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Articles and Interviews

Being Right Isn't Enough

by Sherrill Tapsell 2002

New Zealand Management, 2002

Being an expert, an adviser or consultant doesn’t mean that people want to hear what you have to say.

The problem with experts and advisers is that they assume their clients want their advice. This assumption is a professional trap, according to David Maister, himself an adviser to professionals, who visited New Zealand to talk to an engineers’ conference recently.

“One of the most dangerous sentences in any language is one that begins ‘What clients want is…’ No matter how you finish that statement, you’ll be wrong. The same is true in romance; there is no valid conclusion to the statement, ‘What women/men want is…’” In fact, Maister reckons, you need look no further than the rules of romance as a guide.

“If you think about it, the principles of building strong relationships in business are the same as in romance.” The tactics might be different he concedes—you won’t take roses and chocolates to a client—but the principles are the same. “You have to give a little something; make a gesture to show that you’re willing to earn their business.

“One of the things I like to do with my audiences in the conference context—I do it as a joke, but it’s serious—I ask what are the rules of romance, how do you build a strong romance?

“The answers come back quickly: be a good listener, empathize, spend time with each other even when there’s no particular agenda, and then I’ll say well, that’s the same in business.”

“If the only time someone sees you is when you want something, then you’re not going to build a strong relationship.”

Isn’t this just common sense?

“Yes,” he says, shrugging his shoulders and grinning widely. “Most of the lessons we need to learn are obvious common sense, but the truth about human beings is that we don’t live common sense.”

A mistake professional people make is thinking that they deserve trust without doing anything.

“Many professionals think to themselves, ‘I’m a lawyer, or an engineer, or I have an advanced degree, or I’m a Harvard business professor.’ Their attitude is, ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing.’

“But of course the minute anyone says ‘trust me’—that’s the last thing you do.”

Earning trust

So you’ve got to earn it, says Maister.

“And it isn’t necessarily big things. It’s just like in romance; you don’t have to buy a huge diamond ring. You just have to do something that’s thoughtful, considerate and sensitive. You have to win someone’s heart with little gestures that show that you’re thinking about them.”

The language of trust is gentler, he says. It helps people receive advice in a way they can use it. “Giving advice is an art, not a science. Most of us have to learn these skills by trial and error as our career progresses.

“We all have clients who say cut the nonsense; just tell me what you think. So you have to understand how clients interact.”

Trust building

The problem isn’t new, he agrees, and it applies across the professional spectrum and across management as a whole.

“It’s a natural trap. You get trained in something you’re an expert in, and it’s easy to think ‘I’m the expert, you’re the idiot in trouble, shut up and let me give you the answer.’ ” It’s the reason everyone jokes about professionals.

So how then do you get your clients to trust you and accept your advice? The answers are in the book The Trusted Advisor he’s coauthored with Charles Green and Robert Galford.

“We think there are four main things. The first is competence (or credibility): “never forget, trust isn’t a substitute for skills.” Then comes reliability.

“The next two are intimacy and lack of self-orientation. Intimacy means you are dealing with me as a person and not a job. And with self-orientation, there is no greater source of distrust than advisers who appear to be more interested in themselves than the client,” says Maister.

“We see self-orientation when advisers: