Seven Ingredients that Make You Truly Authoritative in Your Clients’ Eyes

Do Your Clients See You as an Authority?

One of the greatest accolades you can receive from a client is the declaration that you are an authority in your field. Even better still is to hear you are a “leading authority” or even “the leading authority.”

But don’t take a simplistic view of the route to getting this type of recognition. Your “authority” as a client advisor is based on much more than simply expertise, although that’s an important starting point.

A good current example of someone who exemplifies this word—authority—is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has emerged, according to surveys, as the most trusted authority on the Covid-19 crisis, projecting strong, confident authority in all his public appearances. Perhaps another would be former president and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as commander of all allied forces during WWII, projected a calm, reassuring presence to his troops and the public at large.

Bust of General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Bust of General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Seven Ingredients

There are seven essential ingredients that help you project authority to your prospects and clients:

1. Expertise. When you’re an expert at something, it means you have a high level of knowledge and skill in your specialty. But how does a prospective client know you are really an expert? Here are some important indicators they will look for:

  • Someone they trust has told them you are an expert. Sounds simple, but in one study, this was the number ONE factor cited by senior executives when asked, “How do you know if someone is an expert?”
  • You are able to explain rapidly and clearly something that is very complicated, and make it easy to understand (this was the second factor cited by executives in the same study).
  • You are able to solve problems on the fly, and extemporize at length about your subject matter, with no preparation.
  • There is strong social proof of your expertise (see number 7, below).

2. Lived Experience. People can use the word “experience” to mean quite different things. To project authority and credibility with a client, you need to have lived what you are talking about. You must have gotten your hands dirty. You can’t just be spouting ideas you’ve read about.

I once worked with a strategic planning director who had lots of planning experience but no real lived experience—he had never run a business, supervised more than one or two people, or even, sadly, spent much time getting to know his company’s organization and operations. As a result his ideas were theoretical and he had little influence with his company’s leadership.

But does this mean that if you’re at the beginning of your career you can’t demonstrate lived experience? No. For example: When I was in the first couple of years of my consulting career, right out of business school, I always over-invested to visit and understand my client’s operations. For one of my early assignments, I was part of a team doing a strategy review for a retail chain, and I visited a variety of stores in different markets. This gave me huge credibility with the client’s management—some of them, in staff positions, had actually not been out to see their stores in years. That gave me a certain type of limited but valid lived experience—I wasn’t just talking about theoretical strategy ideas, I had taken the time to immerse myself in their business first-hand.

Today, my “lived experience” is at a different order of magnitude—now I really can say, “I’ve worked with 50 clients on this specific type of challenge…”

3. Knowledge Breadth. To be authoritative with senior clients, you have to build knowledge breadth around your expert depth. This means developing an understanding of your client’s organization, their industry, and the general business or governmental environment they work in. Whether you sell a product or service, you have to show how your specific solutions support their broader aspirations and goals. By reading widely, being intensely curious, and stretching yourself professionally, you can develop business acumen to accompany your specialist depth.

4. Judgment. Good judgment is one of those ineffable qualities that is both hard to define and to evaluate. You can make a very sound judgment but have unexpected circumstances move dramatically against you; and, you can make a bad decision that turns out great because of favorable factors you don’t control. The key to good judgment lies in integrating three key, decision-making inputs: The facts of the situation, your accumulated experience, and your and your client’s values. By values I mean this: two clients may have the identical problem, but your solution will be different for each of them based on their organizational values and aspirations.

5. Applied Insights. Part of your authority with clients comes from your ability to apply your expertise and experience to specific issues. You can’t just have “authoritative” knowledge—you have to show it helps clients solve their toughest challenges. Over the years I’ve worked with dozens of top business school academics, and the ones who are able to develop their own corporate consulting practices were able to bridge the gap between having an interesting framework and showing CEOs how it actually applied to their businesses. Others had “big picture” ideas that helped get them tenure, but their inability to develop applied insights limited their options.

6. Conviction. Steve Kerr, a former business school dean who once led Corporate Leadership and Development for GE (and later, Goldman Sachs) told me, “When you’re advising a smart, well-informed executive, you have to be extremely persuasive—you must have enormous conviction about your beliefs.” As they say, “The first sale is to yourself.” The first step to convincing your client is to be totally convinced yourself. And then, you have to know how to persuade, utilizing both rational (Logos) and emotional (Pathos) arguments.

7. Social Proof. It’s very compelling when a client perceives that the rest of the world recognizes you as an authority at what you do. Social proof can include:

  • A prestigious client list and accompanying testimonials
  • Word of mouth and referrals from respected executives
  • Publications, including articles, books, book chapters, interviews, etc.
  • Speaking events
  • Well-regarded educational credentials
  • Awards (but please avoid the “pay-to-play rubbish like Who’s Who in America!)
  • Teaching positions/engagements
  • Having an employer that is a great brand
  • Etc.

When clients see most or all of these ingredients, an eighth factor is enabled: Trust, which is essential to being seen as an authority. To get your advice taken and your conversations about new business seen as authentic efforts to help, you need your client’s trust.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more strategies to grow your client relationships and revenues, get a copy of my new book, It Starts with Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue.It gives you the precise strategies–and action steps–needed to master 14 essential client development challenges and grow your client base in any market conditions. You can buy it here, and also join my 100-Day Client Growth Challenge.

All the best—and please stay safe and well.

Andrew Sobel

PS: If you would like to personalize your hardcover copy of It Starts with Clients, just shoot me an email with your full name and mailing address, and I will mail you a beautiful, personally-signed, custom bookplate that goes into the front of the book.

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