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Trust and professional services firms

Trust is a word that is used a lot in the sphere of professional services firms. The gold standard for many is to become a trusted advisor. Outside of the “professional and client” relationship, there is also a place for trust within a firm. Trust should be something that you look to build with employees as well as your clients. By building trust with your employees, you might just find that you increase your trust with clients too.

‘Brand recognition will get an institution on a short list but only a person can keep it there.’

When you think about what it means to be a trusted advisor, the starting point is often the Trust Equation, coined by David Maister. He set out the individual elements needed to create trust and spoke about how to achieve them in the context of a professional services firm. Such was the power of this equation, that its relevance extends (and is used) beyond that for which it was created.

The trust equation sets out what makes an advisor trustworthy.

The C and the R - Credibility and Reliability - are two things that perhaps come easily to professionals. They are rational. They relate to words and actions and are objective variables that “make sense”. Intimacy is a word that can seem out of place in the context of a professional relationship, but it is something that we often speak about at Client Talk. It is about emotions. It is about whether someone feels safe to share.

The S- Self-Orientation - is out on its own because it is the most important variable. Self-orientation is about whether the focus is about us or about them. Again, this is something we often come back to and it is something that firms often get wrong, particularly in the context of client listening. We often speak about Empathy and you can see how Empathy could even replace Self-Orientation as the denominator.

Achieve all the elements of the equation and you are likely to be on the way to being a trusted advisor. Sound simple?

Time and time again firms get the rational right, at the expense of the emotional.

  • Credentials (rational) – Firms are well versed at setting out testimonials, their qualifications, and experience. This is usually a given and whilst firms, or professionals, lacking credentials will fall at the first hurdle, this is rarely something that makes a difference.

  • Reliability (rational) – We often see responsiveness cited by clients as top of the things they look for in an advisor. A lack of responsiveness is something that can erode trust and lose firms clients. Consistency, answering clients’ enquiries, being there for the client are all things that a good advisor knows they must deliver on.

  • Intimacy (emotional) – How willing is the client to share with us and how do we increase this? This question, and the answer to it, are fundamental. However, rarely is it asked. Listening is a big part of the answer, yet how often do firms take the time to increase this skill?

  • Self-orientation (emotional) – “We are client centric” is a mantra that many firms repeat over and over. However, often client centricity often translates to "how can we can sell more to the client" and it is self-serving. David Maister speaks about this, for our take on it, read here.

What about internal trust?

Many people have said that the pandemic has blown out of the water the myth that employees couldn’t be trusted to work from home. Ironically, as the year went on, instead trust amongst peers was shown to have been eroded. Those small moments that go unnoticed, but which build trust amongst colleagues – turning up prepared for a meeting, being seen to be at your desk early, volunteering to help a teammate – had become watered down. With it, mistrust crept in. How do firms build this back? What will the impact of hybrid-working be on this, and on the "in-group" and "out-group" tribes that might result from it.

Where does this leave workplaces?

Trust is key when thinking about psychological safety. Psychological safety is key if we want a high performing team. It is also key if we want to have diverse and inclusive teams: which a prerequisite for the former!

Dan Radecki places trust at the heart of his model of Psychological Safety. Interestingly, he refers to in-group biases, and in particular the research that shows that we are pre-set to experience more empathy for our in-group. We can develop empathy for out-groups, interestingly drawing on some of the skills – or emotional tools - that we discussed earlier in the context of intimacy and self-orientation. Listening in particular.

At Client Talk we work with firms to build cultures which are diverse, and we support high-performing teams with coaching. We also teach people to listen. One of the conversations that we are often engaged with is:

“where do these issues of psychological safety, trust and diversity sit?”.

Now, whilst we believe that is the responsibility of everyone to deliver on these, often we see the ultimate responsibility for them sitting with HR, or perhaps divided between HR and specific diversity & inclusion teams. It is rare for the different web of relationships to viewed as overlapping. The client-professional relationship and the relationship between professionals are often seen as distinct.

BUT, what if it was recognised that developing the skills needed for trust and psychological safety within a firm, were the same skills needed for building trust and psychological safety outside of a firm?

What if building emotional intelligence was seen as the defining factor for professional services firms?

Movements such as the O-Shaped lawyer, focusing on client-professional relationships, may just find that the benefits of their approach reach further than creating better advisors. Strides being taken to improve corporate cultures and increase diversity and inclusion might find that they benefit the firm in the external as well as the internal. Firms might just find that it is the emotional factors which will be measured going forward because it is those factors which are the hardest to get right and the ones which make the biggest difference when you do.

To find out how Client Talk can help you change the conversations you are having about trust, diversity and psychological safety, get in touch.



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