Establishing Trusted Advisor status

Search for the term “Trusted advisor” on Google, and you’ll get over 1.3 million results. It’s a popular concept, and not just for IT – everyone from accountants to car salesmen yearns to attain that enviable state.

But exactly what is a trusted advisor?

Among other things, it’s a magical phrase that suggests a solid “in” with the customer but, says Philip Stone, president of Victoria-based Boardwalk Communications, it’s also a seriously overused term. “It feels like everyone says it,” he notes. “It’s like ‘friends’ on Facebook.”Whatever you call it, he continues, “it takes time. You can’t walk into an account and say you want to become their trusted advisor.”

Oakville, Ont. solution provider Unis Lumin‘s CTO Mauro Lollo agrees. “Trust is a long-term proposition that is built in phases by achieving mutual successes,” he says. “Empathy for customer situations and the ability to uncover and solve ‘pain’ in a consultative and open approach are key.” A solution provider and its vendors all need to be of the same mind about this approach and support each other.

From a customer’s point of view, according to the City of London, Ont.‘s manager, information systems, Brian Whitelaw, trusted advisors have to show integrity, and tell you when they can and cannot provide the best service. If a vendor says it has the skills for an engagement, and either doesn’t have them or swaps a skilled staffer for one who isn’t up to scratch, that vendor is unlikely to become a trusted advisor.

On the other hand, says Whitelaw, “If I call Brian or Derek (from CMS Consulting, a company he does regard as a trusted advisor) and ask if they have skill sets, I get an honest answer.”

There’s a difference between mere trust in a partner and being a trusted advisor, according to CMS Consulting president Brian Bourne. You earn trust by selling a function and performing as promised. In any partner relationship, that’s necessary, he says. But a trusted advisor goes beyond that. “It’s more personal,” says Bourne. “More forward-looking. You’re looking out for each other’s future. It’s more person-to-person than company-to-company.”

On the other hand, a trusted advisor has to know his limits. Bourne points out that you don’t ask your GP for advice about your teeth – and if you do, he should refer you to a dentist. Similarly, he says, as a trusted advisor his role is to point customers in the right direction, not necessarily to do the work if he can’t offer the appropriate skill set.

Stone agrees. “In order to be a trusted advisor, you need to know what you’re selling in great detail. Understand what you offer, and what your customer needs,” he says. “Then ask yourself, is it a marriage, or not. You can’t be all things to all people.”

“Think outside the box,” urges Eric Rydzkowski, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Lanworks. “Help the customer gain efficiency in its own IT organization, reduce costs and increase quality. Try to use experiences from other environments to help them optimize theirs.”Rydzkowski has found over the past year that the customer’s CFO is a new addition to the decision-makers in IT projects, and thus a partner who clearly demonstrates value on both fronts can become a trusted advisor on both the technical and the financial side of a business.

The process takes time, but he says that one benefit of investing the effort to become a trusted advisor is that customers tend to do less shopping around, even if the advisor’s price is a bit higher than the competition’s.

There are, believe it or not, also a few downsides to achieving trusted advisor status. Lollo points out that sometimes a partner has to recommend that a customer not make a purchase. And from a customer’s point of view, says Whitelaw, you have to be careful with personal relationships that may cloud judgment. After golf or dinner with a partner (or a vendor, for that matter – this is a hazard for the channel too), you may feel obligated.

Finally, says Bourne, “You can’t screw up. I think you only lose it once.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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