Do you want to be a trusted advisor? Know when to take orders.


This is a repost from Sept-2016. A recent conversation with a friend made me think it might be time for a reminder.

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Several years ago, when I started my consulting practice, I needed to purchase life insurance. I contacted three insurance agents and told them my need (the type of policy and coverage amount).

Two got back to me requesting a meeting to conduct a financial needs assessment. They wanted to better understand my situation and determine what products would be best. The third told me that she could be at my house the next morning with the application forms for me to sign.

It’s ten years later. Guess which one is my trusted advisor?

Given the title of this article, you probably assumed it’s the third agent. You’re right. However, based on what I regularly hear inside organizations, shouldn’t it have been one of the first two? I can’t tell you how often I hear leaders tell their staff “don’t be an order taker, we need to add value”.

The problem is that many internal functions misunderstand how their business partners define value.  As a result, they force their customer through excess processes, discussions, and activities that often delay delivering anything of actual value.

Imagine how tedious it would be if for every purchase that you wanted to make, you first had to convince a sales person that you were asking for the right thing. Now consider how often you do that to your business partners.

The greatest value that you can provide your customer, whether internal or external, is to quickly and effectively make their problems go away. My problem was a lack of insurance. I chose the person who created the fastest and straightest path to a policy.

The pushback that I often hear is that customers don’t always know what they need. They need our expertise to figure out their true problem. Without it, they might select solutions that will waste their (and the organization’s) time and money. In other words, we believe that our value is saving our customers from themselves. While well meaning, this type of thinking is misguided.

First, people, especially executives, often have a pretty good idea of what they need. It might not be a perfect or holistic solution but it’s usually not completely out in left field. It may not solve their problem entirely but it will most likely move them a little closer. And, the quicker you start working on their solution, the sooner you can have a conversation about what might be missing from it.

I have an undergraduate degree in Economics with a minor in Finance. My program included several courses on insurance. I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. It might not have been 100% perfect or informed by knowledge of the latest insurance products. However, the solution I asked for was reasonable. Don’t assume that your customers don’t know what they need. This is especially true in an age where information is readily available via the internet.

Second, in most organizations there is pretty little risk of an isolated, one-off decision doing too much damage. I’ve yet to see an organization collapse because people attended a training program that wasn’t really needed or bought a one-off piece of software that didn’t quite meet their needs.

In my case the stakes were a little higher. A bad life insurance decision could be devastating. A good advisor knows when to step in and when to go with the flow. If I chose a death benefit that clearly would not have protected my family, I’d hope that he or she would intervene. However, even without doing a detailed “needs assessment”, it should have been clear that my request was directionally correct (unless there was something very out of the ordinary going on). The only real risks were that I’d pay a bit more than necessary or miss some financial opportunities afforded by other products. However, those were both short term risks. I wasn’t committing to the policy forever. A good advisor would have figured out that at that moment I valued protection more than cost or features.

There is much less risk from your customer making a bad decision than you think. The greater risk for you is being seen as an obstructionist who can’t deliver on a simple request.

Becoming a trusted advisor is a long game. It’s based on on-going, repeat interactions. Use that to your advantage. Deliver on the small stuff so that you’ll have an opportunity to later discuss the big stuff. The first word in trusted advisor is “trusted”. If you can’t do what someone asked, why would they trust you to do something else?

At this point, I’ve changed my insurance policy four times on the advice of my agent. Once it was in place and my immediate need was met, I was much more open to hearing about other types of policies and additional considerations for selecting one.

I also now have my wife’s life insurance policy, our retirement savings accounts, and my disability insurance policy with her. At the time that she set up my first policy, I never imagined that I’d have all of my financial services products with her.

She is my trusted advisor. She is the first person I go to with a question about my personal finances. I’ve gone from having one product with her to eight. Isn’t that the kind of relationship internal departments are looking for?

I have no idea what happened to those other two agents. Perhaps they are still waiting to discuss my needs. I wasn’t looking for a trusted advisor. I was looking for someone to make my problem go away. My agent did just that. And, in doing so, she became my trusted advisor.

A good trusted advisor knows when it’s ok to take an order and when his or her client may need some additional help thinking through a problem. Defaulting to either one every time will quickly make you irrelevant.

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Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors. He can be reached at brad.kolar@availadvisors.com.

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