Hollywood’s megastars are known throughout the world. Fans love them for their big personalities and their blockbuster movies, but in Hollywood, they’re known for the cha-ching sound studio executives and investors hear whenever they’re cast in a new film.
In the movie industry, the Will Smiths, Sandra Bullocks and George Clooneys of the world are known as “bankable stars,” a term used to describe an actor who can give investors utter confidence that they will achieve a return on their money by ensuring a large box-office draw. They are rare, highly sought after, and earn the highest fees in the industry.
The truth is there are bankable stars in almost every industry. And when you can become the George Clooney of your market, it will be great for business.
Just like the bankable stars you see in Hollywood, there are advisors and service providers in every market who, like their West Coast brethren, are highly sought after and bring in very high fees. I call them bankable advisors. Some are individuals and some are firms; regardless, clients love them.
Examples of famous individual bankable advisors would include Alan Dershowitz (law), Ram Charan (board consulting), Jim Collins (CEO consulting), Marshall Goldsmith (CEO coaching) and so on.
Examples of firms that historically have been bankable advisors could include Goldman Sachs (initial public offerings), McKinsey (strategy consulting), and IBM (computing). There are also individual bankable advisors who work inside bankable firms—a good example is Bain’s loyalty expert Fred Reichheld.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a global eminence to achieve bankable status. Regardless of your profession, in your particular market niche you can become a bankable advisor without the galactic notoriety of Good to Great author Jim Collins. In fact, I can give you two great examples from my own network.
One is a sales executive who is considered the “most connected” individual in the industry he serves. He’s seen to be at the crossroads of market information—he always knows who is up, who is down and what the latest market trends are. Executives eagerly await his calls and visits.
Another is a friend of mine who runs an upscale travel agency (yes, they still exist) that caters to a demanding New York clientele. He knows the best, hottest places to go virtually anywhere in the world and is the go-to luxury travel advisor for many wealthy business people. You might be surprised to learn he owns and rents out four luxury apartments in Manhattan right now.
How to Become a Bankable Advisor
So how do you become a bankable advisor who is sought after, earns high fees and rarely has to go searching for clients because great clients come to you? Here are seven power questions you must ask and answer to move yourself toward bankability in the business world:
1. Do you offer clients utterly consistent quality, again and again? You must build a reputation for consistent delivery, year in and year out. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley lead the initial public offering (IPO) market because they are perceived to have reliably procured capital, at the right price, to hundreds of newly listed companies.
On the other hand, I’ve had clients who had so many historic quality issues that they struggled to come up with reliable references when asked for their names by prospects. As a result, their margins have been cut, and they face endless requests for proposals. They are not bankable! I’ve heard this quality message from dozens of top executives as they’ve talked about their most trusted advisors: “You have to deliver, deliver, deliver; and over time, my trust in you builds up.”
2. Are you a thought leader in your market? Some bankable advisors earn their stripes through writing books, but there are other ways to building a reputation as a thought leader. You can achieve this through deep industry focus; for example, by speaking at industry forums, writing articles for professional publications, and being known as the consultant to industry leaders.
You must consistently engage in thought leadership activities over time—you can’t just write one article or hold one breakfast event and then declare victory. Every year if you can produce a slow but steady stream of thoughtful perspectives on your chosen niche, you will notice a powerful “flywheel” effect that grows every year.
3. Is your name clearly associated with a powerful value proposition? Like movie stars, bankable advisors have a specific value proposition that people associate with them. For actor Liam Neeson, it’s delivering an “intelligent” action film, whereas for author Jim Collins, it’s helping companies become great.
Your public value proposition may not define everything you do with clients, but it’s the tip of the spear that you’re best known for. Mine, for example, is helping companies and individuals develop their clients for life. Without a recognizable value proposition, you risk becoming a commodity—just another tradable expert for hire.
4. Do you have strong name recognition in your market? Bankable advisors are well known! And in truth, most of them work very hard at getting their name out in the marketplace.
When you’re bankable and potential clients in your geographic area, market niche or industry segment think of your specialty, they think of you. There is a multitude of ways to achieve this type of “marketing gravity,” ranging from publishing to speaking to getting known as the advisor to top leaders in your industry. Google your own name—how many citations does it get? However known or unknown you are today, start planning two or three key activities that will increase your name recognition over the next 6 to 12 months.
5. Are you selective about the clients you will take on? Bankable advisors are scarce. When you work for everyone, it dilutes your brand. This has been the downfall of some fashion designers. However, attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Barry Scheck (the “DNA guy”) understand the scarcity principle and won’t take on just any client.
Not just any small company can hire Morgan Stanley to do their IPO. Think about the extreme case of Bruce Lee, the famed martial artist. He died right after his first Hollywood film was completed (Enter the Dragon), but he is still one of the most recognizable stars in the action flick genre. Most likely because he was extraordinary—probably the best in history—and also because his untimely death left us all wanting more. But let’s face it, after the tenth Jet Li movie, the fascination wears off.
Bottom line: Bankable advisors understand they shouldn’t spread themselves too thin. They turn down business that isn’t just right for them and their brand in the marketplace.
6. Are your fees at the top of your field? As a result of one through five, above, bankable advisors are able to charge high fees—but there is more to it than that. Many researchers have demonstrated that high prices lead to high perceived value.
Most people think that it’s the other way around—that you deliver high value and then you get high fees. But consider this: When you buy a luxury BMW, you expect it to be fabulous. So on the road to becoming bankable, you enter into a virtuous circle of ever-higher perceived value with clients experiencing what they expect.
One other thing happens: Part of your value comes from the fact that hiring you reduces risk for the person who has retained you. That was IBM’s huge advantage in the early days of the computer industry: No one ever got fired for buying IBM. In other words, you add value just by virtue of your bankable status.
7. Do you ask the questions? Or are you “grilled” by potential clients who don’t really know who you are? When a film director calls George Clooney to discuss a potential movie project, who do you think is asking the tough questions? The star is.
And here’s the good news: You don’t have to wait until you’re famous to put yourself in this position—you can do it right now, regardless of where you are in your career. When you’re the one with the thought-provoking, engaging questions in the conversation—be it with a brand new prospect or a longtime client—you immediately move yourself up a notch and gain control of the discussion. You quickly move from being a vendor who takes orders to a proactive, thoughtful advisor who is focused on helping clients achieve their most important goals.
Know this: There’s a natural progression of fame that you should expect and enjoy as you strive to become a bankable advisor. In fact, my coauthor, Jerry Panas, (Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, Wiley, 2012) is the perfect example of what happens on this progression. Jerry is the undisputed bankable advisor in the field of philanthropy and fund raising; he’s written 13 books. Once, on behalf of a major non-profit client, he even solicited a major gift from the Duchess of Windsor. There is almost no one in the non-profit sector who hasn’t heard of Jerry. No board of trustees will ever be criticized for hiring Jerry and his firm.
Here’s how the progression of Jerry’s career went: “Who’s Jerry Panas?” “Get me Jerry Panas!” “Get me a Jerry Panas-type!” “Get me a young Jerry Panas!” And someday…”Who’s Jerry Panas?”
How far along are you on the progression from unknown expert-for-hire to bankable advisor? Regardless of the answer, start thinking about the steps you need to take to move closer to being renowned in your particular market.
is a widely published author on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to Power Questions, his other books include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships. For 30 years, Sobel has worked as both a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach. His clients have included leading corporations such as Citigroup, Xerox and Cognizant, as well as professional service firms such as Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Towers Watson and many others. His articles and work have been featured in a variety of publications such as The New York Times, Business Week and the Harvard Business Review. Sobel is a graduate of Middlebury College and earned his MBA at Dartmouth's Tuck School. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker who delivers idea-rich, high-energy speeches and seminars at major conferences and events. Sobel can be reached at www.andrewsobel.com.