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How to Become a Trusted Advisor in Sales

When I go to McDonald’s and order a Big Mac, I don’t get a business card from the cashier. And that’s fine. 

Why? Because I don’t go to McDonald’s for the people. I go for the product and the brand. I like Big Macs, and I know what I’m going to get from a McDonald’s: Fast service, cheap price, and a quick meal.But for many other businesses and industries, the people do matter. Think of professional services. Would you be upset if a different consultant than the one you’ve worked with for months showed up one day, or are all consultants exactly the same? Or a more personal example -- would you allow anyone at all from a certain salon to cut your hair, or do you make appointments with a specific hairdresser? I’m guessing in both circumstances, the particular person you work with trumps the brands they’re associated with.

B2B sales is another realm in which the people are important. Of course buyers are influenced by brand and product perception, but the salesperson they deal with has a significant bearing on what, when, and why they buy. With this in mind, it behooves salespeople to strengthen their relationships with prospects and customers -- to move from a transactional facilitator (fine, but average) to a trusted advisor (differentiated and valuable).  

How Important Is Being a Trusted Advisor?

“Trusted advisor” is a buzzword in sales today, so you might be skeptical about whether a salesperson achieving this status has any real impact on your bottom line. 

I can tell you with confidence that it does. Over the past few years, my company has studied what it means to be seen as a trusted advisor. The research has revealed six key dimensions of a B2B customer relationship. This prompted us to look at some clients, measure their customer relationships in these six areas, and compare the results against business performance year over year. 

The numbers proved being a trusted advisor is more valuable in terms of revenue than you might think. Eighty-two percent of customers who did not renew their annual contracts with an insurance company either had an antagonistic or transactional relationship with the provider. Customers who had a transactional relationship with the representatives at an IT VAR gave the company 14% of their available business on average, but the percentage jumped to 47% if they perceived the VAR’s salespeople to be trusted advisors. That’s a 33% difference that can be attributed solely to relationship strength!

What Is a Trusted Advisor?

We find the six dimensions of a trusted advisor are generally developed in order -- in other words, #1 is established before #6.

  1. Integrity. The prospect perceives you to be reliable, dependable, and trustworthy.
  2. Competency. The prospect believes that you and your product/service can deliver. Your company is perceived to have the tools, processes, and people in place to make good on promises. 
  3. Recognition. The prospect feels that you treat them as an individual instead of a number.  
  4. Proactivity. The prospect believes you are actively looking out for their best interest and that they aren’t going to encounter any unexpected surprises with your product/service.
  5. Savvy. The prospect feels that you understand the issues they care about.
  6. Chemistry. The prospect enjoys working with you and thinks your communication “clicks.”

But here’s the catch with these dimensions: They’re pillars, not behaviors. Go tell a sales rep to “demonstrate integrity” or “create chemistry” on a call today. I bet they’ll have an awfully confused look on their face.

Also, keep in mind that all of these dimensions hinge on the prospect’s perceptions. You might think you’re the savviest salesperson in the world, but if your clients don’t agree, then you have some work to do.  

How to Become a Trusted Advisor in Sales

That said, here are some suggestions for actions and behaviors that can move you closer to trusted advisor status.

One of the best ways to show integrity is to take notes -- it works in every industry. It tells prospects they can count on you to remember their words and execute.

Demonstrate competency by providing testimony from a third party that vouches for you. The format will vary from industry to industry, but examples include case studies, references, ratings, warranties, and certifications.

Show recognition by carefully noting something your prospect says and following up on it later. For instance, if your contact mentioned a large project the last time you spoke, bring it up during your next call. A simple question like “How’d that initiative work out?” will do the trick.

To prove you're proactive, stay informed on your prospect’s industry and bring major changes to their attention before they reach out to you. For instance, the sales team at a health insurer should closely monitor new state guidelines and regularly offer to sit down with their prospects to sort out how the policy changes will affect them.

At Brookeside, we use a framework called “inside, outside, who, and how” to teach savvy. Find out the answers to these four questions, and you’re on your way:

  • What’s going on inside the company?
  • What’s happening with notable parties outside the company -- competitors, suppliers, etc.?
  • Who do the buyers you’re working with report to, and/or who are the influencers in the company?
  • How does this company “keep score” metrics-wise, and how do you help them in what they do?

Exhibit chemistry by being friendly and clear, understanding your prospects’ nonverbal cues, and mirroring them.

What traits do you think trusted advisors embody? 

Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2014 and has been updated for comprehensivenss and accuracy.

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