How Consultants Earn Trust In The Digital Age

As traditional institutions and old sources of authority get discredited, trust is being turned on its head.

You can't do business with someone who doesn't trust you (and vice-versa). But trust is highly contextual and is by itself a huge and deep topic to explore. It seems like the more questions we pose the messier things can get.

We consultants sell expert advice, so assessing "how much of an expert you really are" is a big part of the confidence-building process that will happen inside your prospects' brains. But what if someone has negative previous experiences and doesn't trust consultants in general?

This happens more often than you think. To avoid any confusion, I find it useful to differentiate between two kinds of trust: personalized trust, and generalized trust.

Personalized & Generalized Trust

Personalized trust is about being confident in another person.

For example, many people say "I trust my partner/doctor/friends because I can rely on them." Trust is like an attribute that rests in someone specific, generally someone we are familiar with. The more we interact with a person over time, the more confident we become about how they will behave, that they are trustworthy.

Generalized trust, on the other hand, is the trust we attach to a general group or thing.

For example, "I trust the utility company to deliver my gas, water, and electricity". In this case, you feel like there's an invisible "contract" that guarantees the good outcome I expect, and reduces my risks.

In our day-to-day, it's common to mix these two types of trust:

  • I might have high personal trust in my bank manager but shaky trust in my bank as a financial institution.
  • I might have had a horrible experience hiring a personal virtual assistant, but trust the VA's industry (or the competence and value of the average virtual assistant) as a whole.
  • I might trust your advice on digital marketing, but be skeptical of any digital marketing professional that tries to pitch me.  

With the rise of the internet and the increasing interconnectedness of our digital world, a shift started happening. Trust and influence now lie more with individuals than they do with institutions. And this matters to you, as an expert and consultant.

Distributed Trust In The Digital Age

Rachel Botsman, in her book "Who Can You Trust?", opens this discussion with an intriguing question: Why do people say they don't trust bankers and politicians yet trust strangers to share a ride with them?

What if trust, like energy, cannot be destroyed and instead just changes form?

The trust that we used to direct towards regulators, authorities, and experts, is now flowing horizontally. Sometimes to our friends, peers, and acquaintances. In other cases, to programs and bots.

By Rachel Botsman

The consequences of that, good and bad, are real and cannot be underestimated.

The internet empowered individuals to go from mere customers to social influencers that define brands. By questioning the flaws and inconsistencies of institutions and systems, and who runs them, gatekeepers, self-appointed authorities, and people who used to work behind closed doors are getting thrown out of the bus.

Take the Brexit referendum (that led to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU) as an example. Two-thirds of Leave supporters - compared to just a quarter of the Remainers - said it was wrong to rely too much on "experts" and better to rely on the "ordinary people".

But why don't people trust experts? Botsman lists three key, somewhat overlapping, reasons for this to happen:

  1. Inequality of accountability (certain people are being punished for wrongdoing or malpractice while some experts and authorities get a leave pass);
  2. Twilight of elites (the digital age is flattening hierarchies, which leads to distrust in traditional institutions);
  3. Segregated echo chambers (living in our cultural ghettoes and being deaf to other voices).

Each of those trends is complex and deserves individual analysis. If you want to read more about it, feel free to drop me a line for references and some recommended reading.

When discussing the general distrust towards authorities, many consultants share with me their discomfort in specializing and cultivating expertise. But that doesn't solve the problem - what people want and need is not claims of expertise, but proof.

People trust experts. And so do your prospects. But only in those who demonstrate they are honest, have integrity, and put their clients' best interest first.

Now the question is: How are you doing that?

Thanks for reading. You can get more specialized and actionable growth insights for micro consultancies in our newsletter. Every Tuesday, you get one idea from Danilo, one quote from other experts, one number you need to hear, and one question for you to level up your consulting practice.

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