Six Crucial Lessons to Becoming and Staying a Trusted Advisor

In a recent phone call I told the CEO of my insurance brokerage that after being a loyal customer for 15 years I had moved all my business to other providers. Given our long-standing relationship, I felt I owed him an explanation; not because I wanted to see someone fired, but because I wanted him to know my reasons for leaving so he could put any lessons learned to use.

It started about seven years ago when the person assigned to my business insurance seemed to lose interest in me. He wasn’t on top of my renewals, made me do work that he could have done for me, and didn’t competitively bid my insurance. I moved all of my business insurance to another agency. A similar issue happened in the past year with my personal insurance; I simply didn’t feel that I was important to my agent. The final nail in the coffin came when my bank notified me that my homeowners’ insurance had lapsed two months earlier without any notification from my insurance agent. I then reached out to another agency, who quickly bound coverage for me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday evening.

While the CEO of the original brokerage wasn’t happy that I moved my insurance business elsewhere, he was grateful I took the time to calmly and constructively give him feedback. We ended the call on a very cordial note, and I am confident that if we ever ran into each other at a coffee shop we’d shake hands and exchange regards.

I open with this story because for years I considered him and the agents at his company as trusted advisors. I openly shared my personal and business goals with them and believed they advised with my best interests at heart. But after a time I realized I didn’t feel important to them, and my personal and professional interests were no longer their primary concern. The people who were at one time my trusted advisors now had exactly none of my business.

So what’s a trusted advisor? In my four decades in business I’ve boiled it down to six crucial principles:

  1. Intently listens then thoughtfully acts – A trusted advisor takes the time to listen to the client, understand their perspective, and ask clarifying questions before drawing conclusions or providing advice.
  2. Never breaches confidences – A trusted advisor needs to provide an environment where the client knows sensitive information will not be discussed with others. Relationships can be irreparably harmed with just one confidence breach.
  3. Advises on what s/he knows, admits what s/he doesn’t know – A trusted advisor is confident in his/her abilities and skillsets, and freely admits when something is outside of his/her expertise area.
  4. Always keeps commitments – A trusted advisor always follows through on commitments when and how the client expects.
  5. Is courageously, respectfully candid – A trusted advisor doesn’t need to tell the client what they want to hear; but should courageously and respectfully tell the client what they need to hear. The trusted advisor’s job is to say what s/he thinks; the client’s job is to decide what to do with it.
  6. Takes the initiative with the client – A trusted advisor ensures time with the client is purposeful and productive, and resulting actions are followed up.

Being a trusted advisor isn’t something clients (regardless of whether they’re internal or external to your organization) automatically grant; it takes a track record of demonstrating these six principles through actions that elevate someone to trusted advisor status. Following are six crucial lessons I’ve learned about what it takes become and continue as a trusted advisor:

  1. The last impression is just as important as the first – Sure, setting a positive first impression is critical to becoming a trusted advisor. However, every impression made thereafter is equally important. A great trusted advisor is consistent in the impressions s/he makes with a client. Whether it’s the first, second or hundredth impression, the trusted advisor is consistent in his/her level of performance and the client comes to expect great service.
  2. Treat the client like they are your most important client – If you take someone on as a client it’s your job to make them feel important. The client doesn’t care about other clients you serve and how much or little business they represent. Your job is to provide the agreed-upon services while making the client know their business matters to you.
  3. Focus on problems first then sales will follow – When I meet with a new client I ask them to think about the biggest three issues that keep them awake at night. During our meeting I am very up-front about the problems I think I can help with and those that are outside my wheelhouse. My ability to focus on the client’s problems and then determine if/how I can best help sets my foundation as a trusted advisor and secures consulting engagements.
  4. Align your urgency to the client’s urgency – In my opening story my new insurance advisor understood the urgency of binding my homeowner’s insurance quickly. He aligned his urgency to mine and got the job done. I’m now a raving fan.
  5. Follow up 100 percent of the time – This one’s really easy; if you say you’re going to do something by a specific date, for Pete’s sake do it. If there’s a good reason you can’t keep a commitment by an agreed-upon date, notify them as early as possible. Letting a due date come and go without any notification not only erodes your credibility but could also impact downstream activities that are dependent on your deliverable.
  6. Don’t hammer screws – You may have heard the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Your job as a trusted advisor is to know what you’re good at and what you’re not, then focus on solving problems you’re best qualified to solve. Overselling your expertise to take on work you’re not qualified to do is akin to trying to hammer screws. You’ve got the wrong tools for the job and can create problems for both yourself and the client when you’re ill-equipped to solve the client’s problem.

Becoming a trusted advisor is something that’s earned through behaviors and actions and can be quickly stripped away if taken for granted. Keep these lessons in mind to help you not just attain trusted advisor status, but keep it.