by clients. 

Are you learning enough about your client's actual business to be able to make incisive observations about potential improvements? Are you working hard to see knowledge connections and possible analogies from related fields?

All five of these qualities add up to the intellectual strength—the professional acumen—that senior clients look for in a peer relationship with an outside advisor or service provider

What are you own challenges in develop professional acumen? How and where have you found it useful in building strong relationships with senior executives?


(I'll look at the second key ingredient required to build peer relationships in my next post: C-Suite Behavior)

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