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Smart strategies to become a trusted adviser

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What role do you play with your current clients? Yes, I realize that you are their benefits adviser. Over the last decade, you have read in this column about striving to be a trusted adviser. After all, that is the pinnacle of business relationships. Benefits strategic planning will in fact help you to accomplish the transformation of your practice. Let’s just agree for the moment, that becoming a trusted adviser is very beneficial and certainly a goal to which we should aspire.

But where is your relationship with your clients today? How would you define it? Perhaps more importantly, how would your clients define it? After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you map a course to get to where you want to be? Having difficulty getting your arms around this? Let’s see if this will help.

The most basic form of a business relationship is that of a vendor. It defines where a product or service provider falls in the supply chain. A vendor responds to RFP’s. They provide quotes, respond to service requests and take orders. Invariably vendors state that they provide great service which they may in fact actually deliver. Often vendors feel that providing superior service is their key differentiator. But from the client’s perspective, they expect their vendors to provide great service. And it’s the client’s expectation that the vendor provide this level of service just to get in the game. A vendor is there when a client is ready to evaluate a new product or service offering. Over time, their products and services become viewed as commodities. Is this sounding familiar? A vendor relationship is reactive. It is not strategic; it’s tactical. As a vendor, you are not on the “inside” as decisions are being considered or alternative options are being evaluated. Having a very solid vendor relationship is great, and most businesses have this type of relationship. But is this what you aspire to? Is this the best that your firm can do? We think you can do much better than this, and in some cases, you likely are already doing so.

Moving up the pyramid, the next most desirable form of relationship is that of a credible or authoritative source. In this type of relationship, you have already proven yourself to be a very reliable vendor. You are a proven commodity, if you will. You have performed consistently, and your client can count on you to be responsive. As a result, your client knows that you will come through on their behalf, even when they call you on short notice. Perhaps you have even developed relationships with multiple parties at the client’s business. You feel comfortable with your relationship with key decision-makers at the client, and you hope that they value your services. You are involved in certain tactical decisions. Your client may involve you directly in the process of evaluating new product or service offerings. In fact, you may actually assist them with the selection of new products and the carriers or vendors to be utilized. You may actually be part of the process for a finite period of time and help bring the matter to closure. You are viewed as one of their most dependable resources, and you are rewarded with a significant portion of the client’s business. You in turn are likely to view this type of client as one that you can count on and you may even begin to see some referrals from this type of relationship. Clearly this type of relationship is better than being a vendor and many top-flight benefits advisers find themselves in this position.

Further up the pyramid of relationship categories, is that of problem solver or counselor. Your relationship with a client is deeper and more permanent. Your client is likely to involve you in some strategic issues. Presumably you possess pertinent knowledge about your client’s business issues and perhaps you understand the current industry trends, key drivers, and human capital management challenges they face. In this type of relationship, you are always thinking about your client’s business from a strategic perspective and you are proactive in bringing them new strategies to manage their business operations. As a result, you gain greater visibility to multiple levels in the organization, and have access to the C-suite as a result. You are likely called upon by your client to assist with the creation of an RFP, and you may be involved in helping them to vet proposals and vendors. You help to initiate the process and are likely involved every step along the way, including evaluation, negotiations, reference checking, contracting, and implementation. In this type of relationship, your client views you as a valuable business asset.

At the top of the relationship pyramid is the role of trusted adviser. Your client’s senior officers take you into their confidence. They openly discuss their business issues and they seek your counsel before strategic decisions are framed. They want your input right from the outset, since they are confident that you can save them precious time, money, and errors since you clearly understand their business issues. You are viewed as their business consultant first and foremost. You remain a part of the decision making process and never exit it when a project is completed. You are still part of the discussion about what comes next. You are part of the problem assessment, and you proactively develop and provide solutions, in some cases before the client knows that a problem is emerging. Your relationship with this type of client is unique and very often you are insulated from competition since no one can replicate your relationship or standing with this client. You ultimately provide more products and services to this type of client and you retain this client relationship much longer. And your business will be more profitable, predictable and command a higher valuation. This is the pinnacle of relationship success.

So what kind of client relationships do you want? What actions will you take to move up the relationship pyramid? You really need to give this very serious thought since it will drive everything about your business and your future financial security. When contemplating your past results, think about the clients that you have lost or the RFP’s you were not successful in winning. What could have been done differently? It may have nothing to do with your technical knowledge about benefits or your insurance expertise. More than likely it had everything to do with the types of relationships that you had and the client’s perception of your value to their business.

Focus on understanding your client’s business issues first, and the appropriate benefits solutions will logically follow. Consider developing strategic benefits plans for each client. Evolve your interaction to become much more consultative. Seek to instill this approach in your firm’s corporate culture. And by all means, focus your energies on becoming a trusted adviser.

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