• Benjamin Levy

Do You Really Want to be a Trusted Advisor


(the following article was written by Zach Selch and Benjamin Levy. They have shared many miles on the road, rye and bourbon Manhattans in weird places, and insights on persuading large enterprises to buy complex solutions for over twenty years).


Nightmare No. 1

You’ve been leading a largish sales team on an important opportunity for months now, it might have been years really, for all the work you and your team have put in. You are feeling good about your chances. Your product is compliant with all the standards and protocols listed, it meets or exceeds all the benchmarks and it surpasses your competitors’ in some items. You’re even competitive price-wise, and if it comes to that, you’ve been given all the flexibility you need by the home office to get the job.


You’ve done your best, now you wait for the decision that will surely come your way. Except that it doesn’t. A week goes by and another and another and you don’t hear from the client. Finally you manage to track down the purchasing manager on the phone and she tells you that the project was awarded ten days ago to one of your competitors, didn’t anyone tell you?



Nightmare No. 2

You don’t currently do business with The Large Company but would dearly like to do so. As luck would have it, they’ve decided to adopt a new technology—one in which your company is considered a leader in the field. Hurray!


So you travel to The Large Company frequently, do the whole relationship-building bit, get to know people, talk about your solution. You bring over colleagues from product to do “workshops” with TLC’s engineers and they all seem very happy.


You are then told that you will be allowed to bid. Hurray!


Then the request for proposal hits your inbox and you discover that the part that deals with your solution counts for only 50 percent of the score. The rest is taken up with arcane rules, antiquated technology (which you have leap-frogged), and a long-standing physical presence in TLC’s premises (which you don’t currently have).



Nightmare No. 3

Oh forget it, by now we’re pretty sure you get the idea. You “played by the rules” and you got hoodwinked, outmaneuvered, sideswiped, and sandbagged.

You my friend, were outsold. Not your product, not your company, you.

And the person that did it to you didn’t have a better product or a better offering. The person that outfoxed you had the trust of The Large Company. Or as Chevy Chase might put it: they were trusted advisors, and you, you’re not.


The landscape of B2B sales has changed over the past three decades. 


We know that purchasing teams are getting bigger – studies indicate that the average complex purchase involves two additional decision makers than it did at the turn of the millennium. We also know that buyers gather about 80% of the information that they feel they need, before they talk the first time to a vendor. We know that, on average, our prospects are facing more problems that they are tasked to solve than they were before the last financial crisis. 


Where does that leave us? More people are dealing with more problems and they are speaking to sales people much later in the process than ever before. The wealth of information that is available on the Internet is giving decision makers confidence in controlling their purchasing journey—imagine their purchasing journey is Route 66, they are making it all the way past Vegas without talking to a vendor. 


Think about your customer as a golfer, and there you are following behind him, waiting for him to ask you for something….. a data sheet, a discount, a clarification on the source of the material that you wrap your product in….. you are basically a caddy to your customers golf game. In this case you’ve been reduced to being an order-taker. In professional sales parlance, the best you can hope for is to be thought of as a reliable supplier


Now, for a second, imagine yourself striding ahead, studying the course, giving advice that helps you customer achieve the best score of his life. Now you are the golf pro, not that caddy. You have taken back control of the sales process and the purchasing journey. 

There are a number of things that every successful trusted advisor does (and this admittedly an abridged list).


Establish a high level of personal trust and rapport for the decision makers to feel that they can do business with us. Take note “decision makers” plural. There are many people that can stop your project, it’s your job to get them all to trust you.


Help the decision makers isolate, clarify, and prioritize the problem that we solve. If a prospect is tasked with solving 30-50 problems, and we solve one of those, why should they engage with us now, unless that problem is clearly a priority? 


Help the decision makers internalize that our solution solves their problem

Getting the multiple decision making units to understand each other’s needs and compromise on a solution. Yours.  We need to get them to reach a compromise that accepts our solution as the best fit for a myriad of problems. 


If we are the guy handing the prospect his nine iron when he asks for it, or running to get him a cold beer, are we going to be able to take control of the sales process and manage that task list? Which brings us, hopefully, to the clear picture of why we need to be a trusted advisor. 


It seems pretty clear that this is a goal to aim for, the next question is, how do I get there? 


Next: How to become a trusted advisor?

We all know sales people, good, producing sales people, who can hit their number quarter after quarter for decades without being a trusted advisor. Ironically, the “type” of salesman that is often referred to as a “relationship guy” is almost never the “trusted advisor”.  


To be a trusted advisor, we need to have the established relationship and rapport, but we also need, just as importantly, for the prospect to respect us and value our ability to help and advise him. 


Being there – you can’t be a trusted advisor if you aren’t around when needed (consider this necessary but not sufficient). We always advise to set routine calls and visits to talk with the prospect. There is no better way to build rapport and establish trust than actually being there with something of value. 


Zach: Almost twenty years ago, I worked on a huge project in India that ended up becoming a monster PO. For close to two years, virtually every week, I visited the one prospects office and took the time to talk with a dozen or more people in the decision making chain. We offered a wide range of products, so I would give short elevator pitches about the different product lines as well as answer questions that came up, and feed in members of my technical presale team as needed. I presented, for much of this time, no call to action. I was simply there to support. However, when the process advanced and the prospect was looking to write specification for a range of products that we provided, pretty much everyone on the team asked me to “help” them write specifications, and we were able to put our lock out specs in for almost everything that we sold. 

Benjamin: You and I had the same boss at one point that liked to say that, “if you don’t have anything to do, go do it at a client’s place.” There’s a lot to that.

Establish your reputation – Underpromise, overdeliver, do not assume they know what you know, where you’ve been, what you can do to help them.


Zach: I like to use, as my elevator pitch or my introduction, a mention of how I have solved a similar problem for somebody that the prospect should see as a peer. “Hi, I’m Zach, I helped the Ministry of Health of Narnia to increase vaccination compliance by 20% when they faced a similar situation to yours. I’d love to discuss how that worked when you have some time….” 

or

“Hello, I’m Zach, we helped First National Hospital to improve their patient satisfaction scores by 25% when they were facing a similar situation, I’d love to set a date to talk to you about how we did that”. Roping in technology, having several video testimonials and videos of satisfied end users on your ipad can be very powerful. Even better is getting an existing customer to talk to a prospect and recommend you, if you can swing it. 


Benjamin: True, excellent example. However, you’re skipping over the part where you took the time to listen so that when you say “a similar situation,” it really is, well, similar. To your second point, an emphatic “YES.” If you can get someone from the Ministry in Aldebaraan to send a note to Narnia, that’s the best way to build your reputation in a very short time.


Ask the right questions – this is the key to becoming a trusted advisor. 


Zach: During the first face to face visit with a prospect, in what we would call an initial discovery call, I ask a series of questions that I have prepared. 

The first three are questions that I know the answer to, but are complex enough so that I am confident that not only do no other vendors come in with those answers, but in many cases the prospects’ boss doesn’t know the answer to the questions. I spend a fair amount of time, and often an amount of money, working with an external business intelligence researcher, to get the answers to these questions. To a great extent, it’s a party trick – it is information that I can determine from demographic or economic data that is commonly available, or from corporate shareholder reports, or by talking to other people in their company and cross referencing data. However I get it, it is important that I have some information like this, and that it seems to be something that would be difficult if not impossible to know, and it indicates that I understand the prospects day to day needs.  Once I have established my credibility with the first three questions, the other answers flow, and I don’t have to know additional answers, at that point I am actually gathering information. 


Benjamin: I don’t know about it being a party trick, don’t sell yourself short. I think the research and attention to detail pay off handsomely. These are intelligent questions that tell them that you are knowledgeable in their field and might be able to provide value to their job.


Zach: everyone wants to be understood. Everyone feels that nobody quite gets what they are struggling to achieve. There is no greater way for a vendor to establish a trusted advisor status with a prospect than to show that you understand the problems that they face on a day to day basis, even more so than their boss or colleagues. 


This might seem like it pushes up the cost of sale, or decelerates the sales process, but controlling the sales process and having a meaningful impact on the customers’ purchasing journey is a game changer. 


Align the personal and the professional – Every human in business is balancing two agendas, the professional and the personal.


Benjamin: to extend the nerdy metaphors, I always see it as part of my job in these sort of sales situation as bringing balance (to the force). It’s my job to figure out how what we’re selling will impact every person on the client side that’s contributing to the decision. Some will benefit, some might not. In every case the sales team must be aware that conflicts between personal agendas and professional duties never work well for the vendor.


Zach: Exactly, we like to talk about how great our relationships are when we sell, but at the end of the day it’s not about our personal friendships, it’s about what we do to solve the customers’ problems. 


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