• Benjamin Levy

Can we mass produce Trusted Advisors

Benjamin: Zach, I want to pick up our conversation on trusted advisors. So you and I agree that there really is such a thing as trusted advisor and that having one of those on your team is truly beneficial. But, and you could tell there was a but coming:

Athena, being born perfect from Zeus's forehead

Can we develop trusted advisors, or are they born complete and perfect, like Athena emerging from Zeus’s forehead?

I’ve been involved in high-value B2B sales for over twenty years. In that time I’ve worked with dozens—probably hundreds, actually—of sales people. I would say that in all that time I’ve met four, maybe five trusted advisors (your good self included). Trusted advisors are pretty rare it seems.

Zach: I don’t argue with that… I guess part of what we are always trying to do as sales leaders is to bring the whole industrial revolution type of thing to our process. If the trusted advisor is the artist, can we shift some of that knowledge and skills to a larger group of artisans, say? Is that possible? I guess what has launched this part of the dialogue is people asking if it’s possible and what it would involve.

The basic economics of scaling up mean that pretty much everything we do in sales we are at the same time trying to figure out how to train people to do, and how to do that as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. So, yes, if you have a pretty good sales person, who is coachable, you may be able to teach them to be a trusted advisor. I like to think in terms of military - not everyone can be an infantryman, but a lot of people can. If they are healthy and stable at don't have major health problems or blocks on their fitness level. Likewise, not everyone can be a salesman, but many people can be. Being a trusted advisor is like being in the special forces—if you can be an infantryman, given enough time and effort and energy, many people can make the step up, but maybe not everyone,

Benjamin: You know that I dislike using military metaphors in general, but ok, let’s roll with it. You say that, “if you can be an infantryman, given enough time and effort and energy, many people can make the step up.” Maybe so, but there are an awful lot of “ifs” in that statement. An infantryman works in a tightly constrained setting, with sergeants and officers over him giving more or less constant direction. Your guy (or gal) in special forces is much more self-directed, able to take initiative and work on their own while still being an integral part of a team.

One more thing, very few people get accepted to special forces training, and most of those accepted end up not making it through.

I think I just broke the metaphor.

Zach: That is an excellent point, of course you have to consider the cost…. Does it become a more effective course of action to focus on getting your trusted advisor out in front of customers and clear other work off his desk, or to try to “build” additional trusted advisors? It’s hard to say.

One of the things that the US army did after WWII, and the IDF adopted very successfully, was "game the system" in terms of how to train the best combat infantrymen and elite soldiers, with better predictability in terms of those who will succeed and a cheaper, faster path. So, yes, you can take something that might take years and shrink it down dramatically. That said, it’s still clear that this isn’t 100% effective.

But going with the question that we were asked … So what can you do to "mass produce" trusted advisors ?

First, let's remind ourselves what makes us a trusted advisor:

  • Having a high level of rapport;

  • Establishing your reputation; and

  • Showing the customer that we understand their problem/issues.

Can anyone do all of these things, and can we “mass produce” them?

Benjamin: Let me give you a different military metaphor. Not between a grunt and a commando, but between a commando and an expert swordsman of old, like a samurai. It took years and years to create an expert swordsman, constant training, a good mentor, multiple battles—and assuming you didn’t get killed in one of those battles—an innate ability to learn. Needless to say, very few people made it through that process. That is how trusted advisors develop today: in a way that is needlessly expensive, arduous, and long.

Zach: Unfortunately for our attempt to show that trusted advisors can be built, I think that you are using a very apt metaphor (and sorry, we seem to be stuck with the military metaphors today). So let me add this wrinkle: why did the Japanese outlaw firearms in the 17th century for about 250 years? Because they knew that a few men with a few weeks training could kill a master swordsman with thirty years of training and a thousand years of family background with a single dollar’s worth of powder and lead. How did you become a master swordsman? You were born into the right family, and possibly the right birth order, you studied for years every day, and most samurai, even with the training, didn’t reach the summit. That is fantastic for personal growth, but the question is can you build a business on that?

I’m going to have to say that not everyone will be able to establish themselves as a trusted advisor. Some people simply do not have the skills and personality to establish the right level of rapport, or might not have the right personality to build the needed level of reputation, or might not have the knowledge or the learning capacity or empathy to understand the customers’ problems to the needed depth.

As sales leaders, a large part of our job is to recruit sales assets. Can we recruit people who can learn this faster and thus have a better chance of succeeding?

We can.

We need to be looking for people who have a high intellectual capacity, who are articulate and solid communicators, who have a proven track record of establishing deep relationships with individuals that fit the profile of our customers, people who fit the customers’ expectations in terms of what a trusted advisor in this field should look or talk like (while that might sound shallow, we have to understand and work with people’s psychology). Of course, one of the best ways to shorten the process of getting trusted advisors on your sales team is to recruit people who already have a reputation in your market as a trusted advisor, either from a competitor or a vendor, or possibly from the customer or end-user side. There is room for integrating a “non-sales” trusted advisor on a team supporting salespeople when the subject knowledge is extremely complex or esoteric.

Of course, another part of being a sales leader is to train and enable our team – can we take sales assets who are not trusted advisors and train and enable them into the role? Absolutely. We cannot scale if we cannot reproduce our best assets through recruitment, training, enablement and coaching.

Benjamin: If I’m reading you correctly what you’re asking is can we train people to:

  • Be more genuinely interested in their customers (rapport);

  • Be more strategic in their thinking; and

  • Be able to establish a reputation more quickly than otherwise.

Yes and no.

Experience tells me that about ten percent of the people in a sales role are lost causes. They can be taught and coached and mentored all you want and while they’ll get better, they’ll never be trusted advisors. At the other end of the spectrum are the people that hardly need any training. I see them in my workshops, they’ll hear a concept or a tool once and they internalize it almost immediately. Those two groups make up about twenty percent of all sales personnel.

The other eighty percent are the people we can help.

Zach: Exactly, our job, as sales leaders, is to try to weed out quickly the ones that will never learn, stay out of the way of the ones who are masters, and help train and coach the middle of the bell curve.

Can we mass produce “rapport? I believe that we can, with reservations and in a limited capacity. The rapport between a sales asset and a prospect isn’t truly built on friendship but on trust, and I would specify that as the level of trust that is needed to do business. I’d also say that this “rapport” isn’t specifically between the individual sales asset and the customer, but between the company, sales team and the customer. We can use team members colleagues and company reputation and communication to bolster, build, and jumpstart our rapport. We can even use “ringers” – experts or celebrities who are not full time employees of the company to drive brand reputation and rapport.

Companies that use content via blogs, vlogs, conferences or social media can extend that “rapport” to sales assets. If a salesman can send a prospect valuable expert subject content on a consistent basis, he is positioning himself on the pathway to trusted advisor. This can dramatically cut the time needed.

Benjamin: You’re right that the very basis of rapport is trust. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

Beyond trust is genuine interest and curiosity in your prospect’s needs, and by that I mean their business interests as well as their personal agenda.

How often have you seen sales assets (love that phrase) impatiently wait until a prospect stops talking to seize the opportunity to talk about the features and functionality of their product. That kind of behavior might or might not contribute to the immediate sale (it sometimes does, for sure), but at the same time signals very strongly that the salesperson is at best a “reliable supplier” and at worst an “order taker.”

Zach: Yes, obviously some percentage of our sales assets are just like that, and we need to weed them out or shift them to alternative roles on the team asap.

On the other hand, can I train somebody who has solid empathy and a good intellectual base to understand the end users’ problems and needs? Of course. In our grandfathers’ sales teams—where things were less formal and more shoot from the hip—we would expect every sales asset on the team to build their own questions, their own presentations, their own tools. In the type of organization we are talking about here, a twenty first century team, we can build s library of those tools, using best of breed methodology and make it available to all the sales assets. That way we are not weakened by our weakest link but we are all as strong as our strongest link. These pooled sales enablement tools can help less mature sales assets present as trusted advisors.

We can see then that by using recruitment, content, training and sales enablement tools we can field a team of trusted advisors. Then we come back to the cost of doing so…..

Benjamin: Let me push back on that a little. Let’s assume that you, Zach, are to trusted sales what Usain Bolt was to the 100 meter dash at his peak, the absolute best by some distance. Do you believe that Mr. Bolt would be the best person to train the track and field team at your local high-school? Training and coaching are specialized professions, as intricate and difficult to master as any other.

What you are describing is mentoring. Taking a journeyman salesperson under your wing and showing them how things are done. That sort of training is invaluable for sure, but it depends on you spending quite a bit of your time at it, and it will produce inconsistent results for any number of reasons. That’s how samurai were trained and we already agreed that’s an inefficient model for our times, right?

Zach: Well, thank you Benja, although I am not that familiar with sports metaphors so I hope that is a good thing…. I used to, many years ago, think that the best X made the best teachers of X, but it is clearly not the case. I think that you need people who know how to train and coach sales people, and while they should have solid field experience, not all great salespeople will make great sales coaches. I think that you are right in that most companies also aren’t going to be able to afford to put together a training course to support developing Trusted Advisors – I’ve seen companies try this internally without great success.

Benjamin - I think that anyone in your position would be better served by an expert coach that can work with you to produce a training program for your sales assets that uses your time and expertise in the most effective way possible.


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