Building Trust with your Clients

“Every adviser knows that if they have to prove that they are worthy of trust, however good may be their arguments, in fact, their trust is gone.”

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877). English social scientist and literary critic, editor of The Economist.

Regardless of whether our clients come to us for advice, or care, or products or process, we first have to be trustworthy.

When times are as volatile as today’s, trust keeps relationships afloat.

In the future, as financial products become more commoditised, our clients become better informed, and the competition becomes leaner and meaner, trust will be our first and last point of differentiation. (I agree that there will always be a minority that will only buy on product performance, but I would not advocate building a business to cater specifically for that minority.)

As business people building valuable advice firms, how does your firm plan to consistently develop trust well into the future?  Do you get your up-and-coming advisers to repeat the techniques that worked for you?  Do you get a ‘gun’ trust builder out the front of your firm, passing the ‘captured’ clients to a waiting processing team? Do you cultivate a series of centres of influence, who refer you quality (and sometimes not so quality) leads for you to convert to clients?

Old world approach – the hunter/farmer model

I think of one prevalent old-world approach to building trusted relationships as the hunter/farmer model.

In this model, there is a hunter born with natural relationship sales skills, who introduces new clients for the back office (i.e. the farmers) to deliver. Once captured, hunters only revisit their winnings when new work may need to be repositioned or resold.

Hunter/farmer models work well in product commodity world, when a client’s initial complexity is solved efficiently and there’s a minimal chance of more complexity popping up later (i.e. the increasingly commoditised pre- and post-retiree market). Trust is initially won by the rapport-building skills and flair of a single individual, then it is reinforced over an extended period of time by a team of efficient back-office process workers. The current pricing models also fit this market as the initial hunter not only sells his/her upfront fee, but also the ongoing fee for the process workers.

This model of trust management works well provided there are enough flairy rapport-building individuals to build trust upfront, and the ongoing fees aren’t under siege.

New approach – trust skilling

Wouldn’t it be better to have a process that assists our teams to build trust without relying on a flairy rapport-builder out front?

If our profession had spent a fraction of the time and money it has spent on compliance (not saying we don’t need compliance, but just we need a balance) on trust-development skilling, would we have a better profession today?  I believe so.  I also believe that we would have proven that it doesn’t take years for trust to develop, and that we’d be more focused on trust-building as a skill, not as a gift you either have or don’t have.

The pioneers in trust building techniques are people like Bill Bachrach (, George Kinder (, Dan Sullivan ( and Bruce Wright ( All techniques are centred on a common theory that’s been around for years, probably best articulated in the 1950s by Abraham Maslow in his work “Hierarchy of Needs”.

One of the problems with trust skilling is that it isn’t as sexy as headlines about compliance breeches or fabulous new products or exclusive floats that are going to change the financial landscape forever. However, as more and more consumers want to know “who can I trust?” trust skilling will eventually have as much weight as compliance skilling (and hopefully more).

Another problem with trust skilling is that it’s labelled by the industry’s technical intelligentsia as a sideline. The technical intelligentsia reason that they didn’t need trust skilling, and everyone else should follow their career.

Trust skilling is often confused as a path to someone’s ‘inner child’. Some argue that it’s a prop for failed advisers, and the real work has been – and always will be – focusing on getting our clients the best possible investment returns or insurance coverage or mortgage product.

For me, Bill Bachrach’s “What’s Important About Money To You?” is the best first step towards building trust quickly and effectively.  Dan Sullivan’s “If we were meeting here three years from today, what has to happen personally and professionally for you to be happy about your progress?” is also a very powerful and proven trust building process.  The core of each of the best trust skilling processes is that it’s all about the client, NOT the client’s money.  Also core is the adviser’s fundamental belief that they are authentic in their interest to help their clients.

Unfortunately most of the large institutions in our industry miss this subtle point about focusing on the client. Their marketing materials might scream that message, but their remuneration models for their executives are weighted on earnings made, products sold, or costs saved.

Therefore, the leadership for trust skilling is coming from individual practices. I believe we can lift properly trained talent from the back-office, where they will eventually become commoditised, into our front offices, where they can go face-to-face with our best (and less-than-best) clients, growing trust and services between our firms and our clients.

Owners of advice firms naturally seek certainty of future profits. The smart ones know that their future is dependent upon consistently cultivating the trust building skills of everyone (both front and back office) on their teams. Without trust, there is no advice. Without advice, we don’t have a profession, just a lot of product floggers.

These are the best of times to be building an advice-based firm.

Image: graur codrin /

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