The Single Biggest Thing an Advisor Can Do

Most of you reading this are advisors, in some form or another. That’s obvious if you’re a consultant, accountant, or lawyer. Also if you’re a financial planner, account manager, executive searcher, and certainly if you’re in sales.

It’s less obviously, but equally, true if you’re in one of a thousand customer-facing roles with titles like customer (-experience, -service, -success, -relationship), delivery service, pre-sales, technical support. Even if your job has a title like operations specialist, or technical project manager, or product manager, your success hinges heavily on your ability to offer good advice – and to have that advice taken.

So what’s the Single Biggest Thing an Advisor Can Do for his or her client/customer/advisee?

It’s not “add value” (almost always a narrow financial concept, and not one that guarantees acceptance of the idea). Nor is it to “challenge” the advisee (again, a challenging idea unaccepted just annoys the advisee).

Let me suggest that the Single Biggest Thing you can do for an advisee is to help them reframe their problem definition – in a way that increases value, clarity, and commitment.

Back to Roots

One of my favorite David Maister epigrams is, “The problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps – but my own experience has taught me that David was far nearer right than wrong.

Let’s take a few basic examples. See if these ring true.

  • A potential client approaches a financial advisor, because (s)he is unsatisfied with their own track record of managing their investment portfolio, and hopes a professional can do better.
  • A potential client approaches a bookkeeper, because they don’t want to become experts in QuickBooks, but their small business is rapidly demanding more such time.
  • A potential client approaches a ballroom dance studio because they want their wedding dance, to their favorite song, to go perfectly.

All three of those presenting problems are reasonable on their face. And all three advisors can probably present competent answers:

  • The financial advisor can almost always do a better job of portfolio balancing and risk-profiling than an amateur investor;
  • Any bookkeeper is going to be more adept and efficient at bookkeeping software than a moonlighting business owner;
  • Any ballroom studio can fit a dance to almost any song.

But if the advisor chooses to respond to those problem definitions as presented, there are three problems:

  1. Those problems are all defined at pretty low levels of value-added; basically a make-buy decision based on perceived efficiency;
  2. They may be what the client thinks they want, but not what the client really needs;
  3. Just giving people what they ask for doesn’t do much to motivate their taking your advice. (For a whimsical but right-on example of this, see Episode 6 of the reality TV-show Sell It Like Serhant).

Redefining the Problem

But what if the advisor in each case succeeds in engaging the client in a way that jointly examines the true root issue? In many cases (OK, all, David would say), the problem definition can change.

  • A good financial advisor will also ask the client questions about the names in which taxable accounts are held, about the client’s use of trusts, and about educational plans for their kids. All of those have implications for the portfolio, but each of them also has profound financial implications in their own right. Many clients in such conversations realize that their real goal isn’t just better stock returns, but something more fundamental – financial security, for example.
  • A good bookkeeper won’t just demonstrate Quickbooks proficiency, but will also ask about useful managerial reports, interface with the tax accountant, and plans for online payment systems. This gets the customer to think about the use of Quickbooks, not just the efficiency with which one can manipulate software.
  • A good dance studio will determine whether the favorite song is really danceable by other-than-pros, and whether something else might better fit the true goal – to receive glowing comments and feel good about themselves at the close of the dance.

Redefining the problem often makes the problem definition larger, or more holistic – like the financial planner example above. But it doesn’t have to.

The point of redefining the problem is not to up-sell – it is to get the client higher value, greater clarity about their own objectives, and thereby greater commitment to actually doing something.

It’s Not About the Advice

The biggest problem advisors have is to stop thinking it’s about the advice. Being right is table stakes, jacks-for-openers. Any subject matter expert can be right – in fact, most are. The truth is,  subject matter expertise in this day and age of AI is rapidly becoming automated (think robo-advisers, offshoring, and YouTube videos).

Good advisors remember that, just because the client says the problem is thus-and-so doesn’t mean that’s the problem. Which means the challenge of advising is not getting the better answer: it’s getting the client to accept that there might be a better answer.

The above examples are all from sales, but the problem is the same if you’re implementing a CRM system. The client wants it to do what the old system did: your job is to get them to see that the new system can accomplish much more, of more basic objectives.

Here’s how you don’t do it:

  • Tell them you’re the expert and you know better than they do
  • Show them a financial comparison of their idea and your idea
  • Tell them about all your past clients who successfully took your advice.

Instead, take a page from the one profession that is built on getting people to take advice – therapists of one form or another. (This most definitely includes your best friend, when you go to them for tough life advice).

What do all good therapists do?

  • They listen to you; not for clues about how to define the problem or add value, but to understand how you view the problem
  • They ask questions: not 20-question-game deductive queries aimed at winnowing down the solution set, but rather aimed at getting you to see your own true objectives and motives
  • They care: their objective is for you to get better, on your terms, not theirs.

Because the truth is, most of us are suspicious of our own problem definitions – even as we are defensive about them. It is not easy to get people to take advice: we all are resistant. The solution to resistance is first to find common ground – but first on their ground, not ours.  Done right, we become first unthreatened, then open, then grateful and committed once we see and can accept another problem definition.

This stuff is simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, by a long shot. In my view, getting your advice taken is a lot harder than getting the advice right in the first place. That’s why good advice can be copied by AI; but human interaction is the provenance of getting your advice taken.

It starts by helping people redefine their own problems – on their terms.