Eight steps to becoming a trusted advisor

Pete Marcus

25 Sep 2017

Agencies are, by definition, client-focused businesses. Without clients, we don’t exist. Doing great work for clients and keeping them happy is what we’re all here for.

But as anyone who’s worked at an agency knows, that’s a constant challenge. Clients are rightly demanding. They have high standards. They have complex organisations behind them. And they have their own pressures to respond to.

Making this more complicated for all of us is the fact that the communications and technology landscape is changing at a faster rate than ever before.

So while we’re proud of the great job we do for our clients and the way our agency has grown as a consequence over the past six years, we can never rest on our laurels.

We have to constantly get better at providing the right advice for clients and building strong, lasting relationships with them, even as our industry evolves around us and as we go through the inevitable hiccups that every account experiences from time to time.

To that end, earlier this year we took the entire Harvard team through a book called The Trusted Advisor. Something of a business classic, this book is written for anyone in a professional services, consultancy or agency job where clients pay your bills.


While it was written almost 20 years ago, The Trusted Advisor seems to be more relevant than ever.

Recently I’ve noticed clients use the phrase about themselves in briefs: “We want to be seen as a trusted advisor to our customers…”

I’ve also heard that other agencies are reading the book too.

Maybe it’s a reflection of a more competitive business environment. Maybe it’s the result of professional services firms encroaching on agency turf. Either way, it seems to be a book whose time has come again.

There are lots of brilliant recommendations, tips and ideas throughout the book, but I found a few key topics resonated with our people in particular. And as one of those topics is around “being generous with your knowledge” – in other words, give your insights away; don’t hoard them – I thought I’d publish a blog post summarising what we learnt.

Here then, for everyone in agency-land and beyond, is our potted guide on how to be a trusted advisor…

1. Demonstrate low levels of self-orientation

You build trust with clients by showing them you put them first, not yourself.

Sounds easy, right? It’s actually incredibly hard and requires real discipline. After all, human nature is to worry about ourselves before anyone else.

Consistently maintaining low levels of self-orientation is what marks out the advisors that clients will trust for the long-term. So always think of your client, their challenges, their priorities, their concerns, before your own.

 2. Ask questions to understand why

The Trusted Advisor has a great phrase to reassure any nervous agency person who’s been asked a difficult question by a client: “The answer is a better question.”

You have to keep asking questions to understand why the client is asking you what they’re asking you, and why they think like they do. That way you can help them understand the context of their situation and possible routes out.

This is summed up in another of my favourite phrases: more value is provided by the consultant through “problem definition” than “problem solution”.

3. Give options (in a non-confrontational way)

Our role is to help clients understand so they can decide, not decide for them.

The book sums this up as: give the client their options, give them an education about their options (pros and cons), make your recommendation, but let them decide. A beautifully simple model for how to give clients valuable counsel.

4. Develop the confidence to admit what you don’t know

Admitting doubt or uncertainty is delicate but can be very powerful. It shows honesty and trustworthiness. It’s a sign of low self-orientation.

5. Be generous with your knowledge

There are a thousand agencies out there who all claim to be thought leaders. All of them are staffed by bright people who know how to do the job. It’s very unlikely that you know any secret information that makes you a better agency to work with than the guys next door.

Instead, you become trusted by being generous with what you know, sharing it instead of hoarding it. We do this through our Friday Five newsletter, for instance – anyone can sign up for free.

6. Get closer to clients

Trust develops through spending time together. That means phone communication beats email, and face-to-face beats phone.

It’s always better to err on the side of “over-communication” – more rather than less. Let them know you’re working on that document they asked you to write, and when you think you’ll be able to send it over. Don’t wait to “surprise” your client or assume they have powers of telepathy to understand what you’re thinking and doing.

7. Build reliability over time

You build trust by doing what you say you’ll do. So create opportunities to deliver on your promises.

Say you’ll send something at 9am, and do it. Commit to a call at 2pm, and be on the line exactly at 2pm, not three minutes late.

These small things add up.

8. Actively listen

One of the hardest skills to develop is active listening. This means listening out for what isn’t being said by the client, as well as what is.

What’s their tone? What issues do they rush over? What difficult topics need careful broaching?


Some of these points may sound obvious. Written down they certainly seem easy enough. But it’s amazing how hard it is to actually put these behaviours into practice, day-in, day-out.

Nonetheless, that’s what we strive to do for clients. It’s what’s helped us achieve a client net promoter score of 9.0 so far. But we know there’s always more to do.

What else would you add to this list?

Want to find out more about how we can help? Get in touch – coffee is on us