Over the past 15 years, I’ve interviewed more than 1,000 senior corporate executives about their most trusted advisors and strategic suppliers. I’ve asked them about who has earned a seat at the table with them and how it was done. I’ve explored—from their side of the desk—the ingredients of great, long-term trusted partnerships with external providers of all stripes.
The following are eight things client executives told me they value and want, over and over again:
1. “Be a trusted advisor to me even when you aren’t earning lot of fees.”
Put another way, executives are saying, “My trusted advisors are there for me in flush times and lean times—through thick and thin.”
On the surface, this may sound like clients want to get something for nothing. But that isn’t what they mean. I recently interviewed the former CEO of a major manufacturing company who articulated this need very clearly. He described a particular investment bank that had earned trusted advisor status with him:
“My company was substantial in size but not the largest in the industry, and we didn’t use investment banking services that often. Most of the major banks would only spend time with me when they sensed an imminent, fee-earning transaction. But this particular firm was generous in terms of coming to see me regularly and sharing very insightful views about the markets. Even when we weren’t very active, they came to visit. They stayed in touch and built an ongoing relationship. They ended up getting most of our business when we did do some major deals.”
Think of it this way: How do you feel about a friend who calls you only when they want something from you?
2. “Help me think about my problems differently.”
This is slightly different than solving a specific problem, which is number 3, below. Sometimes, it means “Help me define and frame the problem properly.” It can also mean “Stimulate and push my thinking about these issues so that when we do address them, we take the right approach.”
For example, occasionally a client will contact me and present what they see as a skills development or “training” issue. If warranted—and after I carefully explore their problem with thoughtful questions—I try to help the executive understand that achieving the higher-order goal they have in mind will require a multifaceted approach that involves other interventions besides just training. They may need to adopt a different go-to-market strategy, break down the silos in their organization, or perhaps implement a key client planning and management process. In short, I help them reframe the situation and think about it differently.
3. “Help me better understand how to address a specific challenge I’m facing.”
Some clients also express this as “bring me new ideas.” Yes, clients do want new ideas. But they need to be relevant ideas that illuminate a particular issue they are concerned about and, therefore, help them accomplish their goals.
One senior client executive told me:
“One year we became very focused on improving our ROA, or return on assets. We were lagging our peers on this measure, and the analysts were highlighting it as a weakness. A consulting firm we had worked on and off with came to me and suggested they put together a workshop on best practices for enhancing ROA. They brought some of their experts, and we put a team together as well. They didn’t charge us for the session, but it led to a major project for them. That was the catalyst for them to become one of our ‘inner circle’ firms.”
4. “Price is a secondary consideration in choosing someone to work with. Show me other important qualities that I need in a partner.”
Clients go on to say: “Value, perceived risk, the strength of the proposed approach/methodology, industry and company understanding, and organizational fit are more important unless your price is really out of the ballpark.”
You may be shaking your head as you read this statement. Not only have I heard this hundreds of times, but it is borne out by other quantitative research into buying habits: price is usually third or even fourth in importance when it comes to selecting a company for a particular need. Here’s why:
- It’s risky to hire an external provider for an important project. Clients tell me that they carefully balance the risk of failure against differences in price, and they are willing to pay a bit more if they believe one provider will be a less risky choice.
- Clients—even procurement managers—do want value. The question is: Have you made a compelling case for your additional value and your higher fee?
- A purchase decision is usually based on multiple criteria that the purchaser tries to balance. Price is only one of many factors.
5. “Ask me thoughtful, informed questions based on your deep experience and careful preparation.”
Executives go on to say: “But if you’re meeting with me for the very first time, don’t just walk in and pepper me with questions. Tell me why you’re here, what you’d like to accomplish, and add some value first. Then you can start asking me questions.”
What most people think passes for a good question is usually a pretty average one. In workshops, I’ll often do an exercise where small groups come up with the questions they’d really like to ask either a prospect or an existing client. We then take some of these, and discuss them as a group and slowly improve and sharpen them until they are really good.
Often they start with a potential question like this: “Are you concerned about the new regulation Q that just came out?” I role play the answer, and simply say “No.” End of conversation.
A better question is, of course, “What do you think the impact of Regulation Q is going to be?” Even better would be, “What changes in policies or procedures are you thinking about making to accommodate Regulation Q?”
6. “Help us understand and manage the change that’s required.”
The products and services a company buys are all used within a broader organizational system. For a new software application to work well, for example, it must mesh and align with existing business processes, human skills and behavior patterns, other IT systems, and so on. Many client executives have told me that advice, insight, and tools to help manage the change around your solutions are extremely valuable.
There’s opportunity, in short, to examine the larger organizational “ecosystem” around your solutions and advise your clients on how to make everything work together faster, better, and easier—to help them, in effect, manage change.
This was exactly the key insight that Lou Gerstner gleaned at the start of his tenure as IBM’s CEO in 1993. At the time, people were clamoring for IBM to be split up into as many as a dozen different businesses. Gerstner had spent four months visiting IBM customers all over the world, and one of their most forceful messages was, “Don’t break yourself up—instead, help us do a better job of actually using the hardware and software that we buy from you.”
That led to a major emphasis on growing the nascent IBM Global Services business, which now generates $60 billion in high-margin revenue from IT services, outsourcing, and consulting.
7. “Make it easy for us to work with you.”
This one should be easy to give to clients, but apparently it’s not. The less friction there is in your working relationship, the easier you will make life for your client—and the happier they will be with your association.
Here are some ways to make it easy and pleasurable to work with you:
- Write up and share notes of all your meetings within 24 hours.
- Respond rapidly and cheerfully to client requests.
- Don’t complain. (One client told me, “Don’t come to me complaining about a problem in working with my organization—come to me with a recommended solution.”)
- Communicate frequently.
- Anticipate—point out what may happen and what your plan will be to deal with it, and flag problems immediately to avoid surprises.
- Listen carefully and ask questions before you respond to a client concern or start pointing out how your client has contributed to the problem.
- Offer to do your client’s work and unburden them. (Some examples: your client has to send out a communication about your project to their organization—write the first draft for them; your client has to prepare a plan for their boss—help them outline it.)
8. “Show us that you care and that you’re engaged.”
Sometimes those old clichés still have significance. You may have heard the expression “A person doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I hear stories from clients all the time about service providers who are disengaged, unprepared, and distracted. They ask basic questions they should already know the answers to. They turn proposals in at the very last minute or even late. They don’t appear committed.
You show engagement by:
- Being genuinely interested in and curious about their business and their organization (often shown through the thoughtful questions you ask).
- Demonstrating enthusiasm in your interactions.
- Preparing and doing your homework.
- Being fully present during your meetings and phone calls. (Is your attention 100% in the conversation, or are you thinking ahead to the next meeting or your next deliverable?)
There are, of course, other useful things client executives tell me when I interview them, but these eight represent some of the most important ideas.
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