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The Trusted Advisor. RIP.

10 June, 2014

. Accounting. Consulting engineering. Law. Management consulting. Other professional services. Strategy

There are 10 reasons why it’s time to drop the tired phrase of ‘Trusted Advisor’ from your client strategy. In fact it’s time for the Trusted Advisor to RIP.

It’s the phrase found most often in the marketing collateral and websites of the best known law firms. But is it time to challenge this shibboleth? Is it time to throw away the book? Yes, and here’s why.

All recessions are cathartic. And this one has been no different. They cause businesses to question elements of their business strategy which previously seemed permanent and inviolate. One of the lasting impacts of this downturn has been the profound shift in the relationship between professional advisor and client. In this new era, procurement processes and competitive pitches are a feature and pricing pressures persist. Clients want greater transparency and are advised not by a single individual or firm but by a panel of advisors.

Marketing, Business and Brand strategies of professional firms are catching-up with these changes. But one phrase remains remarkably resilient. It is the most commonly used term to summarise the advisor-client relationship. It has been the title of several books on the sector. And it epitomises many of the cherished beliefs that professionals have about themselves and what they do. Beliefs which may have to change.

The Trusted Advisor

I’m asking is now a good time to question whether the ‘Trusted Advisor’ label best encapsulates what professional advisors do for their clients?

Here are 10 thoughts to encourage a debate about the continuing value of this cherished marketing mantra.

1. Why lead with your weakest card?

Post 2008, there has been a widespread collapse in faith and confidence in many advisory brands. Research among buyers of advisory services consistently shows that clients remain extremely sceptical about assertions from any advisors about Trust. For many clients, an organisation’s over-emphasis on Trust raises the suspicion in their mind that the message comes from a need to reposition an institution after an incident where Trust was broken.

2. It’s difficult for your staff to action.

‘Be trustworthy’. ‘Inspire trust’. These are just two examples of the internal values messages given to staff by leading professional firms. Trust is a concept – an important one, of course. But it’s an intangible. Although all would agree that being trustworthy to a client is integral, there is less agreement about what it means and how to create it. Values are notoriously difficult to define. In our experience, very few institutions that use Trust as a brand message go beyond it to define the phrase in any level of detail, nor say what their staff should do to demonstrate or build it with clients. That’s the weakness of any values-based branding initiative.

3. It’s difficult to measure.

For a message that is at the centre of so many advisory brands, many organisations never know or ask whether they have achieved it. As a metric or KPI, it’s difficult to measure progress and therefore impact. It’s binary. There is no spectrum on Trust. You either have it or you don’t. People talk about ‘building trust’ but they don’t mean trust – they probably mean ‘building a relationship’. After all, you don’t even start building a relationship with an advisor if you don’t think they are trustworthy from the off.

4. It’s a message for the truly personal service not b2b relationships.

In professional services – the most valuable client relationships are institutional. But the phrase ‘trusted advisor’ works best for personal interactions: the doctor, the therapist, at a stretch, the private client lawyer or private banker. But few valuable relationships in the services domain retain such a high degree of personalisation with a single advisor. If you are an independent or sole practitioner, this is the message for you. If you are anything larger, it probably isn’t.

5. For larger professional firms, it can discourage internal collaboration.

The ‘trusted advisor’ is a message for the individual. And yet, for larger organisations with multiple offices and international teams hoping to co-ordinate joined-up delivery to increasingly multinational clients, it can grind against initiatives to encourage teaming and collaboration.

6. It really doesn’t work in a pitch.

‘Trust us’. For the prospective client, it’s asking them to leap into the dark. It’s a phrase that is as difficult to assess in the business environment as it can be in our personal friendships and day-to-day life. Why would a prospective client feel that they have to make that jump of faith? It’s for the advisor to show what and how it will add value to the client.

7. Trust. It’s not what clients want.

Surprising though it may seem, it’s not what clients want. The latest trends in client research among the buyers of advisory services show that clients want confidences to be respected and in the case of corporate clients, for conflicts to be well managed. But the perception of value is more strongly correlated with the thing that client firms really want: expertise, insights, efficient project management or impact. It’s possible for a client to trust you totally but not use your services. More trust doesn’t translate into higher revenues for the advisory firm.

8. It’s out of step with how clients retain advice.

Clients rarely want to give all their work to one firm. It’s risky for them. We’re in an era where interactions have become more transactional. So, while advisors want to maintain or establish relationships, clients in some geographies are increasingly promiscuous about the service providers they work with.

9. It’s reducing your ROI on technology.

Technology is delivering a more personal service for clients. One that they can tailor at the touch of their tablet. One that, hopefully, they will value more. This investment in technology across professional services is however, changing the interaction with the advisor – an interaction that used to be exclusively ‘human’. Building a brand around a promise for personal interaction could be cannibalizing your investment in technology.

10. It’s undifferentiated and tired.

Take two minutes of your day to look at the websites of the world’s leading professional firms. We did. Declarations of trust and integrity are not likely to make your organisation stand out. As a phrase, the Trusted Advisor is from yesteryear. It’s dated. And for many clients, elicits rolled eyes when they hear it. It’s self-regarding and not client centric.

So if ‘the Trusted Advisor’ is a phrase that should disappear, what should replace it? How should a firm select the correct language and define its core message to attract new clients and maintain its existing relationships?

I’ll be answering that in the follow-up to this article.

Author

Our guest contributor is James Edsberg, the Senior Partner of Gulland Padfield. James may be contacted on jedsberg@gullandpadfield.com

4 Responses to The Trusted Advisor. RIP.

Peter Macfarlane says: 10 June, 2014 at 5:41 pm

The trusted adviser to me was always about describing the relationship you seek with a client – the ideal end point. It is internal and should never be about how you market yourself. It helps direct activities to achieve that end point – such things as account management and further business development. I think it still has value in terms of setting the direction for managing client relationships. The trick is working out what can be done to move a client to that type of relationship (instead of being for example a ‘tradesman’). I also think it can apply to more than the individual client. Client organisations can trust a professional advisory firm

Reply
Charles H. Green says: 10 June, 2014 at 10:35 pm

As a co-author of the book you suggest be “thrown out,” (The Trusted Advisor), I am pleased for the publicity, but bemused by your comments. I must protest – before you throw it out, try reading it!

A point we make clear in that book, as well in succeeding books – Trust-based Selling, and The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook – is that use the concept as the basis for branding or advertising is nearly a contradiction in terms. In fact, the most trust-destroying words you can say are, “Trust me.” To elevate that concept to a “pitch” is to systematically ruin trust.

That invalidates your points 1, 2, 6 and 10. Anyone who has to declare themselves trustworthy has not only lost it, but has demonstrated their inability to comprehend trust.

In a related point, your item 4 seems precisely wrong. The trusted advisor concept is at its least relevant in B2C, low-price-point, transactional commodities. It is at its MOST powerful in B2B, complex, intangible and high-priced areas. That most specifically includes wealth management, as well as law, consulting and accountancies. Over the years firms like Macquarie, Dimensional Fund Advisors, Accenture and Deloitte have agreed.

I’m also not clear where you get your perspective that trust is outdated, or not what clients want, or out of step with how clients retain advisors. In general, the more the world moves toward professional procurement, the MORE valuable trust becomes as a differentiator, because it’s the one thing that can’t be systematized.

i don’t know where to begin with your point 3. You are quite right about the lack of definition about the term ‘trust.’ But that’s easily remedied, and we’ve done so. You say one wouldn’t start a relationship without trust, but that is nonsensical. The establishment of trust proceeds in parallel with the establishment of a relationship, which means trust is critical in the early engagement phase of a business relationship, precisely as it does in any interpersonal relationship.

Finally, the difficulty of measuring trust implies nothing about its reality or relevance. And yet, we have given a pretty solid definition, and data, around the concept of trustworthiness: check the website for data on 45,000 people who’ve taken the Trust Quotient Self-Assessment for proof.

Mr Macfarlane, commenting above, makes the point quite nicely: “the trusted adviser was always about describing the relationship you seek with a client – the ideal end point.” Precisely. It is not a branding concept. If you subject it to profitability analysis at the transactional level you invalidate the concept. If you try to measure it too precisely, just as in physics vis a vis the Heisenberg principle, it evaporates.

The concept of a trusted advisor is a simple statement of a profound human relationship. The validity of the idea is evident in the blue chip list of our clients, and if anything is even more relevant in today’s environment of largely depersonalized interactions. Trust is more powerful when surrounded by impersonality.

I suggest your audience read the book before throwing it out. There’s a reason it still ranks about #6,000 in ALL books on Amazon, 13 years after publication. You may also want to read the two follow-on books. Or the 800-plus articles and blogposts to be found on the website TrustedAdvisor.com, where these and other related insights are spelled out in great detail.

Reply
Charles H. Green says: 10 June, 2014 at 10:48 pm

One more thought. I note that the blog-title summary for your piece is “12 reasons why it’s time to drop a tired phrase from your brand and marketing.”

You don’t need 12 – only one. And that is that the concept “trusted advisor” never belonged in the arsenal of branding and marketing tools. It is self-defeating to consider it such. It is something that you wish others to say about you, but to say it about yourself invalidates you.

Saying that trusted advisorship is old hat on the grounds that it doesn’t work as marketing is like saying love doesn’t work because declaring yourself lovable on an online dating site doesn’t make others love you. It quite misses the point, entirely.

Reply
James Edsberg says: 12 June, 2014 at 1:15 pm

This debate has been a long time coming. It’s about more than a phrase. It’s symptomatic of two different views of how the world of the professional firm will develop in the next few years.

Two different views. One that accepts the profound change in the professional industries since 2001 versus another which appears reluctant to do so.

One that looks outwards for answers to the question of how professional advisors can best be aligned to clients versus another which clings to what seems an inward-focused and outdated sense of self for the professional.

I set out in my original article just 10 of the many reasons why I think it’s time to ask whether the phrase, ‘The Trusted Advisor’, still used so freely in our industry, best encapsulates the relationship between client and advisor today.

In recent years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t.
I’ll go further. I think the phrase itself has become part of the problem. Not because I believe Trust is not important in business. Of course it is. But as a strategy, as an internal message to galvanise your colleagues to change, to inspire and lead effectively and certainly, and certainly as a marketing tagline (as many do) to win clients and prospects, ‘the Trusted Advisor’ as a phrase, confuses more than it clarifies. It harms more than it helps.

And that’s why we’re finding that management teams of professional firms we work with as a strategy consultancy to financial and professional firms, are gradually dropping it from their lexicon in favour of a much more client-focused set of goals and objectives which are easier to adopt and follow.

You only have to look at the qualifications and caveats in response to my original posting to see that it is showing cracks. There are two tests of whether you have expressed your strategic goal well. Is it (i) clear and not open to misinterpretation and (ii) actionable? I’m not convinced ‘the Trusted Advisor’ passes even these simple tests.

One correspondent here suggests that if the phrase Trusted Advisor is used by a professional in front of a client, ‘it is self-defeating’. I agree. We can do better than that, surely?

If a few people on a blog can’t agree on when it should be used internally or externally, who should use it with whom and what it means, I’m asking whether we shouldn’t abandon it altogether in favour of a better articulation of a professional’s strategic intent?

Let me finísh by saying my thoughts are not intended to be a response to any single person, firm or any of the many well-meaning books which have been written on this topic over many, many years. No one has a monopoly on this phrase nor its use. I wish all well, whatever their point of view. There’s room for more than one.

To engage in this debate constructively, politely but fearlessly enriches all of us who work with professional firms to help them evolve successfully.

Reply

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