Trust is important for falling backwards into crowds, eating any food your grandfather prepares and winning consulting projects. No news there. But how important is a client’s trust in your consulting firm as opposed to trust in you as an individual consultant? Very. This is true for large consulting firms and, surprisingly, it’s true for small consulting firms and solo consultants too.
Let’s back up a pace. When prospects are deciding whether to use a consultant and which consultant to engage, the biggest driver of choice is Trust. (See this article and, especially, the Guide to Winning Clients.)
We usually talk about trust from a person-to-person perspective. The decision-maker at a company trusts you, and you’re both people. I think.
However, there’s another aspect of trust: belief in your consulting firm. Clients need to have faith that your entire firm—not just you—will put their interests first, help them achieve their goals, and avoid causing mayhem.
As you grow your firm, this concept surges in importance; however, it’s still important if you operate a boutique consultancy or even a solo firm.
To be clear, whether or not your business card features a superstar brand name, winning consulting projects requires trust in you as an individual. And…
Even if you run a small group or you’re on your own, institutional trust plays a role.
Why Institutional Trust is Important for Small/Solo Consulting Firms
Not every influencer knows you.
Even if the decision-maker and you are best buddies, other players at your client may hold sway. Since they don’t know you well personally, their viewpoint will be swayed by their impression of your firm.
You may only know influencers.
Often, you foster a relationship with an influencer as your initial step into a new client. Until you build a deep, trusting relationship with the decision-maker, the decision-maker weighs her trust in your firm at least as highly as her trust in you. The same principle applies when you’re expanding within your client into new divisions, geographies, etc.
Your champion may leave.
When your favorite decision-maker at a client leaves for greener pastures, do you lose the client? Not if you’ve built a strong reputation for yourself and your firm. Even though my champion at a Utah-based company retired from his VP spot years ago, his company keeps hiring me. Sometimes they say, “Let’s bring in David” but sometimes they say, “Let’s bring in Ascendant.”
You may want to expand your firm.
Successfully adding partners, consultants and analysts to your firm requires that clients believe in the institution, in addition to the individuals. As long as clients demand specific individuals (e.g., you), your growth is limited.
You may want to delegate.
In fact, you do want to delegate. That’s how you grow, earn more, and reduce your labor intensity. Clients will respect your delegation as long as they trust your firm.
How to Create Institutional Trust
Three easy steps will help you increase trust in your firm:
1. Brand your processes.
My approach to identifying new markets for corporate clients isn’t some ad hoc, on-the-fly approach. It’s Ascendant’s VQ process. Similarly, my first step in helping boutique firms grow isn’t just a loose conversation. It’s a two-day Firm Growth Lab—and that lab can be led or supported by others on my team.
2. Use we/brand language.
Consultants like to use “I” language. It shows they’re smart (“I figured this out”) and helps cement the personal relationship (“I was thinking about your issue.”) Unfortunately, it’s also limiting. Switch to “we” language. “We figured this out” still implies you’re a brainiac, and clients prefer hearing, “We were thinking about your issue.”
3. Make staff visible.
The more you make the inner workings of your firm visible to every client on every project—be it multiple consultants or just your assistant, the faster you’ll build trust in your firm, not just yourself.
There are more ways to build institutional trust. What do you do to build trust in your firm?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
Good content David. I have always said (in context of growing a firm) that brand advocacy (and affinity) is a function of time and experiences. Often the client relationship starts with either the person selling the work (and often overseeing it) or with an individual consultant (or often lead if the work is being performed by a team). The work is good, the client has some level of trust with the seller or consultant. Over time the seller and / or consultant complete multiple engagements, assuming those are positive experiences, the client develops a deeper and deeper level of trust. Over time more work is completed, more positive experiences are had by client. Over time other consultants are brought in to do great work for client, and more positive experiences for the client happen. Within this time (positive experiences with everyone they work with), the client now begins to associate the positive results with the brand as opposed to the few individuals they worked with in the past. Often it takes years (depending on how much work and how many experiences) to get to this point. But its worth it.
You’ve offered a realistic view of the process, Tom. It can definitely take time and, as you say, it’s absolutely worthwhile to build deeper and broader connections within your clients. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.
Question on the “I” vs. “we” pronoun. I used to use “we” and was told that since I’m a solopreneur, I should use “I”. So a bit confused on when to use what. Do you suggest the “we” in everything? Website, correspondence, marketing materials, etc. especially when you don’t have a team/staff.
Really good question, Jennifer. If you’re a solo consultant and have absolutely no intention of adding staff or ever using subcontractors, analysts, etc., then sticking with “I” language is fine. If, on the other hand, you may bring subcontractors to bear in some cases, then “we” language may be helpful in your marketing and your delivery of value. In correspondence it probably doesn’t make sense. You don’t want to come across as using the “royal we”!
It also depends a bit on the type of work you’re doing. Coaching, which is more of a personal, one-on-one relationship, may benefit from “I” language. The reason I say “may” is I’m working with a group that is hiring coaches as fast as they can find them, and an underlying success factor is letting clients know that every coach is trained on the same, highly effective (and branded) process.
Does that help?
Great Read David.
Thanks for sharing.
My pleasure, Gopal. I appreciate you being part of the conversation and offering feedback.