The term “trusted advisor” has been around aImage long time.  Recently I wrote about how the phrase has undergone “trusted advisor inflation” and become far more casually used.

When Maister, Galford and I wrote the book The Trusted Advisor back in 2001, one of our aims was to debunk the idea that trust was mainly about competence, credentials and cognition. We said:

..becoming a good advisor takes more than having good advice to offer. There are additional skills involved, ones that no one ever teaches you, that are critical to your success…you don’t get the chance to employ advisory skills until you can get someone to trust you enough to share their problems with you.

The theme of this book is that the key to professional success is not just technical mastery of one’s discipline (which is, of course, essential), but also the ability to work with clients in such a way as to earn their trust and gain their confidence.

We went on to say:

The trusted advisor is the person the client turns to when an issue first arises, often in times of great urgency, a crisis, a change, a triumph or a defeat.

Issues at this level are no longer just seen as organizational problems, but also involve a personal dimension. Becoming a trusted advisor, the pinnacle level, requires an integration of content expertise with organizational and interpersonal skills.

That was then (2001). To my astonishment, it appears that not everyone in the world has read our book and committed it to memory. (Imagine that.)

Thin Trust

That’s not the way a lot of the world has come to use the term “trusted advisor.” The following quotes are taken from current promotional literature:

Full disclosure of conflicting interests is the only way to build and keep trust with your clients.

For decades, CPAs in public practice have laid a foundation of trust with clients by competently handling confidential financial data and performing core services such as tax preparation.

There has been much talk about how accountants should embrace value based, business improvement services so that they can step up and truly embrace their trusted advisor status. Yet little has been written on how to go about doing that in a way that sits firmly within the accountant’s heartland – the numbers.

A trusted adviser offering objective solutions in wealth structuring based on XYZ Research and industry leading global resources…who understands clients’ specific investment needs, structure and area of interest…the trusted advisor is complemented with a team of financial experts and corporate resources.

As your trusted advisor, XYZ delivers a wealth strategy service to manage the financial complexities in your life.

Your loan closing is just the beginning of our relationship.  Annual mortgage reviews and rate watches are just a few of the benefits XYZ provides to their clients.   That is why __ will not only be your mortgage Planner, but your Trusted Advisor as well.

I’m deliberately not providing links here because I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, but rather to make a simple point: the idea of a “trusted advisor” as synonymous with nothing more than competence, credentials and procedural compliance clearly lives on.

Who should you trust? According to these views, someone who’s been vetted by the industry, many will tell you. How will you know you can trust them? By the number of letters after their name, or by the stress tests they’ve passed. Or in some cases, by the way they are paid (via fees, rather than transactional commissions).

Let’s be clear: basing trustworthiness on whether or not one structurally faces financial temptation is a pretty low hurdle. It reminds me of Nixon’s famous utterance, “I am not a crook.”

Barring someone from temptation doesn’t create deep trust in them. While avoiding conflict of interest is a good thing, it’s entry-level stuff.  We reserve deeper trust for those who face temptation, and who nonetheless rise above it through ethics and character.

The bar for being a trusted advisor is higher than not being a crook, being competent, and passing industry equivalents of drug tests.

Reclaiming Trust

A few years ago, we wrote a White Paper: If You Think Competency Sells, Think Again. In it we provided research proving what Maister, Galford and I had claimed a decade earlier: that the dominant factors driving trustworthiness are not competence, business acumen and procedural rigor.

The more powerful drivers of trustworthiness are, in fact, the ‘softer’ side of things: the “intimacy” and “other-orientation” factors we identified in the trust equation.

It may have become fashionable to deny it, but human wiring has not changed in the last decade; we are still prone to trust those we feel secure confiding in, and those whom we feel have our best interests at heart.

They’re only beginning to teach that at business schools (Bill George is an exception). And you will not find it by mastering documented procedures or by improving your business acumen.


Image: Ivelin Radkov /Shutterstock