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.


(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!

10 replies
  1. Betty-Anne
    Betty-Anne says:

    I think we have to earn trust, it takes time & is granted to us when we can prove & show that we truly do have our clients best interests at heart !

  2. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    Exactly Betty-Anne. Trust can’t be used as a short-term attention getting strategy. The most successful organizations build it into their DNA or culture, and that’s what places them way ahead of their competition over the long-term.

  3. Sonja Jefferson
    Sonja Jefferson says:

    Well he got that wrong then! Excellent and important rebuttal Charlie. Long live the Trusted Advisor (except of course if it’s marketing speak).

  4. Tim
    Tim says:

    Charlie, as always you take the high road and also put the skeptics in their place. Too many “old” concepts today, such as trusted advisor, are seen as incorrect or wrong because they are not used properly. People buying anything, especially professional services, buy based on their trust of the company and their product or service delivering what the buyer wants. If the company did nothing to earn and keep my trust…why would I buy? Just as brand building is the sum of all connections a company has with their customers to form an opinion of the company, so is trust created by all the actions of a company with their customers and in the community. Keep on writing!

  5. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    When I was active in the “Trusted Advisor” area of helping salespeople develop better relationships with clients – to help them understand what the client really needed – or put another way – to know what the client wants to buy – I came up against this cynicism all the time. Consider this – sales people are surrounded by sales management, sales trainers, sales coaches, sales literature – mostly these people were never very good at sales. These guys still believe that sales is like the attack strategy and tactics of an invading army. They talk that talk; they think of clients as prey. You’ll notice these guys describing the clients in terms of the preditor (or mad axe murderer!) It is not surprising that sales people who have been trained and coached by those who see the clients as fodder, to take on these attitudes (and pass them on down to the new guys). After a while these attitudes become, “the way we do things around here.”

    That sales ‘grounding’ makes many sales people see their working lives completely focused on sales targets and how to reach them. If you present relationships as an essential part of selling, they translate that into, “So I do this relationship thing and I get more sales – so tell me what I do – and then I get this result – sweet!” So the whole discussiong then becomes a cynical manipulation of the client – well that’s what a preditor would do wouldn’t they?

    When the scorpion asks the frog to let him sit on his back whilst the frog swims across the river, the frog is suspicious of his mortal enemy, the scorpion. The scorpion assures him that they would both perish if he stung to frog. Halfway over the river the scrorpion stings and mortally wounds the frog. The scorpion shrugs at the frog, “I’m a scorpion, its what I do.”

    Don’t be too tough on sales guys, it’s a dysfunctional environment in most big organisations. It’s how the smaller, wiser sales guys beat up the big guys.

  6. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    I had some more thoughts after golf! I think ‘trust’ is a pretty difficult thing to do if you just don’t understand it, don’t have a trusting nature, or are amoral about your commercial relationships. Virtually all my friends are people I would trust with anything – asa result my own children (27,30,33,35 years old) say they get surprised when their business colleagues are not trustworthy. Amongst trustworthy people you never mention the subject, and niether do they – its just a given; an accepted standard of behaviour.

    Now I am not at all sure you can make someone a trusting person if that is just not who they are, anymore than making a dishonest person an honest one. (If we could we would spend the money we allocate to law inforcement to a change program to make everyone honest and trustworthy.) When someone comments or writes an article like Edsbeg’s, it is just information about how that person sees the World and how they react/survive in it. Says more about them than the subject.

    Summary: if you like working with people you trust and them trusting you, then learn and work towards more of that environment. If you feel trust is irrelevant, then don’t bother and develop you business environment where nobody trusts anybody. I remember a quote along the line of – if honesty didn’t exist we’d have to invent it to sustain life – Edberg’s article can’t be what he really believes can it? Maybe he sees himself belonging to his own ‘tribe’ and all the clients are just another untrustworthy tribe

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Chris, fascinating stuff as usual. But let me suggest there’s a tension between your two comments.

      On the one hand, you point out (rightly in my view) that sales organizations are dysfunctional places, and we shouldn’t be too hard on the salespeople who presumably are affected by it and to some extent, on some occasions, succumb to it.

      On the other hand, in your second comment, you basically suggest that “trustworthy people are born not made” argument, that you can’t make them what they aren’t already.

      As usual, I think there’s some truth in each view, but I’d suggest there’s more in the first. Dishonest people tend to crop up where there’s rank suspicion of dishonesty, and this is true even if we’ve been raised by honest parents. Organizations do have an impact on personal behavior, in many ways, most quite undramatic. Untrustworthy behavior, remember, frequently manifests as “realism,” and people don’t see it as such.

      What do you think? Care to re-formulate a bit?

      As always, many thanks for your insights.

  7. John
    John says:

    As usual you capture the trickiness of communication. When we “say” we are a “trusted advisor” it strikes me that it speaks to the denominator in the Trust Formula (self orientation). The way to become a trusted advisor is to be trustworthy and trusting. Just saying it does not make it so.


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