by Tony Vidler
As a consumer, a user of professional services myself, I’m tired of hearing from professionals that they should be trusted just because they are labelled professionals.
Recently, and for only about the zillionth time, I asked “the question” that I always ask professionals, and got “the answer” that I pretty much always get back. This time though, I WAS the militant consumer, and responded accordingly.
Picture the scene: I am seeking professional advice; and am a begrudging consumer.
Begrudging because this is dealing with the medical world, where you don’t actually get to choose your professional, and I didn’t want to be there at all. I am, in these circumstances, the very definition of “militant consumer”. That militancy is influenced (for me at least) by the perception that in the medical world the professionals seem to choose amongst themselves to determine who the most appropriate professional is, and do so on the basis of some sort of roster of who is due for the next new Mercedes. However, I digress…
So my “professional” was allocated to me, and all other professionals stood aside and left us to it. That doesn’t help my trust issues to begin with…
My newly appointed professional then shakes hands and promptly launches into the giving of recommendations and advice. We haven’t even discussed the weather or how my football team will do this weekend…just straight into business. At the very least the professional in this example is guilty of being an utter bore. My trust levels are not improving.
As a consumer I am actually miffed that we didn’t get to talk about my football team. Or the weather. Or some other trite but safe subject to begin with. I am miffed because I actually need that chit-chat part at the beginning: it helps me connect and establish some basic understanding and sharing of values. It enables me to understand the professionals judgement on particular players or strategies – things that I understand, and which could actually help me form a view as to how the professional thinks, assesses information and delivers opinion. And that is pertinent to me.
Anyway, the professional is in full flow and impressing the daylights out of themself with their own cleverness, and blathering in jargon which has already made me begin planning my own funeral mentally (simply because that seems a more enjoyable experience), and I’d had enough. So I asked the question:
My response was something new I guess: “Yeah, well there are professional thieves, and professional assassins, and professional politicians….they’re all called professionals and I wouldn’t automatically trust one of them. So why should I trust you?”
The conversation sort of went downhill from there, and we agreed that perhaps some other Mercedes-needing-professionals should be consulted…and the reason was simply because of the arrogant assumption on the part of the professional involved here that I should just shut up and listen, and take their word as gospel, because they are a member of a “trusted” profession. “Trusted” according to who? 70% of consumers in some statistically invalid survey? That isn’t a strong enough reason for me to place my health, wealth or future in their hands.
Why do professionals think that they are automatically entitled to “Trust”?
Here’s the newsflash: we – the professionals – are not entitled to be trusted.
Trust is earned.
It is not conferred by title. It is not conferred by technical qualifications either. There are plenty of well credentialed crooks doing time right now.
That line of thinking might not fit in with a professional’s own super-ego position, however to quote Billy Joel:
The point is that as a consumer I may not be an expert in YOUR professional field, but I am not an idiot either. And ultimately I want to be in control of my life and my choices. So YOUR role Mr or Mrs Professional is to help guide and shape my thinking, and the choices that I make. When we – the advisers – are consumers we totally get this, don’t we?
Yet nearly every professional I question regarding their value proposition when we are not the consumer, but are thinking as an adviser only, comes up with a variation of the same answer: “You should work with me because I am trustworthy. I am a professional”
You are a professional? Cool. Good for you. That doesn’t mean I trust you however. Not yet. I will decide whether I do or not in due course…
The link between being a professional, and that in itself being a trusted position is one which we make. Consumers will not necessarily make the same link. Even if they do connect “professional” with “trustworthy” automatically, that connection is not a compelling reason to choose any particular professional, is it?
Because if a consumers belief set is “professional = trustworthy” then a professional claiming trustworthiness is more likely to be treated with suspicion than anything else. After all, if “professional = trustworthy aren’t all professionals trustworthy – including you? Why would you need to stress the point about me being able to trust you?” The claim actually creates doubt, rather than reinforce trustworthiness.
Take it from a militant consumer (of some professional services): Claiming trustworthiness as point of difference does not help a professionals cause. It is either trite and meaningless because I decide whether you are to be trusted or not, or alternatively it is simply a ticket to the game because all market participants operate at the same ethical level and your claim doesn’t separate you from any other professional.
I believe that professionals can do themselves a massive favour by dropping claims of trustworthiness. Instead, just prove that you can be trusted. Earn it through your actions.
Earn it by respecting clients views and feelings, and by listening to them. Earn it by demonstrating continually that their interests are your primary interests in the engagement.
Trust does matter enormously, and is a critical ingredient in building and maintaining long term professional relationships that work for everyone, so it is worth working at. But there is no doubt in my mind that professionals need to work at it first, and earn it, before consumers will give it to them.
When it comes to defining and articulating your value proposition to consumers, do not make the mistake of thinking that you are automatically trusted when you are still unknown to them, and do not make the mistake of thinking that “trustworthiness” is in itself a differentiator at all.