“Building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients. However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change.”

David Maister, lead author of ‘The Trusted Advisor’ and the Maister Trust Equation

By Stuart Maister, Joint MD, Mutual Value

I cannot argue with anything my cousin says in that sentence. It nails it. But I want to discuss one of his most famous creations, the phrase ‘Trusted Advisor’. He was the lead author of the book that established that term, one which so many professional firms use as their objective.

Who wouldn’t want to be trusted by their clients? The words he uttered over a decade ago – that many people have a transactional view of their clients – remain true today. 

The word I’d like to discuss is ‘advisor’. I wonder whether we should now aspire to be ‘Trusted Partner’ instead? Here’s why.

Partnership not advisorship

Our view of how to build sustained trust is based on the development of aligned ambition for the relationship and the co-creation of solutions. In almost all professional assignments there is total interdependence between service provider and client for the success of the project and relationship.  In almost all assignments too there is more than just advice provided, there is also some type of execution. Lawyers draft contracts, accountants make calculations, engineers develop plans, consultants run workshops and write detailed reports.

Not one of these assignments can be successful without deep interaction with the client, who also has responsibilities in relation to the delivery of the project. Even if it is just to provide information, and respond in a timely way, the behaviours of the client will impact the outcome of the work. In many cases it is much more – an engineering firm may do an excellent job but if the client has not well coordinated other providers the project will run into trouble.

A trusted advisor is providing external input into a decision by the principal. A professional service provider is – with the client – achieving an outcome. 

Mutual value between peers

The second part of this argument is about the value created by the work. We strongly advocate an intention to create mutual value – a win-win mentality – where both parties receive value from the relationship. This implies an adult-to-adult relationship of peers, whereas in so many professional engagements even huge firms find themselves as supplicants to the all-powerful client.

For reasons we discuss elsewhere this is not sustainable. If one party is losing then eventually the arrangement will collapse. A mutual value mindset is the basis for sustained trust between the parties and so much greater ambition together. This approach leads to mutual problem-solving and greater ambition about what can be achieved.

Again, this feels more like a partnership than an advisory role, even though of course one party is the client. Where this is true firms can be innovative in the way they charge, aligning their interest to that of the client, and the client benefits from having a true partner focused on the business outcomes.

Here’s the difference. A Trusted Advisor is still essentially on the outside providing a service when needed. A Trusted Partner is on the inside working alongside the client with aligned ambition. A Trusted Advisor supports the team. A Trusted Partner is on the team.

Being a Trusted Advisor rightly remains the ambition of so many firms. I suggest that we can go further, especially with our most important clients, so that we become Trusted Partners, woven into their strategy.

Does this resonate? If so, let’s have an open discussion about what this might mean for your business and what difference it would make for everyone to act as a trusted partner to your clients. 

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Let's have an open conversation about the value this can bring to your organisation. Contact to arrange a free video call with Stuart Maister or Kevin Vaughan-Smith.