Trusted advisors don’t rely too heavily on their credentials

By Charles H. Green

Trusted Advisor Associates


Use your credentials to get you in the door. Once you’re in the door, stop trying to look smart and impress. Instead, listen.

Most of us agree it’s important that our clients trust us. If they trust us, they’ll take our advice, they’ll accept suggestions from us, they’ll buy from us and refer us on to others. And — assuming we give them good advice — it is also good for our clients to trust us, every bit as much as it is good for us to be trusted.

But that raises the question: How can we best become trusted? Here we all too often make a common mistake — we think that people trust us because of our expertise, competence and credentials. In fact, that’s mostly wrong thinking.

The trust equation

In the past, I’ve discussed the trust equation, which suggests that trustworthiness is a function of credibility, reliability and intimacy, all divided by the advisor’s self-orientation. Most people in the professions and financial industries naturally put most emphasis on those first two factors: credibility and reliability.

It’s not hard to see why; those are intellectually challenging and complex businesses and products which play well to our intellectual strengths and capabilities. Further, regulation in those industries is very much focused around transparency of data, procedural compliance, and the like — all in the credibility and reliability realm.

What research shows

I have spoken out against the belief that trust was mainly about technical competence in the past. More recently, my colleagues and I did research to prove or disprove that claim.

As measured by 12,800 respondents’ answers to a 20-question assessment based on the trust equation, the factor most strongly correlated with high trustworthiness was intimacy. Intimacy, as we defined it, was the sense of security clients feel around us, the feeling that we are empathetic and discrete, that they can share all manner of information and concerns with us.

On one level, this is blindingly obvious. Ask most people whether men or women are more trustworthy, and nearly all will answer “women.” When asked to guess which factor women are best at, most will also correctly guess intimacy. So, this result isn’t surprising. And sure enough, women are shown in the research to be more trustworthy, based largely on that intimacy score.

Yet this finding runs counter to conventional wisdom that trust must be gained mainly by having the right answers promptly, by demonstrating an ability to handle objections and to show wide and deep product mastery. Look at the literature around you that talks about trust and see which of the factors tends to be emphasized.

What’s to be done?

The right answer in large part lies in simply understanding the role of the different trust components in the decision process. People tend to use the rational components of trust (credibility and reliability) as minimum requirements, table stakes — necessary but not sufficient. They will look at your credentials partly as ways to do initial screening and partly to use an excuse in case they don’t like you.

By contrast, once the screening has been made, it is the softer aspects of trust — intimacy and low self-orientation — that tend to drive the actual decision.

The interplay is interesting, as expressed in these two sayings:
    1. People buy with their heart, and justify it with their brain
    2. People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.
These statements together reflect the simple truth about trust. Use your credentials to get you in the door. Once you’re in the door, stop trying to look smart and impress. Instead, listen. And don’t listen to find the “gotcha” moment where the client says the trigger word that lets you launch into your product lecture. Instead, listen as if this were your best friend. Listen to what they want to talk about, and let them dictate the pace.

Don’t over-rely on your credentials and expertise. It’s what got you to the dance, but not what will make the dance a success.