Becoming a trusted advisor means taking an earnest interest in helping customers solve their problem, providing them with guidance, and following up until the problem is actually solved. It is a long-term process rather than a short-term action, and it follows a very simple and predictable pattern that begins with considering the customer’s needs and continues through ensuring those needs have been fulfilled. For simplicity’s sake, this can be broken into four basic steps:
Step One: Consider the Customer’s NeedsA prerequisite to the ability to give good advice is having something of value to offer the person you are advising. In commercial relationships, this means having a good or service that meets the customer’s needs: it solves a problem that is troubling them or helps them achieve a goal that they have chosen for themselves.
This sounds simple enough, but the ambition to sell as many products to as many people as possible causes companies to fail to consider whether a given person would get a benefit from their product and whether it’s genuinely worth the cost and effort of obtaining and using it. Their advice is self-serving rather than good for the customer, and most customers recognize this and reject it.
So the first step in giving good advice is to decide whether advice is necessary at all and to be both objective and reasonable is assessing whether a given product is at all useful to the individual customer – and if not, then seek a valid market or alter the product to make it worthwhile.
Step Two: Ask Relevant QuestionsGood advice is tailored to the individual. While certain practices are good in general, “general” advice is usually regarded as aphorisms and platitudes doled out nonchalantly without concern for a person’s individual situation. In order to know the customer’s needs, you have to ask questions to learn about them.
Doing research is not the same as asking questions, nor does it help to build trust: while people are well aware that marketing databases exist, they still express that it is “creepy” for a company to know things that they haven’t chosen to disclose. And research often turns up highly specious connections that, in spite of their statistical significance, seem irrelevant.
The questioning process demonstrates concern, builds trust, and makes the customer mindful of the reasons that a recommendation is made. When you ask questions before giving advice, the customer recognizes (or at least reckons) that the advice you are giving is based on the information they just gave you.
Step Three: Justify a Solution
The final step in the advice process is to provide and justify a solution, based on the information gathered during the questioning process. It is not until a trust relationship is well established that people will accept advice without justification – and even when the trust is there, it should not be taken for granted: always justify a recommendation.
Justifying advice not only builds trust, but it increases compliance. A serious of studies in behavioral psychology (Langer 1978) demonstrate a dramatic increase in compliance when a person who makes a request states a reason, even if the reason itself seems entirely specious.
So the ideal way to provide advice is to use “since” or “because” in a very specific pattern:
- Since [you said this], I recommend [this action]
- I recommend [this action] because [you said this]
Step Four: Follow Up and Take ResponsibilityThe greatest mistake most companies make is abandoning the customer the moment the sale is made. There is no better demonstration of insincerity than a person or organization who abandons you as soon as they have gotten what they wanted from the transaction, and no better way to destroy any trust that might have been earned.
Following up is simple enough: it’s a matter of remembering to touch base with the customer after a reasonable amount of time to ask if their problem has been solved. Customer satisfaction surveys are becoming more common, but they are not sufficient because the results are considered in the aggregate rather than individually – and it’s arguable whether they result in any significant amount of action.
The best advisors follow up individually – to see if their advice has been followed and, if so, to ensure that the person they advised benefitted from it. More than that, the advisor will work with the other person to help them solve their problem or achieve their goal, by providing follow-on advice and recommendations, and stay with them until the solution has been achieved. This demonstrates genuine concern and a true commitment to service.
The value of being a trusted advisor is the long-term loyalty of customers, but this loyalty is reciprocal: it must be given in order to be received. An advisor must be loyal to the interests of those he advises, he must consider their objectives, learn about their situation, provide a valid solution, follow up to ensure the solution was implemented, and continue to provide support until the problem is solved. Anything less is insufficient.