Growing up living above a UK Newsagency (aka Milk Bar), was always an interesting experience. I saw exceptional service from an early age to a wide array of customers; some that were lovely, some that weren’t so nice. That was the technical distinction I made being only 6 years old! My parents worked some extraordinary hours over the thirty years they had their business, often under extremely challenging conditions. Supermarkets undercut their prices by ridiculous margins, official retail trading hours were extended significantly, numerous other small businesses tried and failed to steal their client base by opening up next door stocking the same products at cheaper prices,  and perhaps most significantly, three (yes you heard correctly, three) recessions pulverised the British economy. So how was it my parents’ business survived all of these challenges? Why did their customers continue to stay loyal? Simple, they were trusted and provided value to every person walking through their door. They treated everyone equally; they were genuinely interested and cared. They consistently demonstrated integrity by keeping promises made. My dad loved to fool around and tell jokes on a daily basis, in fact he still does and they are still bad ones! Locals often sought their impartial advice on matters unrelated to my parents’ profession, and they even put on drinks and mince pies every Christmas to thank their clients and wish them well. They were ‘old school’.

It’s fair to say the size of the pie has since got a lot smaller, and to gain or even maintain a slice has for most organisations become a lot harder. As Jim Collins, (management thinker, consultant, researcher and author) said in a BRW interview 19th July 2013, “Being great is no longer optional”. We’ve hit tougher and highly competitive times. We’re expected to do more with less and the financial outlook still remains unclear. So what can we do protect or establish our position at a client’s table? How do we sustainably isolate our ‘slice’ from competitors and affirm client loyalty? How do we differentiate ourselves from other organisations without competing on price?

Albert Einstein’s words capture the answer to these questions perfectly: “Try not to become a man of success, but a man of value”.

With growing competition and rapidly developing technology, clients are increasingly seeking more value. Consumers rarely buy a product or service purely because of what the organisation itself has to offer; they buy from other people…….well, people who add value that is. Since arriving in Australia nearly 12 years ago I’ve continued to use the same accountant every year. Why? Because he adds value. Is he the cheapest? No, but I have faith in him. He is honest. He understands my circumstances and goals. He thinks of the things I haven’t. He invites me to consider options, but ultimately leaves the choices to me. He provides a very efficient service, and frankly I like him too. He’s a nice guy and I know he has my best interests front of mind. In conclusion, I trust him and I’m unlikely to engage someone else for this service.

So you can probably see the term ‘value’ shouldn’t be confused as the inevitable outcome derived from a relationship. Catching up for a coffee and talking about the current market trends, news headlines, latest footy scores or the kids progress at school isn’t adding the type of value I’m referring to. Don’t get me wrong, these things are still really important in developing a solid and credible relationship, but in isolation they are not enough to build and assure loyalty and longevity. Understanding what is important to a client as a person and what their organisation’s business challenges are is critical to forming a true ‘business’ partnership where you can consistently add value.

As David Maister said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Maister is a former Harvard Business School professor, broadly accepted as one of the leading experts on business management practices. In his book The ‘Trusted Advisor’, (co authored by Green and Galford), he suggests the key to real success with clients is building the skills to earn their trust and confidence. Trust is earned, not given, and Maister suggests this can be achieved by implementing the ‘trust equation’:

Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy

Self orientation (low level of)

Now, the first three components may seem obvious to those already adept at building relationships, but a low level of self orientation is rarely demonstrated by individuals fulfilling sales, advisor or consultant roles. It is the denominator of this equation in particular that I personally believe is critical to moving a solid relationship to a sustainable and mutually beneficial strategic partnership. Some of you may be thinking, “that is all well and good, but there’s a commercial reality to fulfilling these relationships”. I don’t disagree, (and neither probably would your client), but I invite you to consider the following. Most sales people are too focussed on themselves, (or the outcome ‘they’ are trying to achieve) when their client’s focus is actually on their business issue and what is important to them personally. If a client is going to ‘sign off’ based on when they are confident their needs are going to be met, then why would these considerations not be put ahead of self orientation? If only the sales person was to adapt their focus, their client would more readily perceive value and feel more obliged to be reciprocal in looking after the sales person’s best interests too. This is what any genuine business partnership is really about – working together to achieve a ‘win-win’ outcome.

Clearly there is a lot more depth and breadth to the trust equation than I have just touched upon, but in essence it is those that differentiate themselves via the core principle I’ve mentioned, that will ensure the ‘survival of the fittest’ in these uncertain times. Dare I say it; those that don’t reconsider and change their approach will likely regret it.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. (Charles Darwin)

That, (along with my informal mentoring from the ‘old school’) is how I believe I’ve consistently achieved success throughout my sales career, and how individuals I’ve managed and coached have done the same. Not because I’m stronger or more intelligent, but because I remain flexible and adaptable to change. Was it easy for others to make the transition? Yes and no. The obvious challenge is balancing the commercial needs of the business with the length of time it takes to cultivate trusted partnerships. There’s always the pressure of achieving target, but consider it becomes almost irrelevant when you have several strategic client partnerships that call you when they need support in solving their challenges. Once your clients have trust and confidence that you know them and the nuances of their business inside out, it becomes much easier for them to engage an external vendor on a project. The hard yards have been done, your credentials have already been proven and they’ve seen the fantastic outcomes you can achieve. They’re not going out to competitive proposal or tender, they want you for the job. Yes it takes time to get to this point, but when you do, the results speak for themselves. It is incredibly satisfying to know an opportunity was won, or repeat business has been achieved once again because of the value consistently demonstrated throughout the consulting process, versus being forced to chop from the bottom line to undercut your closest competitor. I first met some of the stakeholders I still partner with today nearly ten years ago. We’ve all changed roles and employers several times, yet we still continue to proactively seek to work together. Not because we’re mates, because we enjoy mutual value from our partnerships.

There are a number of elements to building trusted strategic partnerships, but the top twelve that have helped me consistently be successful are:

  1. Above all, be yourself. Stay true to your values, live them authentically in all interactions. Be overt with your intent.
  2. Be available – return client calls/emails fast and deliver proposals ahead of agreed deadlines to exceed their expectations. You would be amazed how frequently this small aspect of what I do is positively acknowledged by clients.
  3. Listen more than you speak. Silence the internal dialogue to be present. Paraphrase to demonstrate you have heard and understood.
  4. Manage and pace expectations – Be honest and clear ‘up front’ about what you can and can’t do. When committing to an action, do it when you say you’re going to do it! If you can’t solve their problem, be honest and say so. I’ve lost count of how many times a client has thanked me for my honesty and returned with a better matched opportunity in the future.
  5. Be curious – Explore and probe what is important to them. Show empathy to demonstrate you care.
  6. Lead their thinking by asking high quality questions. When you’ve asked, listen intently to their response.
  7. Demonstrate business acumen and credibility by sharing stories and knowledge.
  8. Respectfully ‘push back’ and challenge assumptions. Show impartiality by still considering their position, views and opinions.
  9. Be comfortable with ambiguity – Provide conceptual options of what future success could look like, and empower them to make the choice.
  10. Make your client shine. I’ve never forgotten one of my current clients saying to me   four years ago “Anthony, it is your job to make me look good.” He was right!
  11. Maintain a sense of humour and fun in what you do. We work to live so make the   experience enjoyable for your client.
  12. Be respectful of your competitors. If you demonstrate enough value you won’t need to point out their shortfalls – the client will reach that conclusion themselves.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, “I’m not a sales person or client facing, so none of this is relevant to me.” Forgive me, but I respectfully disagree. It is important to consider that the above skills, attributes and principals don’t exclusively apply to revenue generating relationships. Whether you’re seeking to build a relationship based on trust with your manager, direct report, peer, project team member, friend, family, or influence an internal or external stakeholder; building trust is the key core skill to achieving outcomes. If you’re not already applying this approach, be open to changing and try it out with someone new. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed at the mutual outcomes you both achieve.

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