Rather than me tell you about him, I asked him some questions instead. Read, learn and enjoy.
Dave Stein: You’ve created a fabulous brand around “trusted advisor.” Since I’m a believer in personal branding, would you explain a few of the most important steps you took to build your brand?
Charlie Green: Well, I didn’t consciously set out to create a brand; I’m not recommending anyone do that, just telling you how it happened. But in retrospect, I think a couple of things were helpful.
One was certainly the name itself. Trusted Advisor was a term that has had some currency for a long time. It was probably un-trademarkable at the time, and certainly is now. It had been used in advertisements, and everyone had an intuitive sense of it as relevant, but vague. In retrospect, that was a helluva good decision.
In my case, I also chose a high-content, high transparency route. Following some great advice and example from David Maister, I wrote an awful lot, made sure it was very good, and put it all out there. My economic model is based on keynotes and seminars, not on selling videos or online product. That means I have no reason not to pretty much put everything out there-it enhances my brand, which is good for visibility (and pricing).
Finally, I give a lot of credit to my IT people, StressLimitDesign. They are a few young people up in Canada who combine great visual design sense with internet and technical savvy, are deeply into emerging trends (blogging, tweeting, et al) and know how to combine them to help businesses like me. Plus they work very hard. My site design-graphics, content and all-has been consciously designed to reinforce a particular brand-in my case thoughtful, provocative, insightful, broad-based, etc.
DS: What I like about your approach is that it isn’t a bunch of tips and tricks. It’s more about who you need to become than what you need to do. Do I have that about right?
CG: Absolutely. I deeply believe that when it comes to something as complex as trust, “tips and tricks” cannot cut it. Would you trust someone whose approach to trust was based on “tips and tricks?” No. Being trustworthy at its root is relational-it’s got to involve some sense of behaving appropriately with another, whether it’s caring about them, or being concerned, or deferred gratification, or customer focus. We trust people because we believe they’re not going to treat us as objects for their gratification, means to their ends. And that is a matter of character. Not tips and tricks.
And it goes beyond that. The dominant shift in management thinking in the last four decades has been all about “tips and tricks,” that is, behavioral approaches. Think about how obsessed we have become with measurement, management processes, outsourcing, rewards and incentives. In each of these areas, we have become behaviorally obsessed-the root of “tips and tricks.” What we have left behind is all the parts of business that have to do with relationships, beliefs and attitudes, internal mindsets. And those are what are critical to trust. We don’t trust behaviors, we trust the motives behind those behaviors. If someone’s motives are suspect, their behaviors are completely useless-we suspect them all. Tips and tricks all become the bases for suspicion and lack of trust.
Whew-you got me wound up on that one!
DS: Can you give us a (brief) example of how you have used your trusted advisor status to outposition or outsell a competitor of yours?
CG: Several. But it’s a little paradoxical; the way you “outsell” someone is by not thinking of it as “outselling” a competitor, but by doing a better job of serving a customer. The competitive outcome (and the profit outcome, for that matter) is a byproduct, not a goal.
Example 1. A client asked me in to talk about a program. He told me up front who the competitors were. I said, “those are all good options. Let’s talk about what it is that you need, and that will help you determine who to go with.” We then talked for several hours, brainstorming, about what kind of program they should design. We never touched on the topic of competitors again in that conversation, only on his program.
Basically, I took the attitude that this was the first day of the project, and we appropriately started at the high level brainstorming kind of interaction. He called me the next day to say he had chosen me. I didn’t ask why, but he volunteered: “You were the only one who was clearly willing to work collaboratively with us, rather than go back to the black box and propose something.” He didn’t say more about the others, and I didn’t ask.
Example 2. A first-meeting client asked me, “Why should we go with you?” I said, “I have no idea why, or even whether you should go with me at all. We just met! It would be arrogant of me to tell you what you should do, much less why. Let’s talk, and then we can figure it out together, and if I’m not the right person for the job, I’ll be the first to tell you, because there’s nothing worse then selling a job you can’t deliver. So let’s figure out together who it is you need to be working with.” He laughed, and we got along great from then on.
Example 3. One of the things I suggest is that you write your next proposal sitting next to the prospective client, rather than back at the office. When I started to recommend that, of course I had to live by my own advice. A keynote speech client approached me after the speech and said, “We’d like to hire you for some seminar work-so I guess you’ll be wanting to come over and write the proposal with us. What will we need to bring to the meeting?”
Not much, I said, “some information about how you’ve approached seminars in the past would be useful. But mainly, we’ll talk through what you want to accomplish and think about how to do it.” The client thought for a minute and said, “Oh to heck with it, we’ll just send you a contract to sign, we don’t need to go through any formalities.” In other words, the mere offer of being so transparent was sufficient to trigger the buying decision.
I think all of those cases come from two simple ideas.
One is that the main job, the only job really, is to do good things for your client. Period. That, and every once in a while look up and say am I deploying my resources intelligently. No point in drilling an obviously dry hole. But to start worrying about whether this meeting is a good one or not, how’s my sales call efficiency, how will I close the deal, how much margin can I get-no. Don’t go there. Just stay focused on doing the right thing for the client. If you do that, the rest will become obvious. You should be selected, or you should not. You can do the job, or you cannot. They can pay you a fair price, or they cannot. If all that becomes clear, then they will buy, or they will not. Either way, you’ve advanced their business. And-you get a lot of respect, references and future business by simply staying focused on them, not on your own internal navel-gazing metrics and processes.
Second is the idea of selling by doing, not selling by telling. Beyond the bare minimum of who you are (30 seconds max, and your website probably already did the trick), people DO NOT want to hear about your qualifications. They also don’t want to hear about how wonderful you were to a bunch of strangers-it’s like telling someone on a blind date about how great all your past dates thought you were. Instead, just focus on this client. Do the work in real time. Start delivering at the first sales meeting. Assume you’ve got the job, and start working it. That actually sells, because everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. So, focus on them. And show them your wares. The best selling is samples selling; so, give some samples. Go into the sales call with a blank yellow pad and a few questions, and start listening, and interacting. Start delivering in the sales call. That IS the sales call.
DS: How do you see your trusted advisor orientation having an impact on a sales professional’s ability to weather this financial crisis?
CG: You are deeply immersed in this subject-more so than many other experts are in theirs. Anyone reading your blog can see that. What thought process to you employ to keep you focused and able to look deeper and deeper into this subject?
One thing I’ve noticed is the default tendency of everyone to go short-term, tactical, inward, self-focused, and to see this recession as just that- a recession. The trick is to notice this is not a recession-this is just the downside of a two-part cycle. All relationships are up and down, good times and bad times, sickness and health. Is your perspective the relationship cycle? Or just what you can get out the other at each point in time?
Who do you trust? The people who stick by you in the downside. This is a great opportunity to forge really strong relationships, when everyone else is scrambling for their spot in the lifeboat. If you can be the one who dances with the one who brung you, who demonstrates true service when the client really needs it, guess what? You reap the benefits later. It’s a simple as deferred gratification, but almost all our management techniques du jour-again I’m back to measurements and reward systems and “tips and tricks”–very few of those reach out beyond a few months. None of them focus on multi-year perspectives. But that’s what it takes.
I saw one firm that serves professional services client whose recommendation for the recession included “if you’re going to lay people off, do it in FY2008, so you get the tax deduction.” See what I mean about short term and selfish? By contrast, what if you’re a law firm in Cleveland? This is the time you go to the Cleveland Symphony and you say, “This is tough on us; but it’s got to be even tougher on you. Here’s $10K, and it’s unrestricted.”
Pick a few, select clients-you cannot do this for everyone, but isn’t that the point of relationships?—and say to them “we’re giving you a break on receivables cycle,” or “we’d like to give you some free staff days to work on that strategic project we discussed with you,” or “we don’t want to lay off people, but we’re under-employed-would you like us to second someone to you for 3 months,” or “we know you need this done but can’t afford it just now, we’ll split the cost with you.”
Remember, no one has repealed the law of gravity. What went up goes down, but it wil rise again. And people have long memories. They trust those who did well by them. Make sure that’s you.
Charlie Green has taught in executive education programs for several business schools. He was with the MAC Group and its successor, Gemini Consulting, for 20 years, where his roles included strategy consulting (in Europe and the United States), Vice President of Planning, and other leadership positions. He is the founder of Trusted Advisor Associates.
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