Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Trusted adviser, supplier or sucker?

"The Trusted Adviser", written by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford in 2001 remains one of the most influential books in professional services.

Why? Well the thinking in it was clear, it captured and crystallised a notional that hadn't previously been well named...and cynically? It also played to the egos, insecurities and genuine intentions of many in professional services.

It struck more than a chord - it struck a raw nerve.

The heart of the matter
That raw nerve is called self-doubt. The kind of self-doubt that has us asking ourselves things like: Could we have done that better? Did we phrase that advice the right way? Did our client hear us or not? Is the client being reasonable? Did we do our very best work? Was it good enough?

Someone I spoke to recently, and who had six years in a top global consulting firm, described consultants as "insecure overachievers".
Why the angst? Well simply because professional services is, at it's heart, about relationships. Relationships that are professional, bound to some extent by certain expected formalities and niceties and on occasion, almost unreadable. And in my experience, good, or great, professional services types really, really want to do good, or great, work. And to do that we need good, or great, clients. And good, or great, relationships with those clients.

So professional services providers can find themselves looking inside for answers they'd really like from their clients, but cannot always ask for.

Simply asking the wrong question might jepardise a relationship. Asking some questions too early could ensure you actually never make it to be a trusted adviser. Asking others could get you fired. Not asking yet another sort of question could see you fail completely to deliver real value.

Trusted adviser, supplier or sucker?
One of those interesting questions for a professional services provider is "Can we be a trusted adviser here? Or will we be a mere supplier? Worse, are they taking us for suckers?"

Sometimes the answer to that question is years in the making. Almost always it's an answer that's determined both by client and service provider behaviour. That behaviour can be as finely balanced and delicate as the minuet in courtship, or as set as the lifelong patterns of a 50 year marriage.

Trusted adviser
So what does it look like or feel like when you're a trusted adviser? One clue is that the professional service provider probably isn't suffering too much angst. In those relationships we know we're delivering good advice, to the right people, the right way. Our clients might even thank us for our work, our ability to challenge their thinking appropriately, and include us in their long-range thinking and planning. These are the clients we want long-term, We'll invest our discretionary time and effort to build such a long-term relationship, and both parties feel comfortable to have the more difficult conversations.

What of the "supplier" spot? Well it feels pretty transactional. We both know this is about delivering "commercial result A" for "consideration B" and that as likely as not, we're then through. Maybe we can make this a longer term, and richer, relationship on both sides? Or maybe we just both get want we want then get out.

Sometimes client, or consultant (for example), can feel taken advantage of. Maybe there was an unexpected bill or the value wasn't there for the fee paid. Maybe there were endless conversations or meetings where advice was given and yet no formal engagement or fee was forthcoming. Either way, someone feels sucked in, whether deliberate or inadvertent. And trust can be damaged irreparably.

Sometimes merely advice given the wrong way, or questions asked too bluntly, can produce that "Am I the sucker here?" thought-bubble for a client (I've been there!). Or on the other hand, the request to start work before any formal engagement is agreed can do the same (and I've been there too!).

Our aim
I'm relatively new to consulting and professional services - I've really only been at it for seven years, since just before we started BlueChip Communication. In large organisations I gave advice, but it wasn't consulting as I define it now. I've still got a lot to learn from others, including my capable colleagues, and our great clients, about consulting.

One thing I do know: the superb team I work with, and I, want to do our best work. With clients we respect, and where we are respected - we are are already, or can become, trusted advisers.

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