During my early years in a professional services team, I thought of myself as being at the center between the client and the internal teams of my organization. That mantra still rings true today, but the way I approach 10 years ago is very different than it is now.
I very much wanted the client to like me and appreciate the work that we were doing for them. With that in mind, I made sure every single one of their requests was well represented with my internal teams. Soon I became known as "the guy who opens too many feature requests", and I was met with frustration and indifference every time I spoke up at product meetings to advocate for changes. Over the years, I realized that my approach was wrong, and it actually did the client a great disservice. Instead of being a trusted advisor, I became a simple conduit for their requests. In retrospect, the clients would have been better off with a username and password to our issues management system so they can make the requests for themselves.
Today, I still believe in listening to the client, but being a simple conduit isn't the right way of executing on their problems. What makes a professional services consultant truly great at their job is their ability to be a trusted advisor to their client. A trusted advisor is someone whom the client can call on for any and all problems because there exists an inherent trust between us that we will always act in the best interests of the client, without an agenda.
Being a trusted advisor requires one key trait: authenticity. Having met many professional services consultants over the years, the great ones all exude an air of authentic confidence. They work with their client's best interests at heart, even if their best interest goes completely contrary to what they have originally asked for. Authentic people are great at three things:
- They Listen Empathetically - Showing up at a client meeting and presenting a templated solution is probably the worst thing a professional services consultant can do. Start by asking "What's your biggest pain right now", and just listen. Truly listen. Listening to our client's problems allows us to understand their pain, but to listen empathetically forces us to share their pain by putting ourselves in their position, and in the process gives us additional perspectives. Once we feel their pain, it's so much easier to break down the problem to solve its root cause.
- They Ask Questions - It's a temptation to quickly come up with a solution once the client has described it on the first go, but whatever solution we come up with based on the initial problem description is inherently risky: we don't know what the real problem is yet. It's so important to ask the pointed, uncomfortable questions so we all understand the real problem beneath the initial layer of answers.
- They Respond Fearlessly - The most powerful tool in the trusted advisor toolbelt is the unvarnished truth, and sometimes conveying that truth means having a difficult and uncomfortable conversation with the client. It's easy to always say yes and agree with the client, but that is often not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to provide the objective, unvarnished truth.
Being authentic to a client means that developing a respect for our craft is more important than making the sale. Being authentic means valuing the the unvarnished truth, however unpopular, over being liked. Being authentic is the most rewarding way to being a great trusted advisor.