In-Depth

7 Ways to Win Your Customers' Trust

Channel leaders who have established themselves as trusted advisors tell how they made their clients' businesses their business.

After five years in business, Premier Knowledge Solutions Inc., a St. Louis, Mo.-based information-technology trainer and Gold Certified Partner, has developed a faithful clientele that keeps coming back for more than classroom training. "We pride ourselves that most of our customers repeat," says Leanora Losciale, Premier Knowledge Solutions' marketing manager, who also fields client calls seeking technical help. "Most look to us for advice and consultation about future purchases of software and how to apply it. For them, it's an added value to what we do."

She's spent a lifetime around those concepts thanks to her father, Richard Losciale, Premier Knowledge Solutions' president. His own lessons came the hard way, witnessing what he describes as the dismissive attitude the larger companies for which he'd worked took toward their customers. Losciale recalls the management team for one large home-goods manufacturer that met to discuss a line of products that could be designed and produced with greater efficiency. Not once, he says, did anyone address whether customers actually needed those new items. The result? "We wound up making efficient products that no one wanted," he says.

"Corporate and IT America have been traditionally internally focused on the idea that what's good for our company is good for our customer," he continues. "We began to drink our own Kool-Aid and believe our own internal discussions."

These days, Premier Knowledge Solutions and many other partner companies have jettisoned that disconnected, almost arrogant approach to doing business, choosing to serve as trusted advisors. Playing that role can ultimately build closer ties with customers who come to rely on your counsel and recommendations involving issues far beyond the products and services you sell.

Such partnerships provide boons to both sides. For partners, they can build long-term customer relationships that last through both good and bad economic times. They can also help generate word-of-mouth buzz that brings you new clients. For customers, the approach offers peace of mind, allowing them to discuss potential new IT investments with vendors they respect and trust. Put another way: It's comforting for clients to know that you've got their backs.

Hugo Perez, managing director of Gold Certified Partner DataCorp, a Pembroke Pines, Fla.-based systems integrator, knows that many competitors offer services similar to his company's. To help stand out from the pack, Perez believes his company must become an integral part of each client's decision-making process.

"We don't have the patent on good-quality work," Perez says. "What you have to do is become a trusted ally in their business and not, like some of the larger businesses, someone just pushing products and services."

So how do you reach that Holy Grail? We asked partners nationwide to share their strategies for helping build strong, respect-based relationships with customers, then combined their many insightful ideas into the following seven steps for becoming a trusted advisor:

Figure 1
"We pride ourselves that most of our customers repeat. Most look to us for advice and consultation about future purchases of software and how to apply it."
Leanora Losciale, Marketing Manager, Premier Knowledge Solutions Inc.

1. Act Like a Partner
As Perez notes, the small and midsize business universe is home to many vendors offering similar products and services. Trusted advisors beat the competition by becoming positive fixtures within their client companies. That requires investing the time needed to learn exactly what your clients require to grow and prosper.

Bob Bellas, the head of Creative Computer Resources Inc., a Registered Member specializing in server platforms, encourages his Columbus, Ohio-based team to find and suggest ways that customers can do things better. Often, the team's advice is just that: advice that doesn't necessarily translate into more work for Creative Computer. In fact, Bellas says, he'll sometimes offer to spec out new systems for a client that he knows will use the information to make purchases elsewhere.

That effort illustrates Bellas' bigger-picture approach to developing customer relationships. "You have to care about the client so they'll get the sense that whatever you're doing for them is in their best interest," Bellas explains. "A majority of our clients trust us and know we want them to succeed and grow. When they're doing well, it affects our bottom line as well."

Ed Carnes, the managing partner and CIO of IT-management consulting company Carnes Group LLC, a Franklin, Tenn.-based Gold Certified Partner, tells of a retail business that had come to view Carnes Group staffers as adjunct employees. When the client's IT director took another job, Carnes was called to fill in. "They said: 'You know us well, take care of our IT program.' They didn't look at us as an outsourcer; we were part of the family," Carnes says. "We got to that point because they saw us as another one of the team."

"Customers know their industry, they know their staff, they know themselves. And you have to understand it all before you advise them. But they don't necessarily know where the technology is going as well as you do. You have to combine your skills with theirs."
Shawn Usher, President, Sparkhound Inc.

2. Know the Customer's Business
You can't offer good advice if you don't understand your customers' goals, plans and processes. Obtaining that knowledge requires some investigation and education.

Shawn Usher, president of Gold Certified Partner Sparkhound Inc., a Baton Rouge, La.-based IT consulting company, learns as much as possible about a customer or prospect before the first meeting. That helps prevent offering an uninformed opinion or proposal that a customer might be viewed as ignorant or, worse yet, arrogant.

"They know their industry, they know their staff, they know themselves. And you have to understand it all before you advise them," Usher says. But that doesn't mean partners have nothing to offer: "They don't necessarily know where the technology is going as well as you do," he says. "You have to combine your skills with theirs."

When Losciale launched Premier Knowledge Solutions, he commissioned a poll of potential clients to determine what would bring them to his door. Their answer: evidence of sincere interest in and knowledge of their businesses. "They said, 'Don't talk to us about your training packages and your schedule. Ask us about our work and our needs,'" he recalls. "They want you to tie your product to their experience."

So now the Losciales customize training classes based on how particular customers use particular technologies. But the specialization goes even deeper-to the department level. Rather than running everybody through the same curriculum mill, they provide some people with more training and others with less, depending on the requirements of their specific jobs.

3. Keep Track of Players and Politics
Getting to know your customers requires gaining a clear understanding of the personalities and the underlying politics within their businesses. In fact, Carnes says, successful first meetings may well require drawing on skills in psychology, sociology and even a sort of anthropology: "You have to understand what the various individuals need, what they want to get done and how they've done it in the past," he says.

Geoff Pearson, the managing partner of Cincinnati, Ohio-based KiZAN Technologies LLC, a Gold Certified Partner and business solutions provider, says you also have to understand who doesn't want something done.

Pearson describes working with a company considering a switch to Microsoft SQL Server. Although most of the decision makers supported that change, one key person wanted to go with a competing solution. As Pearson and his team were making their pitch, they discovered that the lone dissenter had already invested $7 million in the other vendor's technology. Lesson learned: "We were more interested in solving the problem than doing the intelligence about our customer," he says. "You have to find out if you're stepping on someone's hallowed ground."

Pearson also warns that just because a company's leaders consider you a valuable ally, that doesn't mean everyone else in the company will agree. Sometimes in-house rivalries can make some departments resistant to your proposals or recommendations even if -- or possibly especially if -- the management team simply loves them.

"You can be a trusted partner on one side of the building, but not on the other side," Pearson says. "You're always going to have enemies. Whoever is your key contact at a company is hated by someone else in the company. And they'll probably hate you too."

4. Schmooze, Schmooze, Schmooze
One good way to avoid nasty surprises at any customer company: Make as many acquaintances as you can. Don't expect that you can develop a deep trusted relationship with a company solely through your good work and meetings with a few key contacts. You have to practice the fine art of schmoozing.

There's no shortage of ways to schmooze: an occasional "how-ya-doin'" phone call. A monthly business lunch. A golf outing. An invitation to a special event or charitable fundraiser. Or a quick, casual get-together. For example, Pearson located a bar near an important customer's headquarters. When Pearson is in the area, he invites the company's boss out for a drink. "He's never turned me down when he's not busy," Pearson says.

Premier Knowledge Solutions' main campus is thrown open to clients for training. The idea is to create more interaction between the class participants and Premier Knowledge Solutions' staff. So students, instructors and other Premier Knowledge Solutions employees socialize in the "Addiction Room," a lounge stocked with chips and chocolates. "We share it all with our clients when they come in," says Leanora Losciale. "It helps them to get to know us a little bit better."

Schmoozing helps you develop strong relationships throughout a company, with one other important benefit, according to Carnes: "If your customer likes you, you can get by with a mistake or two as long as you make it right."

"I don't tolerate unpleasant customers. If they berate my employees or berate me, they're fired."
Ed Carnes, Managing Partner and CIO,Carnes Group LLC

5. Be Selfless (up to a Point)
Certainly, serving as a trusted advisor can involve sticky situations, such as the instances when your customer is looking for help with a project that's not your forte. In such cases, do you refer your client to a competitor who could do the work better? Do you make the referral with no thought of compensation? And do you take the additional step of guaranteeing someone else's work?

That's exactly what Hugo Perez does at DataCorp. Perez says he makes about two such referrals a month, and customers are well aware that he's receiving no money for doing so. "Taking a commission or other form of payment would tarnish the whole trusted-advisor thing," he explains.

Perez takes the further step of offering a warranty on any referral his company makes -- a step he also sees as crucial to maintaining the customer's trust. "You have to stand behind any action you take to earn the credibility of your client," says Perez, who acknowledges that he's had to make good on some of those warranties. Usually, that just involves sitting down with both parties to reach a resolution. Once that's done, DataCorp's status rises that much higher: "It's what keeps us at the top of the minds of our clients," he says.

Bellas, of Creative Computer Resources, urges customers to call his company first with technology questions of any kind. He sees that open-door approach as important to staying connected to whatever's going on at the client's company-even if it doesn't directly involve what his business offers.

"If they want to change something in their phone system, we want to be the ones to find the solution for them," he says as an example. "Even if we're not the company that provides the service, we want it to go through us. We want to know everything they do tech-wise."

6. Recognize a Relationship Gone Bad
In some cases, despite your best efforts, a trusted-advisor relationship just isn't in the cards. Maybe a client isn't willing to reveal important company information. Or the personalities involved just don't mesh. Or the company's history is a minefield of suspicions, jealousies and resentments too strong for you to fight. Or the cost or effort of maintaining the relationship is just too high.

In all those cases, it may be time to move on. As Richard Losciale puts it: "If for some reason or other there is no way to please them, we reserve the right to walk away."

For Carnes, the whole point of a trusted relationship is making a respectful marriage of equals. If it's clear early on that the client can't return that respect, there's little you can hope for in terms of trust given or advice taken. "I don't tolerate unpleasant customers," Carnes says. "If they berate my employees or berate me, they're fired."

Still, Carnes tries to put the divorce in the most amicable terms. "The trick is to have a business that allows for a mutual parting," he says. "Give them a recommendation and cut your losses."

7. Set the Strategy; Hire and Fire Accordingly
In 2005, Pearson's company began to build the business based on trusted-advisor relationships. When he found that his competitors were still doing better, he took a hard look at his sales team. He found salespeople couldn't adjust to the concept of focusing on how clients saw their own businesses. "So we let them go and took over the sales ourselves," he says.

Shawn Usher says prospective Sparkhound employees are vetted on how well they are likely to embrace the trusted-advisor philosophy. "It's a big part of our interview process to see if they have that orientation," Usher says. He acknowledges that not every employee needs the same level of relationship-building skills, "but without them, it's going to limit the employee's rise to a certain point."

At Premier Knowledge Solutions, the concept is woven into the company's "DNA strands," Richard Losciale says. He describes gathering his staffers once every three months to review the strategy, relating it directly to that quarter's financial performance, adding: "There's nothing bad about taking 90 minutes at the end of each quarter and circling the wagons and exposing our trainers to these didactic evangelical sessions." And although he says that with a laugh, there's no question that when it comes to the importance of the trusted-advisor concept, he is indeed a true believer.