Many agree that the act of selling is different today than it was in the past. They cite factors like technology, pace, and complexity when articulating how the profession has evolved. These factors, however, do not identify the single largest change in selling: the sales professional’s role.
In previous eras, the sales professional articulated the features and benefits of a solution. Their relationship to the customer was largely transactional. This approach worked in a time when companies could work behind barriers that protected them from competition. These barriers included things like long innovation periods and expensive developmental lead time.
Those barriers have fallen.
Companies can now replicate the solutions and products of competitors faster than ever. The result is commoditization. Selling organizations have responded to this development by introducing more automation into selling. This change has left most sales professionals positioning complex sales.
In this environment, the sales professional is working with customers who have nuanced business challenges. These customers are seeking more sophisticated products and services.
Addressing this complexity means transcending the role of a sales professional and becoming a trusted advisor.
Few sales professionals rise to the level of a trusted advisor. Those who do are more effective and are better equipped to win the sale. Here, we look at the characteristics of a trusted advisor, how to inhabit the role, and what benefits a trusted advisor can expect.
The Characteristics of a Trusted Advisor
A trusted advisor provides insight and creates value. They have a set of skills that go beyond an in-depth understanding of the solution’s capabilities. A trusted advisor is viewed as more than a sales professional — they are considered part of the decision-making process. They are often consulted in advance of decisions, which gives them an advantage in influencing the sale. Decision-makers frequently seek their opinion on competing solutions.
Many sales professionals do not ascend to this status. Many are classified as either a technical expert or a product provider. A technical expert is largely a resource for information. They might enjoy strong relationships with customers. However, these relationships are limited to specific products or specialized technical needs. Their product knowledge often runs deeper than their relationship with the customer.
A product provider has less of a connection with the customer than a technical expert. They are often welcomed on the strength of the company they work for or a product name. They have little to no access to strategic plans or the customer’s concerns. As a result, they often learn about needs late in the sales cycle and are viewed as a commodity. This persona has a resemblance to the days of transactional sales. They are easily unseated by competition.
A trusted advisor does all of the things the product provider and the technical expert don’t do. They are more than the product they sell — they are a strategic partner who can see the customer’s big picture. They see how and why the solution fits, what the capabilities mean for long-term success, and how it can be implemented in the best possible way. Moreover, they feel free to communicate these things by asserting a point of view. Their inclusion into the stakeholder’s circle gives them the license to make their perspective clear and direct.
Becoming a Trusted Advisor
Becoming a trusted advisor starts with extraordinary preparation. This kind of preparation is not episodic — it is ongoing. It is weaved into the fabric of the sales professional’s day. With consistent preparation, the sales professional is always ready to add value to an unexpected conversation with a customer. They can engage stakeholders with a level of detail that reflects a deep understanding of current issues.
The ability to speak with this level of authority is what enables a trusted advisor to gain access to senior-level decision-makers. This access is important because trusted advisors must build consensus. They must align the various stakeholders, each with their unique set of needs and concerns, and drive the sale. Put simply, a trusted advisor gets access, credentializes themselves, then develops a personal relationship. These three stages set up the trusted advisor to engage in a strategic dialogue.
A strategic dialogue adds value by looking at the customer’s objective from multiple angles. Sometimes this means asking questions that are outside of the trusted advisor’s comfort zone.
Trusted advisors can ease into these questions with a funnel approach. They begin with broad, but informed, questions, then they go deeper. Each successive question seeks more detail. Initially, questions center on the customer’s long-term objectives. Then, questions move to challenges like factors standing in the customer’s way. The trusted advisor can then explore what plans the customer believes are best. These details reveal opportunities for the trusted advisor to help while also considering implementation issues.
The answers to these questions help create a value-added dialogue in which trusted advisors can position their relevance. They can float ideas that offer customized value. These steps are precursors to recommending solutions. When making a recommendation, a trusted advisor clearly matches the solution’s capabilities to the details of the customer’s challenge.
The key is to achieve a “closeness” to both the customer and their challenge. A trusted advisor seeks a seat at the table, both literally and figuratively.
The Benefits of Earning Trusted Advisor Status
A trusted advisor wins more sales. Moreover, they are better positioned to expand their business with existing customers because they are agile. A trusted advisor’s proximity to the customer allows them to adjust and adapt as the stakeholders’ strategies change. Agility is crucial at a time when “about two-thirds of companies have a strategy horizon of four years or less,” according to research from AT Kearney.
Additionally, a trusted advisor can more effectively position a point of view. Customers see the trusted advisor’s perspective and suggestions as professional business acumen rather than self-serving sales speak. As a result, customers are more receptive to ideas.
Trusted advisors are part of an elite group. They can blur the line that divides the customer and the sales professional.
They have a rapport that keeps the customer returning to them for guidance and advice. In this relationship, it is not uncommon for the customer, instead of the trusted advisor, to ask, “What is the next step?”