Stop with the “Trusted Advisor!”

I have been bombarded this week with people saying they are “trusted advisors.” So much so that I must react.

While being a trusted advisor is certainly a worthy goal of any professional, please realize that it rarely happens. David Maister in his book entitled The Trusted Advisor says relatively few relationship are truly of the trusted advisor variety. He defines them as a relationship, “in which, virtually all issues, personal and professional, are open to discussion and exploration. The trusted advisor is the person the client turns to when the issue first arises, often times of great urgency: a crisis, a change, a triumph, or a defeat.”

With this definition in mind, I find it the height of hubris to say to a prospective customer, “I want to be your trusted advisor,” or, “We like to think of ourselves as trusted advisors.”

My response, “Keep thinking and keep walking!”


  1. Thanks, Phil. I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Matthew Tol says:


    Agree totally – and also with Phil.

    I think (in Australia anyway) the financial planners of the world have seen the relationship we accountants (and occasionally lawyers) have with our customers and try to drive off that in a “we’re just like them” approach.

    Trouble is that a sensible, rational and considered potential customer will see it for what it is.

    The position/role as described is earned through delivery, effort, and performance not taken as a given.

  3. It has become a clich? to say “trusted advisor”.

    I can also think of a few other clich?s in IT…
    “business best practices”
    “value added”

    I’m sure there are more but these are common ones I hear. I dread the day when “creating and capturing value” will become clich?s because that is how I describe my profession now.

  4. Eric Fetterolf says:

    I do have some questions for the group:

    What is wrong with stating, up front, that the goal of our firm is to become your Trusted Advisor? Verasage is dedicated to up-front pricing. Why not up-front relationship goals?

    Doesn’t stating a desire to become a “trusted advisor” define the nature of the long term relationship that my firm wishes to establish, however many years that might take?

    If I want to implement a business strategy that I will accept only clients willing to pursue a long term relationship instead of a “one-night stand” relationship, doesn’t that statement “I want to become your trusted advisor” help segrate the prospects?

    It might be the hight of hubris, Ed. But isn’t the major issue with consulting self-esteem and valuing your offerings too little? Isn’t a little hubris ok?

    I look forward to the community wisdom…

  5. Eric,

    Here’s my answer to your question:


  6. Ed, I’ve only just started reading “The Trusted Advisor”, and, at the risk of being considered ill mannered…I’m not sure that I agree with your admonition.

    Surely you don’t expect us to aspire to become “semi-trusted” advisors.

    I don’t use that specific phrase in my marketing, but I do use the word “trust” frequently. It is a reflection of why I entered the profession and the pinnacle of my aspirations.

    If I were not able to gain and maintain the trust of my clients, I would not remain in the profession.

    I’m not particularly worried about what financial planners, lawyers or IT professionals may say or do. I know why my clients are referred to me and it’s not because I’m “semi-trusted”.


  7. Ron,

    I hope you read my post, the link is in my reply to Eric above your comment.

    If you talk about trust, you damage it. Imagine running an ad in the NYT “My wife can trust me.”

    I put my life in the hands of United Airlines every week, certainly a far higher level of trust than my relationship with my CPA. They don’t advertise, nor do they even mention, that I can/should trust them.

    When someone tells me they want to be my “trusted advisor,” I count my spoons.

  8. Ron,

    I understand what you’re saying regarding advertising. In effect, you’re asking the “where’s the beef?” question — and I have no problem with that.

    My struggle is (and again, I only started the book, so please be patient) how do you propose that one captures the concept in their vision statement without using the term.

    If Enron is used as an example of the abuse of trust, then it seems that trust must, in fact, then be a differentiating factor among CPAs.

    (I’m not trying to be argumentative, we both have far better things to do with our time. I am sincerely interested in understanding the point since Ed’s original comment didn’t seem to me to be limited to “advertising” — to me, it indicated an abdication of the pursuit of the relationship.)

  9. Ron,

    It’s deeper than just advertising. I’m saying don’t mention it at all, because you damage it when you do.

    This is not to say that you can’t behave in ways that foster trust, the airlines certainly do–they don’t crash.

    As economists, we watch what people do, not what they say.

    I hope you read my post on this, which goes into great detail.


  10. Matthew Tol says:

    Great discussion this.

    If I may, the trusted advisor status is one that you get from your customers (sort of like “The Velveteen Rabbit”) – it’s only real when they say it is.

    To assist in gaining this “high honour”, you need to, as I and others have stated, deliver and perform “above and beyond”.

    At that point, your customers will refer you to their friends/colleagues/associates with the “trusted advisor” tag. They give it, you don’t assume it.

    Eric, I take your point, but stating the tag to be a goal I think cheapens the whole thing. Personal view only, but the positioning you want to get is that your customers are the ones who determine what is required to become a trusted advisor – we don’t know what their particular parameters for this tag are as every customer is unique. It may be possible to discover it in the engagement process, but I have found it shows itself over time.

  11. Wow, I am please, but surprised that this has generated such an intense dialogue. This random rant of mine also garnered six comments on Facebook and three on my web site.

    @Ron R – I have no problem in the pursuit of the TA relationship and believe it to be an admirable aspiration, but to think that it will happen, or is even a desirable outcome of all relationships is detrimental. To quote Maister’s co-author Charles Green in his reply to Ron Baker’s post – I echo your concern about verbal misuse of the term. I never let myself or my site get introduced or portrayed as being or representing to be ?a trusted advisor;? rather, it is ?Trusted Advisor Associates–we help you become trusted advisors to your clients.? Proclaiming oneself to be ?a trusted advisor,? as you point out, is a guaranteed way to shoot yourself in the foot.

    Talking about it, either through marketing or verbally with customers is a no-no.

  12. Eric Fetterolf says:

    Great responses all.

    “Trusted advisor” is a phrase that has been corrupted by those that do not understand what it means, (kinda like “Value pricing” that Wal-Mart has commendeered meaning low prices).

    But, it appears that one of my questions is left unaddressed. I would be grateful to the group if this can be ripped apart to see if it holds up.

    There are basically two kinds of payee’s out there. Those that seek a transactional relationship and those that seek an advisor relationship.

    Transactional relationships are best described as one-night stands. Advisor relationships are marriages.

    One night stands are not based upon trust at all. Rather, they are based on convenience. No convenience, no relationship.

    Marriages are based upon trust. No trust, no relationship.

    While I agree that, on a first date, marketing for a spouse is inadvisable, the question remains: how do you market effectively to those that are seeking long term relatioinships while creating an enviroment that causes those looking for short-term or even one-term relationships to not consider you?

    (Incidently, Ron, these short-term and one-term relationships are the “Occassions” that other referred to in separate posts).

    Many of us spend too much effort catering to potential customers that have no interest in us other than the single call. I’d rather re-direct those effort toward reinforcing current long term relationships and discovering new potential fits.

    So, what do you think? If “Trusted Advisor” is wrong, what is right?

  13. Ed & Ron,

    I spent a cold night on the couch last night as a result of what I learned here….after 35 years of marital bliss (more or less), I explained to my loving wife that I would no longer be telling her “I love you” since saying it must surely create the opposite impression in a sensible, rational and considered spouse.

    Talk about a guaranteed way to shoot yourself in the foot. Can anyone loan me $50 for roses?

    I enjoyed the exchange and learned from the process.

    Thank you.

  14. Matthew Tol says:

    Ron R,

    It’s perfect for you to say “I love you” (especially if you mean it).

    It’s wrong to say “You should love me”.

    Therein lies the difference. Spend the $50 on dinner – at least then you’ll have a chat.

    After 35 years – mate, you need a medal!

  15. Eric Fetterolf says:

    Ron R,

    Great line, but a bit misplaced I believe.

    Personal relationships have their basis in emotion. That emotion is the driving force that creates loyalty and trust.

    Business relations have their basis in need fullfillment. Continue to fullfill needs and the trust and loyalty follow.

    However, not all prospects are looking for more than a single encounter, usually to pressure their current long-term provider. These prospects have great power to sap our self-esteem and effectiveness.

    If you were to stop showing emotional connection to your spouse, you might indeed expect to spend many cold nights on the couch.

    If you stop showing appreciation for your long term business customers, if you take them for granted, you can expect to be sent to the couch there as well.

    I agree whole-heartedly wiht Ed and Ron that the customer determines whether or not you have achieved the status of Trusted Advisors.

    But I believe I can increase my effectiveness to my current customers and future customers by creating the marketing impression that I don’t take on one-term customers.

    How best to create that culture and auora?

  16. @Matthew – perfectly stated to both Ron and Eric.

  17. Eric Fetterolf says:

    I do like Matthew T’s response. Much better than my more long winded version.

    I would like to comment more in general on these Verasage discussions.

    These discussions, in general, lean very heavy on what is being done wrnog (sic). To correct a behavior, one must replace it with another behavior. That replacement behavior can be “do nothing”, but I don’t think we’ll get very far if we “do nothing”.

    So, if we all agree that “Trusted Advisor” is wrong, what is right?

  18. Anything, but saying, “I want to be your trusted advisor.”

    How about, “It is our goal to cultivate a long term relationship with our customers based on repeated trust-based interactions.”

  19. Matthew Tol says:

    How about “Are you really pleased/happy with the service we’re offering and the outcomes we’re delivering for you?”

    If the answer is yes, then well done. If the answer is no, then there is work required.

    If you do a great job looking after your existing customers, you’ll attract new ones. Pretty simple.

  20. What replaces “trusted advisor” depends on who you are as a firm. Are you the best Estate and Gift advisors on the planet? Do you have a focus on Family Businesses? Or is there something else unique about you? It comes down to everything you say,do, and illustrate on your website and elsewhere. What tone do you use to connect with people in your writing? People want to like you first and know who you are – trust comes later.

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