The 3 Steps to Trustworthiness in Professional Services

“We need to be recognized as trusted advisors, rather than as product peddlers.”

I heard this again recently from a client whose business has changed dramatically in recent years. Its past reputation came from selling products; today most revenue comes from high-value services. In order to grow in the future, they need clients to see them in a different light—still believing in their products, to be sure, but more importantly trusting their recommendations and ability to execute.

Many professionals have made “being trusted” a key business goal. They have expertise and experience, yet sometimes stumble along their path to trustworthiness. The unfortunate result can be a slow descent into commoditization, or simply looking and sounding like everyone else. Commoditization is the polar opposite of distinctiveness, and the enemy of growth.

So, how can professional service providers actually become trusted to a degree that helps them rise above the crowd? From my experience on the front lines plus research into consumer psychology, I have found that prospective clients have to answer two questions for themselves before granting you their trust: “Do you know what you’re doing?” and, “Will you work in my best interests?” When they are confident the answers are yes, those prospective clients are most likely to become actual clients. In order to get there, professional service providers must work in sequence through three levels of competency—and avoid two traps in the sequence.


Trustworthiness Level 1: Professional Credibility

The first and most basic level involves building credibility. This is the realm of credentials, certification, and experience–attributes that show up on resumes, and that are searchable online when potential clients do their homework on you. Many professional service firms focus their marketing efforts squarely on credentials. Yet these days your credentials are considered “table stakes,” or minimum requirements, by most prospects.


Trustworthiness Trap 1: “Credibility is Enough”

The first Trustworthiness Trap I have seen is the belief that credibility alone (especially in the form of credentials) is enough to earn trust and grow the business. There is no shortage of credentialed attorneys, CPAs, investment advisors, architects, insurance agents, and other professionals out there. And they keep coming; as just one example, nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. earn graduate degrees in business each year. In many fields such as law, there is a market glut and earnings are on the decline. The letters after your name can get you in the game—but that alone will not build success. (Take it from someone who can put “Ph.D.” after his name!)


Trustworthiness Level 2: Building Professional Relationships

Building upon your credentials, then, the second level involves developing relationships. Have you or your firm made a commitment to strategically cultivate and prioritize business relationships? I see high-performing firms that have committed to some form of customer relationship management (CRM) system. They have also developed an Ideal Client Profile that defines priorities for their business—where to spend prospecting time and dollars, where to invest in sponsorships, and who is a good fit for their services.


Trustworthiness Trap 2: “Credibility and Relationships are Enough”

Many executives say, “This is a relationship business.” Who can argue with that? Professional services are ultimately personal. Still, I also hear from professionals who are very frustrated with their prospect lists. One recently said about a longtime friend who pledged her business to a competing firm, “She likes us but is not going to invest with us.” You can have healthy personal relationships that never develop into business or referrals.


Trustworthiness Level 3: Mastering Client Conversations

The third and highest level involves mastery of client conversations. At that level, everyone close to your business (e.g. employees, current clients, those who can provide referrals) knows how to talk about the business. Everyone is equipped with brief, conversational language (not mission statements!) and stories to share–whether the opportunity comes at a business conference, networking event, regular client meeting, or a social conversation in the stands at a game.

These three levels represent a progression for business growth, with each new level building upon the previous one. Ultimately you and your colleagues can become credible, competent experts plus relationship builders plus skilled leaders of the client conversation.

You might think of this model as “Ready, Set, Go” for the business. The “Ready” part includes your credentials and relationships. With those at hand, getting “Set” means equipping yourself and your colleagues with the knowledge and tools for good client conversations. “Go” means not only launching the initiative across the organization but also keeping it a priority over time.

Avoid the traps, and you’ll be on the path toward more new clients, more services sold to existing clients, and greater client loyalty.

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