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You Call Yourself a Trusted Advisor—So What?

By Joey Havens

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This blog is the second in the series, The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business—My Very Own Jerry Maguire Blog

Trusted advisor sounds good. I completely understand why we want to tell clients and prospects this. And it is certainly desirable, but these two words are not reflective of how we are serving the majority of our clients. As it stands, trusted advisor has as much meaning as “on-time departure” from an airline. And much like a savvy traveler, the market is not going to believe what we say about ourselves—they will only believe what they experience and what other clients say about us.Calling ourselves trusted advisors is certainly not providing anyone a competitive advantage as almost all firms have it plastered on websites, proposals and other firm messaging. The real problem is not the words, of course, it is our complacency. And digital transparency with “social business” now puts the spotlight on our GAP in serving as trusted advisors. Our abundance of success has resulted in the bar being set too low and our firms have too many talented professionals who are cruising and wearing the “trusted advisor” label without living up to promise it makes.   

Can you see how using these two words so casually breeds more complacency in our profession and firms? Today, it’s very, very easy for our team members to assume the “trusted advisor” label—the bar of service is really at an all-time low. Some of our faulty logic might include these assumptions:

  • I’m part of a firm of trusted advisors
  • I’m serving clients on confidential and important matters
  • My clients call me when they need help
  • My clients say they trust me
  • I have served my clients for a long time
  • My clients call me when they want my opinion

Therefore, I am a trusted advisor. Since we are wired to believe that we are on the right track, it may be easier than we think to be buried in denial. According to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” To be agnostic or complacent simply fuels our own self-deception.

This mindset and our casual labeling of “trusted advisor” builds resistance to making the proactive changes that are required for all of us to remain relevant.  I believe our team members’ eyes glaze over when challenged with raising our level of client service and improving the client experience because the self-affirming “trusted advisor” label is shining too brightly. This glare is affecting our firms’ vision also. Our brains are wired to make us confident about our decisions. But this overconfidence often leads to a self-serving bias. It’s a vicious circle that sounds like this, “My clients trust me—that client we lost last week was all about fees.” Sound familiar? It’s always the fees.  How many of us know of a true trusted advisor that was replaced for lower fees? Trusted advisors provide worth, impact, insights, connection, wisdom and collaboration that generates value far beyond the pricing of their fees.  

What would a true trusted advisor look like? It really is the exception rather than the rule when we see true trusted advisors in our firms. It takes great courage, rigor and being proactive and anticipatory to continually earn the privilege of being a client’s trusted advisor.

I hope we never shy away from or stop pursuing the promise of client service and experience, relevance and collaboration that “trusted advisor” implies.  But too many firms are in a race to lower fees rather than raising the level of service. As a result, the profession is experiencing lower margins (bet you have noticed this trend the last few years). If we continue on this course, we are in a race to the bottom rung of irrelevancy with the “trusted advisor” label as additional fuel. By becoming more anticipatory, proactive and collaborating with our clients, we can remove our profession and our firms from the slippery slope of commodity. 

So where does your firm stand? In the final blog of this series, I have included a quick litmus test to help us evaluate our personal assumptions and beliefs about the trusted advisor mantra.  I hope you’ll come back next week, but I must caution you to look out for that 2×4 when you take the test—it hurts!