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The Trusted Advisor Relationship: What Is It, and What Should It Be?
For the past months, maybe a year, I've been hearing sales groups talk about the need to become Trusted Advisors (I'll call them TAs). I suspect that the problems cropping up in the sales arena these days - the increased length of the sales cycle, the increased levels of competition - are leading sales management to base their initiatives on being of true service to prospects, as a way to seem different from the competition.
But by everyone attempting to become TAs, and by not changing the basic skill set - or belief set or outcome - of the sales force, sellers are doing more of the same, but with a different name.
Sorry to be so blunt, but let's look at the facts here.
1. So long as you are trying to sell your product, the entire discussion with prospects will be biased: the questions will be biased, the help you offer will be biased, the prospect's responses will be biased.
2. Buyers won't trust a sales person they don't know. They can't, which means interactions will have to occur over time, and at the mercy of how the long it takes the prospect to trust you.
3. The criteria that buyers will use to take advice from a sales person is dependent upon many mysterious factors that you can't know up front. Therefore, you'e flying blind as you were before trying to be a TA.
4. If everyone is attempting to be a TA, what differentiates anyone? And what if the prospect is getting conflicting advice? What if the prospect is getting the exact same advice - through several different sales people?
5. If you are only asking questions around the area that your product supports, how can you truly advise a prospect who lives in a complex system - which all of us, and all of our prospects, do?
6. How can you truly be offering advice if you cannot know the entire internal fact pattern that has created and maintained the buyer's problem over time?
Net net: this seems to me like just another buzzword.
THE CURRENT BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT
Let's see what needs to happen before you can actually call yourself an advisor. First, you'll need to understand the system that your buyers live within.
Your buyers are facing many new challenges these days. Their competition (or in the B2C area, the range of products offered) is so complex that they have to manage a world-wide competition with competitors that they don't even know. To remain competitive and fresh, the prospects need to initiate frequent innovation that will potentially bring in new business partners, support new initiatives, and manage change as quickly as possible.
As a result, there is a continual flow of new decisions, new decision makers, new initiatives, new rules, roles, norms, and problems that need to be managed that have not been in play before now. And the prospect may or may not be familiar with the full range of issues that will affect him and that need to be managed.
I recently called a client's prospect on a very large, long-term sales effort that had been going on for years. It seemed the prospect needed the service badly and it was costing them large sums of money as a result of not adopting the seller's product. My client's people were very professional, knew all of the problems attached to the perfect solution, and were offering very high quality advice as TAs.
And yet the decision was dragging on, and through different managers as people came and went - without a decision being taken. Everyone even tried to go around the problem and the immediate players, to no avail. When I called, it became apparent that there was an entirely different 'soft' problem - a human problem - that had nothing to do with the specifics of my client's solution, and no one had addressed that problem at all. Yet so long as it continued to remain unresolved, the sale wouldn't happen.
My client was doing a fine job of being a TA; the team of sellers have been entirely knowledgeable, professional, and very supportive of their prospect. They had even become friends over the years. But they weren't managing the real issue - one that no one had recognized.
For some reason, when you see a problem that your solution can fix, you think the only decision that your prospect needs to make is whether or not to purchase your product. In reality, deciding on your product is the last decision that will get made, after the prospect figures out all she needs to attend to in order to design a solution acceptable to all of the internal elements.
HOW A SELLER CAN ADVISE
Given the type and number of number of decisions the prospect needs to make, you can now make a real difference to your prospect by helping him recognize all of the internal elements he needs to manage before you pitch your product.
Until now, you've concentrated your assistance on that area that your product can support. But think about systems for a moment: a system is a conglomeration of all of the elements that determine the status quo. To flush it out a bit, I'll use the RIPP model - Relationships, Interventions, People, and Policies.
Relationships include: vendors, partners, stakeholders.
Interventions include: boards, media, market forces, mandates, policies.
People includes: roles and job descriptions, management and leadership styles, values and beliefs, and personality issues.
Policies include: rules, history, norms, goals, initiatives, and time frames.
The above comprise the systems elements that live within every system, defined here in human terms, and included in personal relationships, corporations, sole-proprietors, and every group or team in every industry. You have all of the elements of RIPP in your family, your primary love relationship, your work, your team. And until or unless all of the elements are addressed, any change would create chaos.
Systems don't like chaos, and they try to fix things internally before they are willing to come up against any areas of discomfort within the system. In other words, prospects will try to fix their problem themselves before they make a purchase with a new vendor. Remember that your product is not what they seek - they merely seek to solve a business problem in a way that will cause the least disruption.
So even if your product is the perfect solution, the prospect will be unable to make the decision to purchase it until she has examined and rejected all familiar fixes.
THE LENGTH OF THE DECISION
What's stopping your prospect from examining these elements sooner? To start with, it's hard to notice something wrong when everything feels normal - much like a fish being unaware of the water it's swimming in.
Have you ever looked at pictures of yourself from years back and noticed things like extra weight, a bad haircut, a questionable outfit? when at the time, it all seemed fine? What about at your job, when you've followed the same rules or routines for a period of time until they are changed, and you notice that it's much easier in the new routine - and wondered why you didn't change sooner? What about relationships - those friendships that are so difficult but continue under force of time, but when they are ended, you wonder how you ever maintained them?
It's difficult to see all of our own internal, personal idiosyncrasies, as our current state seems rather fine as it is or we would have changed it already. Remember that systems include all that is - the good, bad, and ugly. But it probably does not look good, bad, or ugly because it just 'is' and feels normal that way.
We don't question our natural state unless some new information or idea or activity gets us to step away from our comfort zone and see a wholly different view. It's only then we realize that a change needs to happen. But note that we keep people and systems around us that will continually reinforce our world view, as it's too difficult to consider the possibility that we're wrong.
And so it is with our prospects. They live in a system that just 'is'. They can't see what might be problematic since it feels normal. As an outsider, you might be able to see a problem, but in reality you have no idea how the problem became created, how it is maintained, what connections are important for the working of the entire system, and you're basically on the outside looking in.
THE JOB OF AN ADVISOR
If you want to become a true TA for your prospect, use your connection to navigate your prospect through all of the internal decisions she needs to make before she can even think about designing a solution [see: People Do Not Decide Emotionally].
Become a guide through the buyer's system. Forget your product, and lead the prospect through the rules, the roles, the initiatives, and the relationships that need to be examined before anything new will happen. They need to do that anyway - with you or without you - if they are going to decide to do something new and make a purchase. They certainly won't make a decision to purchase anything until or unless they've discovered their own answers and design their own solution. The time it takes prospects to make a purchasing decision is the length of the sales cycle. They don't care how long it takes - they'd much prefer it was quicker rather than slower. They could use some help: it might as well come from you. Then you would be a true Trusted Advisor: to do that, you'll have to forego selling.
Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of NYTimes Best Seller Selling with Integrity. She speaks, teaches and consults globally around her visionary sales method, Buying Facilitation.
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