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In B2B Relationships, Being a Trusted Advisor Matters

handshake-440959_640There’s nothing more powerful than a trusted advisor. Each of us has our go-to people we call for advice. While a trusted advisor could be a mentor or a past or current co-worker, valued suppliers can also become trusted advisors.

This relationship doesn’t come easy, often taking years to develop the trust needed to play this role. But once you have that relationship, it pays off in multiple ways.

You hear about problems first. You bring your trusted advisor your most challenging problems – even if they’re not directly solved by his or her company’s products. When we studied a B2B software purchasing process, we found that many prospective clients contacted their existing vendors first – even though those vendors didn’t offer this type of software. They knew their trusted advisors were informed about the landscape and could provide direction.

You can shape the response. Being contacted first means you can prevent any risk to your current relationship – while still helping your client solve the problem. For example, in the B2B software purchasing process mentioned above, there were strong interdependencies between the selected software existing vendors. Being contacted first means you can help your client select a product that supports their existing infrastructure – and doesn’t put your products at risk.

You get the chance to define the solution. We have all heard of situations where a provider was able to help write the RFP in order to win the business. That only happens when your client trusts you. This is the most tangible outcome of becoming a trusted partner.

Creating this level of trust isn’t easy. Three steps are critical to becoming a trusted advisor:

Know more than your product – know the entire domain. If every conversation with your client revolves around what your company offers, she will quickly learn to stop calling you. Instead, you need to know the adjacencies. If you provide health insurance, know who’s strong in life insurance and 401(k)s, as well as who are the good consultants who can help your customer navigate the landscape. If you provide Software-as-a-Service, be able to advise your client who is good at internet connectivity and where to find good trainers. If your client knows they can call you for anything, they’re more likely to call with everything. And that’s a good thing.

Know when your products aren’t the answer. The surest way to lose trust is to sell when you shouldn’t. One failed “upsell,” and not only will you no longer be asked for advice, you may put your core product at risk.

Help your clients understand how they’re doing with your existing products. One way to help build trust is to help your client understand how they’re doing with your products. You have the benefit of seeing multiple clients, so you can compare results. Are they using service more or less than other clients? Are there features they’re not using? As a B2B company, you can see how your clients stack up against each other – and they want to know that. Sharing this can even help make the case for upsells, as long as it’s done in an informational – rather than a sales – manner. If you show your client how they’re missing out on opportunities, you’re advising, not selling.

An illustration of this last point might be helpful. I worked with a large health savings account (HSA) company. Clients had no idea what good looked like, so their adoption varied significantly. We knew that across the board, 86% of employees opened the HSA when the employer funded it. But clients didn’t know that. They had no idea what good looked like.

When employees didn’t open the account it was bad for them (they missed out on hundreds of dollars in health care dollars), bad for the client (their plan design assumed employees had money in the account), and especially bad for us (as we sold fewer products).

To address this, we built reporting showing the average level of adoption by industry, then plotted each client’s performance against this. By bringing something they didn’t have (industry norms), we were able to change our role from vendor to partner. Sharing this data with struggling clients (who often didn’t know they were struggling) led to the opportunity to collaborate on messaging campaigns to improve adoption. Clients who were already doing well had a success they could bring to management. Everybody won – especially our reps, who moved from tactical suppliers to partners.

Earning the role of trusted advisor isn’t easy. But once you earn it, you have the opportunity to help both your clients and your company to be much more successful.

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