Opinion: It's time to ditch the term "trusted advisor"

by 16 Jun 2014
James Edsberg is the senior partner of Gulland Padfield (www.gullandpadfield.com)

There are ten reasons why it’s time to drop the tired phrase ‘Trusted Advisor’ from your client strategy. In fact it’s time for the Trusted Advisor to RIP.

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? Yes, and here’s why.

All recessions are cathartic. And this one has been no different. They cause businesses to question elements of their business strategy which previously seemed permanent and inviolate. One of the lasting impacts of this downturn has been the profound shift in the relationship between professional advisor and client. In this new era, procurement processes and competitive pitches are a feature and pricing pressures persist. Clients want greater transparency and are advised not by a single individual or firm but by a panel of advisors.

Marketing, Business and Brand strategies of professional firms are catching-up with these changes. But one phrase remains remarkably resilient. It is the most commonly used term to summarise the advisor-client relationship. It has been the title of several books on the sector. And it epitomises many of the cherished beliefs that professionals have about themselves and what they do. Beliefs which may have to change.

The Trusted Advisor

I’m asking is now a good time to question whether the ‘Trusted Advisor’ label best encapsulates what professional advisors do for their clients?
Here are 10 thoughts to encourage a debate about the continuing value of this cherished marketing mantra.

1. Why lead with your weakest card?

Post 2008, there has been a widespread collapse in faith and confidence in many advisory brands. Research among buyers of advisory services consistently shows that clients remain extremely sceptical about assertions from any advisors about Trust. For many clients, an organisation’s over-emphasis on Trust raises the suspicion in their mind that the message comes from a need to reposition an institution after an incident where Trust was broken.

2. It’s difficult for your staff to action

‘Be trustworthy’. ‘Inspire trust’. These are just two examples of the internal values messages given to staff by leading professional firms. Trust is a concept – an important one, of course. But it’s an intangible. Although all would agree that being trustworthy to a client is integral, there is less agreement about what it means and how to create it. Values are notoriously difficult to define. In our experience, very few institutions that use Trust as a brand message go beyond it to define the phrase in any level of detail, nor say what their staff should do to demonstrate or build it with clients. That’s the weakness of any values-based branding initiative.

3. It’s difficult to measure

For a message that is at the centre of so many advisory brands, many organisations never know or ask whether they have achieved it. As a metric or KPI, it’s difficult to measure progress and therefore impact. It’s binary. There is no spectrum on Trust. You either have it or you don’t. People talk about ‘building trust’ but they don’t mean trust – they probably mean ‘building a relationship’. After all, you don’t even start building a relationship with an advisor if you don’t think they are trustworthy from the off.

4. It’s a message for the truly personal service not b2b relationships

In professional services – the most valuable client relationships are institutional. But the phrase ‘trusted advisor’ works best for personal interactions: the doctor, the therapist, at a stretch, the private client lawyer or private banker. But few valuable relationships in the services domain retain such a high degree of personalisation with a single advisor. If you are an independent or sole practitioner, this is the message for you. If you are anything larger, it probably isn’t.

5. For larger professional firms, it can discourage internal collaboration

The ‘trusted advisor’ is a message for the individual. And yet, for larger organisations with multiple offices and international teams hoping to co-ordinate joined-up delivery to increasingly multinational clients, it can grind against initiatives to encourage teaming and collaboration.

6. It really doesn’t work in a pitch

‘Trust us’. For the prospective client, it’s asking them to leap into the dark. It’s a phrase that is as difficult to assess in the business environment as it can be in our personal friendships and day-to-day life. Why would a prospective client feel that they have to make that jump of faith? It’s for the advisor to show what and how it will add value to the client.

7. Trust. It’s not what clients want
Surprising though it may seem, it’s not what clients want. The latest trends in client research among the buyers of advisory services show that clients want confidences to be respected and in the case of corporate clients, for conflicts to be well managed. But the perception of value is more strongly correlated with the thing that client firms really want: expertise, insights, efficient project management or impact. It’s possible for a client to trust you totally but not use your services. More trust doesn’t translate into higher revenues for the advisory firm.

8. It’s out of step with how clients retain advice

Clients rarely want to give all their work to one firm. It’s risky for them. We’re in an era where interactions have become more transactional. So, while advisors want to maintain or establish relationships, clients in some geographies are increasingly promiscuous about the service providers they work with.

9. It’s reducing your ROI on technology

Technology is delivering a more personal service for clients. One that they can tailor at the touch of their tablet. One that, hopefully, they will value more. This investment in technology across professional services is however, changing the interaction with the advisor – an interaction that used to be exclusively ‘human’. Building a brand around a promise for personal interaction could be cannibalizing your investment in technology.

10. It’s undifferentiated and tired

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.

So if ‘the Trusted Advisor’ is a phrase that should disappear, what should replace it? How should a firm select the correct language and define its core message to attract new clients and maintain its existing relationships?

I’ll be answering that in the follow-up to this article.

*Our guest contributor is James Edsberg, the senior partner of Gulland Padfield. Edsberg may be contacted on jedsberg@gullandpadfield.com. You can also follow Edsberg on twitter @client_centric