“There was a time when clients trusted professionals automatically, based solely upon their honorable calling,” note the authors of The Trusted Advisor. “Sound character and reputation were assumed, and business was conducted with confidence, bound by a handshake.”

Times have certainly changed. Today, clients put their consultants under a microscope to examine bills, challenge expenses, probe into how projects are staffed, and question how much time various tasks require.

Still, consultants who take the time to cultivate trust are rewarded with repeat business from the same clients as well as new business through referrals. For consultants who want to learn how to cultivate and maintain trusting relationships, The Trusted Advisor is an excellent guide.

By David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. GalfordPublished by Free Press, September 2000Hardcover, 202 pp. plus appendix, notes, and indexISBN: 0-7432-0414-XPrice: $20.00 at Fatbrain.com
The trust-building process
The central theme of the book is that “the key to professional success is not just technical mastery of one’s discipline, but also the ability to work with clients in such a way as to earn their trust and gain their confidence.”

The first part of the book is full of anecdotes and practical suggestions on how to earn trust and give advice. Part two provides a more formal approach to trust building, but the text remains highly readable. The third section shows the reader how to apply the concepts and techniques introduced in the first two sections.

Authors Maister, Green, and Galford put forth this five-step trust-building process as a key take-away of the book:

  1. Engage: Demonstrate to the client that you are worthy of being spoken to in an open, truthful manner about the issue at hand.
  2. Listen: Demonstrate your ability to understand and empathize with another person. You also “listen” to what remains unstated.
  3. Frame: Crystallize and encapsulate the client’s complex issues into a problem definition that, in an objective manner, provides both insight and a fresh way of thinking about the problem.
  4. Envision: Strive to articulate “a specific vision and choice among the many future states toward which the client might want to aim.”
  5. Commit: This is not about closing a sale or signing a contract. Instead, it involves making sure your client understands what will be necessary to solve the problem and that he or she is willing to do what it takes to achieve the goals.

Quick ways to gain trust
If you don’t read anything else in this book, read the last chapter. In fact, even if you do read the entire book, you might want to read the last chapter first. It explains the highest-impact or fastest-payback ways to gain trust:

  • Listen to everything.
  • Empathize (for real).
  • Note what they’re feeling.
  • Build that shared agenda.
  • Take a point of view, for goodness sake!
  • Take a personal risk.
  • Ask about a related area.
  • Ask great questions.
  • Give away ideas.
  • Return calls unbelievably fast.
  • Relax your mind.

Many other lists appear throughout the book—for instance: 16 signs that a client trusts you, 10 common traits of trusted advisors, 11 tips on enhancing credibility, 16 characteristics of good listeners, 14 sayings to relax your mind. All the lists are duplicated in an appendix for your convenience. The inclusion of so many lists doesn’t mean the book is without depth—the authors go to great lengths to explain their points in detail.

Overall, The Trusted Advisor offers genuinely useful advice on how to develop the relationships that consultants need in order to succeed in today’s rapidly changing business environment.

You don’t have to become best friends with all of your clients, the authors point out, but if you want to be their trusted advisor, you actually do have to care about them. “If you want to be merely a vendor, you don’t.“

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology reporter.

Have you found a great resource for IT consultants? Tell us about it! Post a comment below or send us a note.