Becoming a Trusted Advisor, with David Maister

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Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Workshop presented by: David Maister

Tuesday October 17, 2000
Workshop sponsored by theInternational Group of Accounting Firms

Michael Platt: We are delighted to be joined today by David Maister, one of the worlds leading experts in professional services. David has consulted and presented his ideas to professional services firms all across the English speaking world, and then some.

This session will be interactive, so all questions are encouraged. This will be your chance to spend an hour with "the guru" and find out about what you need to know to become more successful.

David's session today will focus on the major points of his new book "The Trusted Advisor." Our moderator of the session will be Henry South, managing partner of Atkinson & Co. in Albuquerque New Mexico.

Henry South: Welcome!

David I know that you just finished the new book",The Trusted Advisor." Could you give us a little background?

David Maister: The book grew from the fact that I struggle with winning clients' confidence and trust. I often think I'm right, but they don't always think I'm helpful. It takes emotional and social skills that I struggle to learn.

Henry South: What is the most important factor that we need to learn to develop that trusted relationship?

David Maister: The most important factor in winning trust is making the client believe that you are putting their interests first. Most of us leave clients thinking we're mostly interested in them for the money.

Paul Dunn: How do you come to that conclusion David?

L Gill: How do we instill the qualities learned into our new staff? Many don't want to spend the time "working" at becoming that trusted advisor, but want to be "instant experts"

David Maister: New staff must learn from your role modeling. When they hear you talk about clients, do they hear you being supportive, sensitive, caring, or do they hear you talk about jobs, money, receivables and resented demands?

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: There really are no short cuts to building trust are there? It is not instantaneous. But some people achieve it more quickly than others.

David Maister: You can build trust quickly by being generous with your ideas before the meter starts running. As another example, my dentist calls me every single time I go. He calls that evening to ask if I'm feeling OK. That's caring! And as a result, I trust him

David Maister: Let me give another example. A lawyer I know won my business by starting to be helpful as soon as talked. He shared his knowledge freely and for free, so I wanted to work with him. His competitors tried to get my business by selling; telling me it was going to be wonderful once I started paying!! That wasn't convincing. You've got to give a favor to get a favor.

Henry South: Most of us feel that we have to be right all the time and it makes it difficult for us to go "out on the limb" do you have any suggestions?

David Maister: I do think that our problem (you and me) is the feeling that we have to be right. And it's wrong. Our job is to be helpful!

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: Our job as consultants is also to make the client look good - not put the focus on ourselves.

Paul Dunn: Why should a meter start? Are not fixed price agreements the way forward? Are not FPA's great ways to build and instill trust one to the other? And I bet your dentist has a fixed fee David?

David Maister: What's an FPA?

Paul Dunn: A fixed price agreement.

David Maister: Yes, a premium fixed fee, but why's that relevant?

Paul Dunn: Because you mentioned "a meter starting".

David Maister: No, I don't see that fixed fees have anything to do with it. The question is, under what circumstance would a client willingly give us premium fees. And I think the answer is if we have developed a relationship and s/he knows that I'm on his/her side. Big fees are a consequence of great relationships, but first we've got to go to earn them!

Henry South: What other ways do you create a win-win situation while consulting with our clients?

L Gill: Make them feel that they are your only client.

David Maister: Briefly, the key lesson for me in my work life is that "it's not about the work, it's about the client" We all make the mistake of thinking that our business exists in the rational realm, when in fact, it's all about emotions. What I'm ready for, what I'll consider, what I'll listen to.

Paul Dunn: So true.

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: Paul - I think pricing as you suggest is one key, but perhaps there is too much importance put on pricing as the key to everything.

Paul Dunn: Right on. And my point is that that is much easier to do by focusing on outcomes rather than on the time you spent.

Henry South: You have said that we have to be good listeners to be a trusted advisor, can you expound on that?

Samantha Lee: Is there a question of trust if you can land the file but you may not have the expertise to do the follow-up and there is someone else in your firm that can provide the expert advice?

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: I agree that the importance of emotions is underestimated and neglected by all kinds of professionals.

Paul Dunn: It (emotion) is surely the basis of any relationship.

David Maister: Consider a doctor helping someone lose weight. You can say "eat less exercise more" and you'll be right, but you won't have much impact. To do that, you need to understand this person's lifestyle, how they feel about things, what they've tried and rejected. It's all very squishy, emotional and interpersonal, but I can tell you as a fat smoker, no doctor can help me if he or she just focuses on "being right!"

The reason emotions are neglected is we weren't taught anything about them; our firm didn't hire us for them. No one teaches us this stuff, and if you're not sensitive to it up front, it's hard to spot when you're doing it wrong. That's why we wrote the book!

L Gill: Where is it available?

David Maister: Book is available on Amazon and usual bookstores.

Henry South: So you really have to listen and understand your client before giving advice?

David Maister: Yes you have to listen and focus on your client as an individual, and it's hard. We tend to listen for what's familiar (it makes us comfortable) rather than what's unique about this person.

I think there's a powerful analogy in romantic relationships. The principle is the same in business relationships. When your romantic partner asks for your advice, you do a lot of listening before you say "I know what your doing wrong, beloved!"

Sue DeJonge: Who believes they are capable of giving advice before they really know their client's needs?

Michael Platt: David, you identify a number of common traits of trusted advisors. Can you elaborate on that please?

David Maister: I do think that many professionals have self-selected miserable lives. In most firms I meet, the clients are "the other" "them" "the enemy". Rather than having a life filled with working for people you care about on stuff you love, most people think they've got to put up with miserable clients because it's money. The truth is, you make more money with less effort if you're working for people you can care about,

L Gill: There may be some among us who avoid emotional involvement. Are we doomed?

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: People who avoid emotional involvement have big voids in their

David Maister: The key traits of a trusted advisor are similar to being good at romance. You must care, listen, be sensitive to moods, on their side, worry about them as much as the problem, bring flowers on unexpected occasions (or whatever the gender specific action is).

Phyllis Weiss Hasero: David - I see the analogy you draw. Is it possible to fake it?

David Maister: My estimate is that about 3% of the population can successfully fake it (make people think they care when they don't). These are the natural seducers (of either gender). 97% of the rest of us can't pull it off. We can't make people think we care when we don't

Sue DeJonge: I agree

Henry South: You've described that the best selling technique is "not to sell" can you explain, more fully?

David Maister: Yes, quite simply, think of your own buying. What makes you go with someone for your legal affairs, consulting work, your childcare, your doctor. Someone who never sells, but just starts straight away serving you, saying have you though of this, have you seen that, let me send you something. You and I are much more likely to be disarmed by that than someone who says let me tell you about my capabilities. We go with those who earn our confidence by demonstrating, not those who hustle us. And here's the key slogan "Clients are US!"

Michael Platt: You talk about a primary goal of any relationship building activity is to create opportunities to demonstrate that you have something to contribute. Does this mean freebies? Unsolicited advice? Copies or articles?

David Maister: Yes to freebies, unsolicited advice, articles, anything! Very occasionally you'll get ripped off, so you move on (Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me). But practicing this way means that you'll have a business filled with clients who show goodwill towards you. That's worth getting ripped off occasionally.

While waiting for questions, let me offer one of our thoughts: trust is made up of credibility, reliability, intimacy (WOW) and lack of self-orientation. Does that help, or prompt a thought?

L Gill: It's been seven years since your book",Managing the Professional Service Firm" was introduced. In your opinion, have any of the top five challenges changed in that time?

David Maister: NO, I think the issues in accounting firms haven't changed. Partners still don't read their client's trade magazines, most partners do not have a strategic plan for themselves (*i.e. know where they wanna be 3 years from now), supervision of people is pathetic, and under delegation is rife. Other than that, they're having a ball!

Paul Dunn: David, what issues does the new book deal with that "True Professionalism" missed?

David Maister: Paul, this latest book contains a lot more how-to’s. It's an operating manual for the individual. "TRUE PROFESSIONALISM" was more of a call to arms, but with less practical advice. Here, we tried to give lots of hot tips about precisely how to do it.

In TRUE PROFESSIONALISM" I gave the results of a survey. You'll recall that accountants tell me they love their work about 20% of the time, the rest is tolerable, and they LOVE their clients about 30% of the time. That's sad. The good lord only gave us one life, we better spend it doing things we care about (and with people we care for.) Anything less is a tragedy.

L Gill: Agree. Life is too short.

David Ross: Here we are using the latest technology to communicate. What role do you see technology playing (if any) in building/enhancing trust?

David Maister: Technology makes it easier to stay in touch and share ideas. It's easier to send an email saying here's something you may not have seen. I send 3 or 4 times the number of emails than I did letters or phone calls. Stay in touch!

Henry South: Many of us react to our clients and basically are driven by our fears, have you any thoughts of overcoming these issues?

David Maister: Yes, I do think it's fear and insecurity. The key is to WANT with a visceral hunger what a practice built on trusting relationships can bring. I don't WANT to write proposals. I WANT clients who respect me and listen to me and bring me in. And I'm willing to work to try and deserve it. I won't settle for les, and I think many accountants have settled for a practice they are not enjoying.

Henry South: How do you guide a client to find a reasonable solution to a problem?

David Maister: It's a teaching skill. You must give options, give an education about those options (pro's con's, risks, costs) than suggest a preference, and then let the client choose. Now notice, the key is not what is LOGICAL? The key is "How does this person think?" If you can understand that, you can lead them to (what you think is) the right answer.

Ron Baker: David, what do you think of the concept of tearing up, once and for all, time sheets in the professions?

David Maister: I don't have a problem with time sheets, as long as they are put in context. I'm against rewarding people for their billable hour (a separate issue) when there is no check on whether they are the right things for that person to be doing. The problems in the comp system, not the time sheets

Ron Baker: I'd say the time sheets drive the comp system.

Paul Dunn: Don't timesheets actually force a focus on the wrong thing?

Brenda Richter: Especially when firms put time annual billable hours goals on their team members.

Ron baker: They force the CPA to focus the client on the wrong thing.

Jonathan Hall: The key concept should be value to the client, which translates into bottom line profit, which is the real way to reward professionals.

David Maister: Jonathan I agree. The program that got me working had on my counseling/advisory skills was when I put in place an unconditional client satisfaction guarantee (Pay me only what you think I'm worth.) Boy, that forced me to pay attention to this stuff, and when I did, I could raise my already outrageous fees. As you said, the key is to reward people for being more valuable to the client, in ways the client thinks is more valuable. Do that, and you get rich!

Jonathan Hall: Thanks, I'm in the process of setting up a firm in the UK with just that goal.

Henry South: You have spoken of jointly envisioning a solution with a client, can you explain that?

David Maister: Envisioning: sorry for the jargon, but it means this. When you've defined a problem, it's tempting to start solving it. But that's moving too fast. First, you've got to find out where the client wants to be. For example, the fact that I'm fat is a good problem statement, but you have to talk to me to see if I want the "lose 10 pounds" program or the "lose 40 pounds program" They are very different, and you to have to clarify what my vision is of where I want to get to before you propose a solution. (And notice, I probably lie and fool myself a lot. You'll need delicacy skills to deal with me.)

Michael Platt: David, what is THE MOST critical piece of information you want everyone to take away from your new book?

David Maister: The most critical information for people to take away from the book is that life (business and romantic) is about getting good at building and sustaining relationships. That's the key to making money, and the key to a great personal life. It's about relationships, stupid!

Henry South: We have a few minutes left, does anybody else have any questions for David?

D. Michelle Golden: what is your immediate response when someone questions your value? Er, the value of your services...nothing personal David!

David Maister: Pay me what you want; all I ask is that we discuss what I could have done better. I trust your beloved client to do right by me, because I'm going to do right by you. (And if you rip me off, I'll walk. OK?

Remember, everyone. You're supposed to be enjoying life. Go out and do that!

Henry South: We want to thank everybody for participating this afternoon and especially thank David Maister for taking his valuable time to converse with us this afternoon. I want to remind everybody that the transcript of this afternoon will be posted within a couple of hours on this site. We appreciate everybody participating and encourage you to log in on future discussions.

Also, we encourage you to log on to David's website at

Michael Platt: David, thank you very much!!

D. Michelle Golden: Thank you, David. It's always a pleasure to hear your unique perspective.

David Maister: Me and the Bible!

D. Michelle Golden: Funny you say that. Many firms consider your books to be their "bibles"...

Michael Platt: Thanks everyone for coming. We appreciate your support of AccountingWEB and encourage you to "spread the word" within your firm.

See you next time . . .

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