The term trusted advisor is one that is familiar to everyone in business-to-business sales. It essentially refers to the best possible relationship a salesperson can have with a client: the kind of business relationship required for quality, annuity business. Recently there has been much said about the subject and there is even a book devoted to it which, I confess, I have not read. So, please forgive me if this question seems a bit contrarian, but can someone in a sales role really be a trusted advisor?
First, let’s look at exactly what a trusted advisor is in the context of business-to-business sales. We all know what it is to trust, and we know what it is to advise. But a trusted advisor is a very special role, one that must be earned over time. As I understand the role, a trusted advisor must have expertise in their field, be able to educate, and give objective advice. The operative word here is objective. So, before we can answer the question above, we must answer another question: is it possible for a sales representative to be objective?
In a complex, project based sale, many clients want – and need – a trusted advisor. If that were not true there would be no need for consultants. Often a client would sooner pay an “objective” consultant than take advantage of the expertise of a professional in the field – the salesperson – who has a stake in the game. Of course, consultants sometimes have their own agenda but, that’s another discussion.
Consider the level of client skepticism that can exist in the early stages of the sales process. Often this critical stage is reduced to a poorly written RFP – a recipe for a flawed evaluation right from the start. At that point, trust is the intangible that isn’t even part of the equation, taking a back seat to the numbers. And the beginning of the process is when the client needs an experienced (and trusted) advisor most, to help navigate the complexities of the transaction. I have participated in bids where the client hired several consultants to manage the process, presumably to save money and avoid pitfalls, and no one seemed to take ownership for the result. One project became mired in confusion and probably cost twice as much as it should have – all in the name of “due diligence.” You can pay for advice but you can’t buy a trusted advisor. There’s good advice and bad advice and paying for it doesn’t make it good.
So, when can we hope to achieve a level of trust? There are always exceptions but, in my experience, it can take months, even years, of nurturing a relationship just to lay the ground work for trust and to establish credibility. Of course, sales happen in the meantime. So, in the meantime we need to be patient, nurture the relationship, and build credibility by demonstrating we can do the job. But there’s more.
Fundamental to the sales process is something we don’t often discuss, something I touched on earlier. Trust requires a client to ignore the elephant head on the table: every salesperson’s compensation is based on the successful completion of the sale. Hardly an objective position – a point not lost on the client. And, of course, the more we sell, the more we earn, in the form of commission or bonus. As a buyer, is it wise to trust that? Anyone in a position to spend large sums of money on behalf of their company would be negligent not to scrutinize every transaction. As I mentioned earlier, sales still happen even as we are being assessed. Indeed, it is how we handle those sales that is the basis of the assessment. Fortunately, trust can develop over time and objectivity can be demonstrated by the solutions we propose, and the honesty we show when we cannot offer the best solution. We must earn trust, but it can be earned. And we can demonstrate honesty, which could be seen as a close cousin to objectivity. So, we’re getting closer. But getting to the next level could require overcoming the client’s perception of what a sales person is. More to the point, overcoming a client’s preconceived ideas about sales.
Someone once asked me what I did for a living. Without hesitation I launched into my elevator speech – actually, it was a more relaxed and candid version because it was a casual social setting. The person seemed surprised to hear I am in sales saying, “you don’t seem like a salesperson.” She clearly had a mental image of a pushy, obnoxious character who, I am happy to say, was at odds with the person she was addressing. Without asking for an explanation of what she meant by the comment I replied, “I do solution selling,” which apparently gave my original response a more legitimate standing in her mind. Afterwords I thought boy, old stereotypes really do die-hard. I thought the huckster image of salespeople was a thing the past – apparently not.
There has been much written about integrity in sales over the years, and the profession today enjoys a far more respectable status than it may have a generation or two ago. And most people I know in sales approach what they do with a high degree of integrity and professionalism . These are things within our control. But the trusted advisor status requires a paradigm shift that is out of the realm of sales quotas, funnel reports and commission statements. In other words, out of our control. The status of trusted advisor implies a level of transparency that simply does not exist in any sales organization I know of. Sales organizations are set up to generate more and more sales – period. And that’s not to cast blame on sales organizations; it’s just the way it is. And it would be hypocritical of me to suggest we are not in sales to earn a good living.
That reality, however, does not need to be at odds with doing what is best for the customer. But, it seems customer-centric sales is simply not compatible with commission/quota driven sales organizations. Andrew Rudin refers to a “culture of engagement” that perpetuates this condition and Dave Cooke expands on it in his post “Changing the Culture of Engagement”- an interesting read. Sales professionals are stuck in the middle of this paradox trying to figure out a way to do it all – and many do a pretty good job of it.
In the end, I don’t think it matters what we call it as long as the result is a mutually beneficial, professional partnership of ongoing business – much like the old win/win, but with repeated regularity. The status of trusted advisor is certainly something worth striving for but, arguably, may be too much to expect when one party has something to gain from the arrangement – and a quota to meet. That said, I believe our clients recognize when our recommendations are in their best interest; like when we present a unique solution that meets their needs regardless of the size or profitability of the sale.
The best solution at a fair price = win/win, still serves us well. If there’s a path for a salesperson to become a trusted advisor, it starts there. Maybe we need to strike a balance between what we see as an ideal (the trusted advisor) and what is realistic (win/win). It’s a laudable goal, in spite of the elephant head on the table but, I am content – and honored – when I have earned the client’s trust enough to have a win/win – every day and twice on Sundays. Then again, maybe that’s what being a trusted advisor is after all.