Why Experts Are Bad at Sales

Why Experts Are Bad at SalesIf you’re a lawyer, accountant, management consultant, VAR, systems engineer, financial advisor, CRM expert, architect, IT services consultant or even an HR consultant – odds are that you’re ineffective at selling.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is – it isn’t hard to get better.  If you do,  you’ll compete far more effectively against those who haven’t learned the trick. The trick is dialing back the emphasis on expertise.

Trust Sells

Let’s start with the commonsense observation that trust sells – powerfully.  If your customers trust you, many good things follow – higher close rates, lower price sensitivity, greater client loyalty, to name a few.

Trust isn’t one monolithic quality.  In the Trust Equation, we deconstruct trustworthiness into four components – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation.  Data collected over the years (see the Trust Quotient Self Assessment) identify the relative importance of those four factors in creating a perception of trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness Data

For example – gender and trustworthiness. When asked to guess which gender is more trustworthy, about 85% of my workshop audiences guess women; and 12,000 datapoints say they’re right.

Further, nearly all the gender difference is due to different scores on one factor. I also ask workshops to guess which factor that is, and again, they are overwhelmingly right – it is intimacy.

Score two for commonsense backing up the data.  And there’s more. Surveys of trustworthy professions show shifts over time in the least trusted professions – used car dealers one year, lawyers another, politicians another. But the most trusted profession is remarkably consistent – nurses. Again, audiences find that this “makes sense.” And tying the data together, note that of the four attributes of trustworthiness, the one most easily identifiable with nursing is, again, intimacy.

Finally, we were able to isolate six “Trust Temperaments” – differing combinations of high scores from each of the four trust equation components. The three highest-scoring pairings were the three that contained Intimacy as one of the factors.

The combination of high Credibility and Reliability scores is what we most associate with subject matter experts.  And that combination was tied for least trustworthy among the six pairs.

The level of technical mastery required by the professions, for example, is considerable, and necessary. It’s not surprising that people in such lines of work would score highest on the attributes of credibility and reliability, the two “rational” and “hard” components of trustworthiness.

The problem comes when they assume, implicitly, that what their customers most want is a massive display of that expertise. Selling in those businesses, more often than not, is dominated by exhibitions of mastery, methodology, intellectual performances, credentials and references.

But technical mastery is the least effective approach to trustworthiness.  The most effective component of trustworthiness is precisely the one that so many experts shun – intimacy.

The Cure for Expertise

There’s nothing wrong with expertise; it’s necessary. It’s just not sufficient. What’s needed are some basic intimacy skills. That means, above all else, listening.

The listening that’s required is not listening as in being quiet, or even listening as aggressively pursuing questions. It’s listening as a sign of respect; listening with no objective beyond understanding the customer.

This kind of listening is part skill, part attitude. It requires the ability to suspend the overwhelming desire to solve problems. It isn’t easy to do – but it is simple. It is accessible; it can be learned.

Another intimacy skill is the ability to take an emotional risk.  Examples of such risks include saying you don’t know when you don’t know (very difficult for experts, whose careers are based on avoiding such moments), and acknowledging feelings – your own, and those of your customers.

Most technical professionals will remain expertise-based – and ineffective at sales. And that spells great opportunity for the few people and firms who are capable of recognizing the power of soft skills in producing hard results.

This article was first published in RainToday.com in a longer form. 

7 replies
  1. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    Argh. This is so true and I know I’m often guilty of this. So difficult for most experts to bite their tongues and resist the temptation to wheel out yet another gem proving their credibility at the expense of their relationship.

  2. EJames Brennan
    EJames Brennan says:

    Selling calls for persuasion, which is not necessarily related to expertise but is tied to skills in active listening, empathy and ability to dispell objections or reduce resistence. When the problem to be solved is a sale, effective problem-solving will always involve listening and reflecting feelings, all Carl Rogers style communications skills.

    As a Board Certified expert witness with scores of court testimonies, I rather disagree with the generalization that experts won’t admit ignorance; one of my mantras is that you know a real expert by their willingness to admit a lack of omniscience. Only those who know a lot about a subject recognize how much they don’t know. Doubt that you have to really suppress the desire to solve problems in order to be a good listener who empathizes with the speaker… but I don’t claim to have all the answers.

  3. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:

    I think you are exactly 100% right (aka I agree with you). The most credible, truth-telling thing you can say is, ironically, “I don’t know.”

    It instantly answers an implicit or explicit question about your knowledge; there is virtually no reason you’d say if it weren’t true; it demonstrates that not only are you not afraid of the truth but that you welcome it; it shows that you know what you don’t know (as opposed to not knowing what you don’t know); and it is utterly client-focused.

    The only thing I’d take issue with you, and it’s probably due just to different experiences, is the frequency of jumping to problem-solving before adequately listening and affirming the client.

    Being an expert witness in court, I think, generally requires two things (at least): gray-hair knowledge, and a very cautious approach to the words you choose to say. And as I was reading your comment, expert witnesses are probably about as careful as any other role I can think of.

    On the other hand, being a mid-level consultant or attorney practically suborns eagerness of problem-solving – surrounded by knowledgeable people in a knowledge industry where subject matter expertise drives the meritocracy. And, there are many more consultants than there are expert witnesses. As an example I’d cite Ian Brodie, the prior commenter, who is an excellent consultant (I can attest to it), and among the least guilty of this sin – but he can still feel the ‘urge to solve’ when facing a client.

  4. Brad Farris
    Brad Farris says:

    When I work with professional services executives the part of your trust equation that they resist is the intimacy part. It just doesn’t come naturally to them, and it’s too bad — most of them are a lot of fun when you get to know them. But in that first client meeting they can be insufferable bores.

    It is a hard habit to break!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] The Trusted Advisor was one of the first books I read on sales, and is still the book I most often recommend. The Trust Matters blog is like having a little Charles Green in your ear everyday pushing you to be just a little more transparent, a little less self-interested… It’s a nice combination of helping me to think right, and helping me to act right; like this post on the problem with expertise. […]

  2. […] about why experts are bad at sales, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or why curiosity trumps knowing in Chapter 2 of […]

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