The holy grail of consulting – do this and triumph

“We have to become a partner with our clients.” Dream on, says I. In 27 years working on clients, not one has ever viewed me as a partner: always as a supplier. Here’s why, and here’s how to become an indispensable supplier.

Becoming ‘partners with clients’ gets talked about a lot in agency world, but it has never happened to me. We’ve had deep, enduring client relationships, but none crossed the line to true partnership. Why do I say that? I always knew that if we stuffed up two times in a row (maybe three at a pinch), we’d be out. That’s not partnership- it’s a supplier relationship.

Our mission has to be to become our client’s most valuable, most indispensable supplier. To achieve this, we have to become TRUSTED ADVISORS. Here’s how.

I once ran a Great Client Service session in Shanghai for the leadership of a global company. At the last moment the CEO asked I include a session on How To Become A Trusted Advisor. I hit the internet to find the best possible Trusted Advisor model. David Maister delivered it. His model has the acronym C.R.I.S. I’ve added a P. So let’s call this model CRISP.

How To Become A Trusted Advisor

To become a Trusted Advisor, we need to do CRISP’s five pillars brilliantly:

1. Build Credibility– we must build a perception of credibility with our clients so they feel they can trust what we say, that we are genuine experts in our field, and are outstanding at what we do.

2. Build Reliability– we must be perceived as totally reliable, and seen as a firm which delivers on its promises. We do what we say we will do. We communicate strongly and regularly with the client. No surprises. On time. On budget. Honest. Genuine. True to our word.

3. Build Intimacy– we must build a close, sincere relationship that extends beyond the day to day imperatives of getting great work done. The client has to feel comfortable with us as people, and trusting of our intent. As David Ogilvy said: “A client does not care about how much you know until they know about how much you care.”

4. Avoid Self-orientation (at all costs) – the client must believe our every motivation  is about them and their success. Our motives must be around delivering great outcomes for the client. Never about self-serving interests. It’s all about the client- always.

5. Deliver Passion– do everything with enthusiasm and optimism. Be a ‘can do’ person. Be a ray of sunlight in your client’s lives. Really care about that client and its fortunes. Feel it in your heart. Harold Burson, the founder of Burson-Marsteller, once told me: “When someone hits my client with an ice-pick, I bleed.”

So- What To Do Next?

Hold a session of your teams and leaders. Look at each of these five pillars. How do we build credibility with clients? How are we scoring today on this? How can we improve it?… Then move on to reliability…then intimacy, etc. Do it generally looking at how your agency or business behaves, and then do a similar analysis, using the five pillars, against your key clients. How are we doing on credibility with client X? How can we improve that? What’s the 50 Day Plan to do just that? Now reliability- how are we scoring with client X on reliability? Etc. You get the picture.

Become Trusted Advisors to your clients. It’s the Holy Grail of services businesses.

>View a video of Chris retelling this post

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8 Responses to The holy grail of consulting – do this and triumph

  1. Anne Miles November 16, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Great post Chris. I love the model you’re proposed. An excellent revision to the old one – nothing we do is complete without passion IMHO.

    I have to say that in all my 27 years I have actually seen what felt like a real partnership with one only client and that was for a limited time too. It was for the Transport Accident Commission – although in the early days that account was more like paid charity work. Perhaps on other charity accounts it could be the exception too – in most cases the agency has some skin in it, so to speak, and therefore this tips the table but nothing like TAC was in my experience.

    I’d be interested in seeing more agency models where the agency creates some IP of their own and licence it to the clients – even the old Yowie model from Bryce Courtney is an IP licence idea, other agencies have digital tools or commercial platforms that they can licence. Even how MTV co-brands products is an IP model similar. I feel that this would shift that balance all the more given what I’ve seen on accounts where there is some investment from both sides involved. Partnership relationships might start to appear. Is that wishful thinking perhaps?

    • Chris Savage November 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

      Thanks Anne. That’s an interesting angle. I like it. Chris

  2. Duncan Pike November 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Insightful and succinct article as usual. You nailed it with the defintion of supplier being three mistakes away from being dropped. I thought the addition of passion provides some balance to the other commitments as well as some needed fun and personality. We are lucky to enjoy the work we do – so let’s let it show.

    • Chris Savage November 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks Duncan. Appreciate the feedback. And good to hear from you. Chris

  3. Tony Spencer-Smith November 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    This post was well timed for me, Chris. One of my clients, the Australian branch of a global company, recently called me a trusted advisor – before trusting me with some very sensitive information.

    I was engaged by them to make their writing more persuasive, and I am doing that through various writing workshops, and through providing input on specific documents. It is an unusual combination that allows me to work closely with one of their teams on a regular basis. It feels great!

    As you know, clients vary enormously. This one is a particular pleasure to work with. They understand what good writing is about, so are able to appreciate when they are given advice. Of course, not all clients are like that!

  4. Clare Robinson November 18, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Next stop Monday with our account team & getting them to dissect these 5 pillars and talk about the behaviours they need to adopt to embody these. Thanks for sharing Chris!


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