Why Experts Sell Poorly

Charles H. Green By Charles H. Green, Contributing Editor

If you are a lawyer, accountant, management consultant, systems engineer, financial advisor, CRM expert, architect, IT services consultant, or even an HR consultant, the odds are you're ineffective at selling. That's the bad news.

The good news is—it isn't all that hard to get better. And if you do, you will have a far easier time competing against all those lawyers, accountants, consultants, etc. who are still ineffective. Here's why, and more important, how.

Trust Sells

Start with the commonsense observation that trust sells—powerfully. If your customers trust you, a multitude of good things follow: higher close rates, lower price sensitivity, and greater client loyalty, to name a few.

But trust isn't one monolithic quality. In the Trust Equation, we deconstructed trustworthiness into four components: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation. Data collected over the years (see the Trust Quotient Self Assessment (PDF) ) allow conclusions to be drawn about the relative importance of those four factors in creating a perception of trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness Data

It turns out that based on over 12,000 data points, women score significantly higher than men when it comes to being trustworthy. This accords with commonsense. In workshops I conduct, 90% of the audience guesses that women are more trustworthy.

Almost all the gender difference is due to different scores on one factor. I also ask workshops to guess which factor that is, and again, they are overwhelmingly right—it is intimacy.

Score two for commonsense backing up the data. And there's more. Surveys of trustworthy professions show shifts over time in the least trusted professions: used car dealers one year, lawyers another, and politicians another. But the most trusted profession is remarkably consistent: nurses. Again, audiences find that this "makes sense." And tying the data together, note that of the four attributes of trustworthiness, the one most easily identifiable with nursing is, again, intimacy.

Additionally, we were able to define six Trust Temperaments—groupings based on the top two scores for each individual. Here they are, both in terms of frequency and of effectiveness, i.e. the average trustworthiness score.

Charles Green's Trust Chart

There are two points to note here. First, the most common trust temperament is the Expert, or those whose strengths lie in credibility and reliability. And the expert temperament is tied for last place in terms of trustworthiness.

Second, the top three temperaments in terms of effectiveness are the three with Intimacy as part of the pair.

Finally, the Expert temperament, which accounts for 31% of the sample universe, is disproportionately represented in precisely the kinds of firms listed in the first sentence of this article. A Big 4 accounting firm sample was composed of 41% experts, and a law firm tallied fully 59% in the Expert category.

Again, this accords with commonsense. The level of technical mastery required by those professions is considerable and necessary. It is not surprising that people in such lines of work would score highest on the attributes of credibility and reliability, the two "rational" and "hard" components of trustworthiness.

The problem comes when they assume, implicitly, that what their customers most want is a massive display of that expertise. Selling in those businesses is, more often than not, dominated by exhibitions of mastery, methodology, credentials, and references.

But technical mastery—epitomized by the Expert temperament— is the least effective approach to trustworthiness. The most effective component of trustworthiness is precisely the one that so many experts shun: intimacy.

The Cure for Expertise

There's nothing wrong with expertise; it's necessary. It's just not sufficient. What you need to add to that are some basic intimacy skills. That means, above all else, listening.

The listening that's required is not listening as in being quiet, or even listening as aggressively pursuing questions. It's listening as a sign of respect, listening with no objective beyond understanding the customer.

Listening like this is partly a skill, but it's also partly an attitude. It requires the ability to suspend the overwhelming desire to solve problems. It is not easy to do, but it is simple, unlike much of what it takes to become an expert. It is accessible; it can be learned.

Another accessible intimacy skill is the ability to take an emotional risk. Examples of such risks include saying you don't know when you don't know (very difficult for experts, whose careers are based on avoiding such moments) and acknowledging feelings—yours and those of your customers.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about how to pursue these kinds of emotional intelligence skills. The point here is simply that they are, in fact, critical to achieving trust-based relationships with customers. High-expertise professions will mostly remain expertise-based—and ineffective. But that spells great opportunity for the few people and firms who are capable of recognizing the power of soft skills in producing hard results.


Charles H. Green is a Contributing Editor of RainToday and a speaker and executive educator on trust-based relationships and trust-based selling in complex businesses. He is the founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, and he is the author of Trust-Based Selling and co-author of the classic The Trusted Advisor and its practical follow-up, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. Charles can be reached at cgreen@trustedadvisor.com.

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