The powerful thinking habits of rainmakers

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By Olivier Jacob and Andrew Sobel

The great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "The ancestor of every action is a thought. Obviously, if our thoughts are not clear and organized, our actions will not be either. Taking Emerson's idea a step further, mastery is not only a function of learning certain tools and techniques, it is also learning to think correctly about your craft.

I've studied and analyzed thousands of high-performing client-facing professionals who consistently outperform their peers (account managers, relationship managers, salespeople and others) and observed the specific skills and strategies they use to become trusted advisors to their clients. But there is more to their success than the specific types of questions they ask or their listening skills. They are also more successful because they think differently than their peers, who are less successful.

This is a big part of the difference between a good musician and a great musician. I play classical guitar, and even if I could perfectly imitate some of Andres Segovia's playing techniques, I will never play like him because I am not able to think and approach a piece of music like he does. A master performer also has different habits of thought and a better knowledge of the music than I do. It's not just about their technique, it's about their way of thinking.

Here are eight ways of thinking that I have consistently observed in great trusted advisors:

1. They define their role differently than their peers.

Those who do great things see their mission as helping their clients achieve their most important goals, period. Other "experts for hire," on the other hand, see themselves as tasked with solving a specific problem or set of problems that clients may encounter.

By defining your role as improving your client's business in every way possible, you understand and perceive things differently. You define the market available for your services as broad, not narrow or circumscribed. Rather than shy away from a discussion where you feel you are not the "expert," you jump in with a few well thought-out questions. You can then call on a colleague who has the necessary expertise or, ultimately, you can tell the client that it's not in your skill set. But either way, you've positioned yourself very differently from your competitors.

2. They focus on abundance - on opportunity - not scarcity.

This is a key difference, which I observed and wrote about 15 years ago in Clients for Life. Here's what I mean: I once had the idea of developing a seminar on how the Beatles worked as a team and innovated in their music. I also started writing an article on the subject. Several knowledgeable people told me it was a stupid idea and tried to discourage me. They said that the music business was dirty, that musicians were using a lot of drugs, and besides, what could businessmen learn from a band that broke up 40 years ago? However, I continued it and it became (still is) one of my most popular workshops. Also, the article I wrote for Strategy+business became my most widely reprinted and downloaded article, with coverage in the New York Times and other major media outlets worldwide.

Who do you want as your advisor: someone who is a chronic opponent or someone who encourages you (without of course knocking you off a cliff...)? 

Professionals with an abundance mentality seek opportunity, growth and expansion. They are positive and optimistic in their behavior. They encourage others. They believe there are enough rewards for everyone - they know that a "rising tide" lifts all boats. 

When you have a scarcity mentality, you are primarily concerned about what could go wrong and what won't - you are risk averse. You focus on the downside of new propositions rather than the potential rewards. You believe that life is a zero-sum game, with a limited number of opportunities to go around. You are reluctant to make investments that do not pay off immediately. 

3. They combine a long-term perspective with a strong sense of short-term urgency.

It's a fascinating and powerful combination of opposing behaviors. The truly successful client advisors I have studied all take a long-term perspective. Their time horizon for building relationships is long, (Because they think in terms of a 20 or 30 year career, if the client isn't ready to do business today, they don't worry) so rather than getting frustrated, they continue to stay in touch and slowly build a relationship over time based on continued value.

At the same time, they have a strong sense of urgency and a will to win when an opportunity presents itself. They are all about a potential deal, 24/7, and will not stop until they have done their best and exhausted every possible strategy to win. They are relentless.

By focusing on the short and long term simultaneously, the great rainmakers are fulfilling their goals today and also laying the foundation for a solid future ahead.

4. They align themselves with the client's highest goals, rather than accepting small-scale assignments.

Years ago, when I was a national CEO at Gemini Consulting, I remember leaving a sales call with our global business development manager, Jim Duffy. Jim asked me what I thought about the opportunity. "I think there's a nice strategy project to do for about $300,000," I told Jim. "That's funny," he replied, I haven't heard that at all. I heard that they needed to transform their entire business model, and that's a multi-year effort committing several million dollars. And in the end, it turned out that he was right! Because my focus at the time was strategy and organizational consulting. I only "heard" this objective from the client. I focused on the client's specifically described need, not their broader business objectives. My colleague, on the other hand, focused on the higher-level agenda. As a result, he was selling very large, high-impact programs. By changing the way I defined (or reframed) my clients' problems, I more than doubled my own sales over the next two years.

5. They truly, deeply believe that the customer needs them.

Great rainmakers believe they have an incredibly valuable solution to offer customers, and that customers really need it. They don't approach prospects with a defensive, skeptical or anxious mindset, thinking that even before they walk in the door, the customer probably won't want or need what they can provide. They feel it is a crime when customers do not buy from them. They are genuinely shocked and saddened when someone buys a competitor's inferior offering.

Here's the point: this attitude motivates them to be persistent and not give up, it fosters confidence and creates contagious enthusiasm. Remember, if you don't have an unwavering, even exuberant, belief in what you can do for clients, why should they believe you can help them?

6. They see the whole board, not just a few pieces.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is an excellent example of someone who can visualize and manage multiple stakeholders. (Let's temporarily leave aside his politics or whether you approve of Kissinger or not!). He conceptualized a triangular power relationship between China, the Soviet Union, and the United States, which was obvious in retrospect but almost unthinkable at the time. Other leaders focused on individual U.S. relationships with each country, while Kissinger thought about the whole picture. In 1968, Russia was the main threat to the United States, while China was a pariah, a political outcast. Kissinger believed that a rapprochement with China would pressure the Soviet Union to move closer to the United States, and subsequently force the three nations into a more stable relationship with more closely aligned national interests. Russia and China, he believed, would seek a common bond with the United States. This strategy was neither intuitive nor obvious at the time; in fact, there was great resistance in the State Department and other quarters to any meeting with the Chinese.

Similarly, the most successful rainmakers think about building relationships with multiple stakeholders throughout the organization, not just connecting with one key executive. In chess terms, they will be as concerned with pawns, knights and bishops as they are with rooks, queen and king.

7. They integrate an understanding of the rational, the emotional and the political.

Most professionals believe that clients will make a decision based on a rigorous review of the facts and an assessment of who has the best product or service. The great rainmakers know that nothing could be further from the truth. Clients make decisions based on a mixture of analysis, their own needs, their emotional perceptions, and the political dynamics of their organization. "Facts tell, emotions sell." Your solution may look better on paper, for example, but a client may not feel as comfortable working with you and your team - or, they perceive certain risk factors in using you that tip the scales in favor of your competitors.

8. They always think about their customers.

The most successful advisors I've studied are almost obsessively client-focused. They think about their clients all the time and always ask themselves what more they can do to help them. When they read, learn something new or meet someone, they always filter it through the prism of their clients' needs and interests. This leads to a constant flow of ideas, presentations and small communications that keep them in regular contact.

Learning new skills, tools and techniques is essential. But don't stop there. By adopting these habits of mind, you can radically transform your success with your customers.

About the authors

Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading companies, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase revenue for their clients. 

Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.

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Preface: Bertrand Dumazy