In B2B Relationships, Being a Trusted Advisor Matters


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There’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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jim Tincher
Jim sees the world in a special way: through the eyes of customers. This lifelong passion for CX, and a thirst for knowledge, led him to found his customer experience consulting firm, Heart of the Customer (HoC). HoC sets the bar for best practices and are emulated throughout the industry. He is the author of Do B2B Better and co-author of How Hard Is It to Be Your Customer?, and he also writes Heart of the Customer’s popular CX blog.


  1. Jim, good article. I think the power of the role of trusted advisor is difficult to overstate, and you’ve identified a few (there are many more) benefits of that status.

    As to the three critical steps – one could write a lot more, though that’s a good list. I would like to expand on the shortest one you mention, the second one – know when your products aren’t the answer.

    What’s behind that insight – the nugget within your observation about the dangers of unqualified upsell – is an even more fundamental point. We trust those who we believe have our best interests at heart.

    Those who have our best interests at heart are motivated not by a desire to sell, but by a desire to serve their clients, willing to trust that if they consistently behave that way, they’ll get more than their share of sales (which is true).

    I would argue that the acid test of a trusted advisor is in fact whether they’re willing, in principle, to recommend a competitor – if that’s the right thing for the client. An inability in principle to ever recommend a competitor is tantamount to stating that the seller has always got their own interests ahead of that of the customer, and as you point out, it’s deadly.

    In my own trusted advisor research, I’ve found that the ‘soft’ components of trust are actually stronger (statistically speaking – not throwing air here) than the ‘hard’ components. Some of that ‘soft’ stuff is all about who you’re devoted to serving.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. I think Charles has summarized this well: having a client’s best interests at heart is closely connected with the trusted advisor outcome. That translates to intent. And intent is the only element of selling that is under the salesperson’s complete control. So any aspirational discussion about becoming a trusted advisor must include getting one’s intentions in line with the trusted advisor goal. Anything else won’t cut it. And yes, make no mistake: if you carry a quota, you already have goal conflict. Even bigger goal conflict if you are penalized for not making it. (e.g. Wells Fargo).

    But while the right intent is fundamental to being a ‘trusted advisor,’ salespeople must understand that they cannot usurp the title, or be self-anointing. As Mahan Khalsa, author of Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play eloquently said, “you will communicate your intent whether you want to or not . . . Based on your intent, people will decide to trust you or not.”The importance of the latter part of his statement cannot be overstated. Trust is a customer decision, and no salesperson can assign it to him or herself. Nor can their managers.

    One final note on your mention, “Being contacted first means you can prevent any risk to your current relationship – while still helping your client solve the problem.” I understand where you are coming from, but I chuckled a little, since right now, I can read really good strategies on how to topple incumbents. I’ve tried them, and when done right, they work. And I am confident that others have tried them on me, with similar success.

    Being invited first to talk with a prospect (or customer) about his or her needs presents an opportunity. One that can reduce risks, but does not eliminate them. And most successful veteran salespeople know how to work both sides. They know how to keep their own business, and how to take it away from incumbent who – for whatever reasons – became dysfunctionally confident, thinking that they could not be toppled.

  3. Charles and Andrew,

    I definitely agree with both of your comments! You’re both speaking to something I didn’t really lay out, but certainly endorse. If you go beyond your short-term interests to do what’s in the long-term interest of your client, you’ll both end up ahead in the long run.

    The intent to serve is certainly critical, and can’t be faked.

    Thanks to you both!


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