Reports of Trusted Advisor’s Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

From James Edsberg, guest-posting on BeatonCapital Down Under, comes a curious 10-point blogpost – The Trusted Advisor: R.I.P.  Edsberg says, “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.”

Interesting. But Edsberg falls into a trap.  See if you can spot it from these quotes:

[Trusted Advisor} — 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? 

Research among buyers of advisory services consistently shows that clients remain extremely sceptical about assertions from any advisors about Trust. 

Very few institutions that use Trust as a brand message go beyond it to define the phrase in any level of detail.

It really doesn’t work in a pitch. ‘Trust us,” for the prospective client, is asking them to leap into the dark.

Building a brand around a promise for personal interaction could be cannibalizing your investment in technology. 

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. 

Did you spot the trap? Mr. Edsberg has apparently interpreted the trusted advisor concept as a branding strategy, a source of marketing collateral, a pitch, an advertising concept.  That’s 180 degrees wrong. Or, to be precise, because everyone’s entitled to their own definitions, it’s an impractical definition that leads to the very shortcomings Mr. Edsberg decries.

Edsberg is not the only one to make this mistake, but having claimed to have studied the concept, he has less excuse to fall back on.

As we stated clearly back in 2001 in The Trusted Advisor (a), trust is not a marketing strategy. To advertise “We are trusted advisors” is akin to saying “We’re winners of the most humble award.” The act of saying it negates it. The most trust-destroying words you can say are, “Trust me.”

Shakespeare said, “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Advertising “trust me” in one’s collateral undercuts one’s claim.   A professional firm whose marketing claims it to be a trusted advisor not only isn’t, but displays its ignorance of the concept.

As Edsberg himself notes in the penultimate sentence above, to anoint oneself a ‘trusted advisor’ is ‘self-regarding and not client-centric.’ Exactly. It’s an exercise in self-foot-shooting.

The Problem Lies Elsewhere

The problem is not with trust, or with the concept of trusted advisor. It’s with a mechanistic, non-trustworthy, self-centered view of marketing that can’t conceive of business strategies not immediately reducible to financial metrics.  Trust just doesn’t work like that.

Trust actually forms a superior basis for financial performance, but only if you let it stretch and run.  The minute you begin milking it for ad copy, forcing it to work full circle in one transaction, or attempting to quantify it to link to the P&L, you kill the golden goose. Financial performance from trust works brilliantly as a byproduct – but not as a goal.

Trust is a relationship, not a self-maximizing tool. Trust-based relationships work precisely because they allow for a whole that is more than the sum of the parts. By contrast, the dominant view is that business strategy is by nature competitive, solitary and self-aggrandizing by design.

Edsberg is totally right that branding a firm as a “trusted advisor” results in cynicism and economic under-performance. He’s equally wrong, however, in attributing that failure to the concept, rather than to the misuse of it by misguided marketers.

RIP? Before we assassinate a great concept, lets shoot the messengers instead – narrow-thinking, self-focused, short-term marketers who think trust is just another tactic for achieving competitive advantage. It is so much more than that.

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(a)If trust is so important, how does one go about winning it? How do you get somebody to trust you? It is clear that it is not done by saying “Trust me!” Nothing is more likely to get the listener to put up his or her defenses!