How to Build Peer Relationships with Your Clients
By Andrew Sobel
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 acumen, behavior, and values. Let’s look at what these are and how you demonstrate them.
BUILDING PEER RELATIONSHIPS
1. 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.
2. C-Suite Behavior. A top CEO headhunter told me once about a candidate for a senior job that he had all but turned down just by spying him in the reception area of his Manhattan offices. He said, “The candidate had only been there for a few minutes, and he was sitting quietly on the couch. That told me right away that he probably didn’t have the C-Suite mindset—the confidence needed to operate at the level the job required. CEO candidates don’t sit and wait—they stand. That way, when you walk in to pick them up and take them back to your office, they are not in an inferior or supplicant position. Most of them do this without even thinking about it. When I walk out and they are standing, the relationship starts on a peer level.” Trivial? Not at all. Clients look at these subtle behavioral clues and make judgments very rapidly. Here are some of the behaviors you need to manifest if you want to establish senior-level, peer client relationships:
A willingness to challenge your client. I call this “selfless independence” in my book Clients for Life. A division president at a major bank once told me, “I divide all the advisors I use into two groups: Those who simply do what I say, and those who will push back and sometimes say ‘No.’ A few of these latter individuals are my trusted advisors. The others are really suppliers.” Remember, if you’re concerned about coming across as too challenging, try turning your statements into questions. Instead of “I don’t think your team is collaborating very well” try “How do you feel about the collaboration within your team?” You’ll create more buy-in that way.
An attitude that establishes equality. If you keep thanking your client, over and over again, for “taking so much of their valuable time to meet with you,” what does that convey? Better would be, “I’m delighted we were able to meet today. Thank you.”
Confident body language. In an interview for one of my books, a CEO told me, “If you walk into a client’s office with your head held high, there’s always the chance that you’ll get knocked down a notch. That’s a small risk. But if you go in on your knees, no client will ever, ever lift you up.” If you are anxious or nervous when you meet with a senior client, or if your body language betrays anything less than a belief that you belong in the room with that executive, it’s unlikely you’ll be viewed as a peer.
Showing courage. Do you fold your tent at the slightest provocation, or do you hold your ground? What if a prospect is acting bored and unengaged, and basically sending the message that they have no interest whatsoever in talking to you. You might ask, “I’m curious, why did you accept this the invitation to meet up? Did you have a particular issue in mind for our discussion?” Or, “We’ve got another 20 minutes scheduled for our meeting this morning. How can I be helpful to you during this time?” If a prospect tells you, “We have no need for what you do. There’s not a lot to talk about right now” you might respond with “You’d be surprised how many of my best clients today told me that when we first met. Do you mind if I ask you a question…?”
3. Values. If a client is hiring a vendor to do a job and then get out of the way, they won’t be hugely concerned with that suppliers’ value system. Yes, they will want someone with integrity and honesty, who treats people well, and so on. But fundamentally it’s a relatively arm’s-length relationship. In contrast, if an executive is drawing someone into their inner circle, they are going to be looking for serious alignment of values and beliefs. These go well beyond the basics of integrity—they might include a client’s sense of your:
- Outlook (Optimistic? Pessimistic?)
- Risk propensity
- Action bias
- Relationship orientation
And so on.
You cannot manufacture a set of values and beliefs to match those of your client. But you can be open about what you stand for and what’s important to you. You want your clients to sense these things and be attracted to them. The chemistry and fit won’t always be there, but if you’re overly buttoned down and keep your cards too close to your chest, your clients won’t even get the chance to know you. And, you’ll come across as anodyne and bland.
Finally, you have to believe you are a peer. You have to believe you belong in your top client’s corner office. You must possess a strong sense of your own value and your ability to help your clients improve and grow their business. That deep belief in yourself and what what you have to offer will by itself go very far towards creating the peer relationship you desire.