40 Steps to Becoming a Trusted Advisor

David Maister, author of "The Trusted Advisor," joined AccountingWEB in an online workshop today for a unique perspective of what it takes to become a successful advisor in today's competition-rich professional world. Read the complete transcript of this informative workshop.

This workshop was sponsored by the International Group of Accounting Firms


IGAF

Click here to buy the bookAccountingWEB would like to encourage everyone to consider getting a copy of this book if you are looking to improve your advisory relationships with your clients.

For a sneak preview of the kinds of practical tips that are scattered throughout the entire book, and with compliments of David Maister, below are some excerpts of The Trusted Advisor, the "golden nuggets" that we hope everyone can take away with them:

  1. Becoming a good advisor takes more than having good advice to offer. You don’t get the chance to employ advisory skills until you can get someone to trust you enough to share their problems with you.
  2. The more your clients trust you, the more they will:

    • Reach for your advice
    • Be inclined to accept and act on your recommendations
    • Bring you in on more advanced, complex, strategic issues
    • Treat you as you wish to be treated
    • Respect you
    • Share more information that helps you to help them, and improves the quality of the service you provide
    • Pay your bills without question
    • Refer you to their friends and business acquaintances
    • Lower the level of stress in your interactions
    • Give you the benefit of the doubt
    • Forgive you when you make a mistake
    • Protect you when you need it (even from their own organization)
    • Warn you of dangers that you might avoid
    • Be comfortable and allow you to be comfortable
    • Involve you early on when their issues begin to form, rather than later in the process (or maybe even call you first!)
    • Trust your instincts and judgments (including those about other people such as your colleagues and theirs)

  3. Here is a listing of traits that our trusted advisors have in common. They:

    • Seem to understand us, effortlessly, and like us
    • Are consistent: We can depend on them
    • Always help us see things from fresh perspectives
    • Don’t try to force things on us
    • Help us think things through (it’s our decision)
    • Don’t substitute their judgment for ours
    • Don’t panic or get overemotional. They stay calm
    • Help us think and separate our logic from our emotion
    • Criticize and correct us gently, lovingly
    • Don’t pull their punches: we can rely on them to tell us the truth
    • Are in it for the long haul (the relationship is more important than the current issue)
    • Give us reasoning (to help us think) not just their conclusions
    • Give us options, increase our understanding of those options, give us their recommendation, and let us choose.
    • Challenge our assumptions: help us uncover the false assumptions we’ve been working under
    • Make us feel comfortable and casual personally, (but they take the issues seriously)
    • Act like a person, not someone in a role
    • Are reliably on our side, and always seem to have our interests at heart
    • Remember everything we ever said (without notes)
    • Are always honorable: they don’t gossip about others (we trust their values)
    • Help us put our issues in context, often through the use of metaphors, stories and anecdotes (Few problems are completely unique)
    • Have a sense of humor to diffuse (our) tension in tough situations
    • Are smart (sometimes in ways we’re not)

  4. A common trait of trusted advisor relationships is that the advisor places a higher value on maintaining and preserving the relationship itself than on the outcomes of the current transaction, financial and otherwise.

  5. There are two important things to note about building trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self-interest in check, and, second, it can be won or lost very rapidly.

  6. Much of business is transacted “as if” it were all in the rational realm. While outstanding technical competence (or content) is a non-negotiable, essential ingredient in success, it is not sufficient. Trust is a lot richer than logic alone, and it is a significant component of success.

  7. The movie The Godfather had it wrong when it said “It ain’t personal, it’s business.” The truth is “It’s business; it is personal.”

  8. Many professionals approach the task of giving advice as if it were an objective, rational exercise based on their technical knowledge and expertise. However, it is almost always an emotional "duet," played between the advice-giver and the client. If you can't learn to recognize, deal with and respond to client emotions, you will never be an effective advisor.

  9. It is not enough for a professional to be right: An advisor's job is to be helpful.

  10. Although advising clients sometimes feels like explaining things to a child, the secret to becoming a good advisor is to do exactly the opposite. We should act as if we are trying to advise our mother or father.

  11. There are always a number of ways of expressing the same thought, each of which differs in how it is received by the listener. Saying "You've got to do X," even when correct, is very likely to evoke emotional resistance. No one likes to be told that they must do anything (even when they do).

  12. Take something as simple as "What are your problems?" This can easily be taken as confrontational and challenging. A good substitute might be "What is most in need of improvement?" As a quick rule of thumb, it is usually better to try to turn assertions into questions.

  13. In many ways advisory skills are similar to those of great teaching. A teacher's task is to help a student get from point A (what they know, understand and believe now) to point B (an advanced state of deeper understanding and knowledge.)

  14. Effective advice giving requires an ability to suppress one's own ego and emotional needs. The most effective way to influence a client is to help the client feel that the solution was his or her idea, or at the very least his or her decision.

  15. An advisor's role is to be an expert guide in the process of reasoning through the problem. Our ability to be accepted as a trustworthy guide can be damaged if our client believes that we have already reached our own inflexible conclusion.

  16. To build a strong personal relationship, you try to be understanding, thoughtful, considerate, sensitive to feelings and supportive. All of these adjectives apply equally well to what is needed to build a strong business relationship.

  17. To earn a relationship, you must go first. You must give a favor to earn a favor.

  18. A primary goal of any relationship building activity is to create opportunities to demonstrate that you have something to contribute. There’s no better way to do this than to start contributing.

  19. At the core of earning someone’s trust is convincing them that you are dealing with them as an individual human being, and not as a member of a group or class or subset. Accordingly, as you listen to a client talk, the question on your mind should be “What makes this person different from any other client I’ve served?” This is hard work. The natural tendency of most of us is to do the exact opposite: we listen for the things we recognize and have met before, so that we can draw upon past experience to use the words, approaches and tools that we already know well. It’s the way most of us work, but it doesn’t always serve us well.

  20. All people, including clients, want affirmation, approval, support and appreciation. In order to get your client to listen to and accept your advice, you must hold back the temptation to say, early on, “I know how to solve your problem, you need to do the following”. You may be right, but you will fail as a trusted advisor, and your advice will probably not be accepted. Clients don’t always want advice; they often just want a sympathetic ear.

  21. To get what you want from someone, you must first focus on giving them what they want!

  22. Another major obstacle to focusing on the other person is worrying about ourselves. In the midst of a conversation with a client, we are likely to find ourselves with thoughts like, ‘How will I solve this problem?’ ‘How will I get the client to buy this idea?’ If we are honest and strip down all these distractions to the core, we are likely to find some form of fear at the root: fear of embarrassment, of failure, of appearing ignorant or incompetent.

  23. Sincerity is crucial to both trust and relationships. If you have it and can show it, you’ll do well. If you try to “fake it” (i.e. use the tactics without really caring), but always act that way, you’ll probably end up creating something that is indistinguishable from the genuine article. What will not work is the use of occasional tactics that are inconsistent with the way you normally behave. These will soon be spotted for what they are: phony, insincere and clumsy efforts, and they will not only be ineffective but will create an adverse reaction.

  24. In relationships, there are no win-lose or lose-win combinations: There are only win-win and lose-lose. If the fit is not there for one party, then, just as for couples who ultimately divorce, it will, in the end, not work for the either of them. To speak the truth about the disparity may be difficult, but it is usually the most efficient way out, not to mention the kindest.

  25. Many professionals say: “My client knows I am credible and reliable. So why doesn’t my client trust me?” The answer, of course, is that trust has multiple dimensions: credibility, reliability, intimacy and lack of self-orientation. Winning trust requires that you do well on all four dimensions (in the client’s eyes), unless you are so superb at one or two dimensions that you can overcome some relative weaknesses in the others. Even then, you have to be truly superb, not just good.

  26. It does not diminish the importance of credibility to say that it is the one aspect of trust that is most commonly achieved. This is the factor most likely to be done well by you (and your competitors). Credibility isn't just content expertise. It's content expertise plus "presence," which refers to how we look, act, react and talk about our content.

  27. Reliability is about whether clients think you are dependable and can be trusted to behave in consistent ways. Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you. We tend to trust the people we know well, and assign less trustworthiness to those with whom we have not interacted.

  28. The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals consider it a positive virtue to maintain an emotional distance from their clients. They work hard at being “aloof.” We believe that they do so not only at their own risk, but also to that of their clients.

  29. There is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service and trying to help the client. We must work hard to show that our self-orientation is under control.

  30. Engagement, the first stage of building trust, is the point in the process where the client begins to feel two things: There is an issue worth talking about, and this person is worth talking to on that issue.

  31. Listening, when successful, is the point in the process where the client comes to believe that the advisor understands him or her. The purpose of listening in building trust is to earn the right to engage in a mutual exploration of ideas.

  32. Framing, which is simultaneously a means to build trust and essential to the advice-giving process, is the process by which advisor helps the client crystallize and clarify the many issues involved in the client’s problem.

  33. In the stage of jointly “Envisioning”, the advisor and the client imagine (in rich detail) how the end-result might look, without prematurely giving in to the temptation to solve the problem. When done successfully, envisioning is usually the point in the process where the client begins to understand his or her own true goals.

  34. The purpose of the Commitment stage of trust-building (and advice-giving) is to ensure that the client understands (in all of its rational, emotional and political complexity) what it will take to achieve the vision, and help the client find the determination to do what is necessary.

  35. What do good listeners do that makes them good listeners? They:
    • Probe for clarification
    • Listen for unvoiced emotions
    • Listen for the story
    • Summarize well
    • Empathize
    • Listen for what’s different, not for what’s familiar
    • Take it all seriously (they don’t say, “you shouldn’t worry about that".)
    • Spot hidden assumptions
    • Let the client “get it out of his/her system”
    • Ask “How do you feel about that?”
    • Keep the client talking (What else have you considered?)
    • Keep asking for more detail that helps them understand
    • Get rid of distractions while listening
    • Focus on hearing your version first
    • Let you tell your story your way
    • Stand in your shoes, at least while they’re listening
    • Ask you how you think they might be of help
    • Ask what you’ve thought of before telling you what they’ve thought of
    • Look at (not stare at) the client as he or she speaks
    • Look for "congruency" (or incongruity) between what the client says and how he/she gestures and postures.
    • Make it seem as if the client is the only thing that matters and that they have all the time in the world.
    • Encourage by nodding head or slight smile
    • Are aware of their body movement (no moving around, shaking legs, fiddling with a paper clip.)

  36. It is horribly tempting to omit discussions of risks, uncertainties and pitfalls at the beginning of an assignment, or worse, when we are still trying to win the assignment. A natural instinct is to project an air of “This can be done, no problem, leave it to us, we’ll take care of everything!” This is often done in the mistaken impression that such phrases create trust by projecting self-confidence. However, it can equally often be interpreted as arrogance or secrecy (“What’s he hiding?”)

  37. Many professionals’ actions are driven by fears, including fear of not having the answer; not being able to get the right answer quickly; having the wrong answer; committing some social faux pas; looking confused; not knowing how to respond; having missed some information; revealing some ignorance; misdiagnosing.

  38. Emotions and desires we must learn to control include:
    • Wanting (needing?) to take credit for an idea
    • Wanting to fill blank airtime with content
    • Playing to our own insecurity by feeling we have to get all our credentials out there
    • Wanting to put a cap on the problem so we can solve it later, without the pressure
    • Wanting to hedge our answers in case we're wrong
    • Wanting (too soon) to relate our own version of the client's story or problem

  39. How does one sell? By demonstrating (not asserting) to a client that we have something to offer and that we are someone in whom they can place their trust. These are essentially serving actions. How does one serve? Serving means helping the client and meeting his or her needs in such a way that the client is delighted, wants to hire us again, and tells all their friends and business acquaintances about us. What is that if not selling?

  40. The best selling technique is to not sell, but to commence the service process. Many professionals, in their business development activities, will talk about serving, rather than actually serving. (“It’s going to be wonderful once you start paying, we promise you. But we won’t show you anything until money changes hands”) This is not credible and is completely ineffective.

You may like these other stories...

Remember the old joke about the devil showing a guy around Hell? There were great parties, swimming pools, and sumptuous food. The guy liked what he saw, lived a bad life and went to Hell when he died. Upon arrival the devil...
Due to fierce competition in the accounting industry, some CPAs may feel pressure to compete for business using pricing alone. However, this is a losing battle in the long run: Competing on price will lead to the need for...
If the thought of blogging makes you as nervous as an executive facing an IRS audit, stop worrying. You can overcome your challenges with these tips.1. Blogging is good for business. You'll benefit as your blog displays...

Already a member? log in here.

Upcoming CPE Webinars

Aug 26
This webcast will include discussions of recently issued, commonly-applicable Accounting Standards Updates for non-public, non-governmental entities.
Aug 28
Excel spreadsheets are often akin to the American Wild West, where users can input anything they want into any worksheet cell. Excel's Data Validation feature allows you to restrict user inputs to selected choices, but there are many nuances to the feature that often trip users up.
Sep 9
In this session we'll discuss the types of technologies and their uses in a small accounting firm office.
Sep 11
This webcast will include discussions of commonly-applicable Clarified Auditing Standards for audits of non-public, non-governmental entities.