Good financial planning is typically built upon a personal relationship between the client and the planner, as trust is established to the point that the client is comfortable to share and engage with the planner, and take the advice that is given. Yet the reality is that while it takes time to build trust, it doesn't necessarily have to be built face-to-face. In fact, as personal finance 'celebrities' like Suze Orman have shown, a remarkable amount of actionable advice can be implemented even if the person giving the advice and the person receiving the advice have never met in person at all! So what does it take to begin to establish trust with a prospective client before ever meeting face to face? As Orman demonstrates, the keys are that people work with people, expert credibility is important but not alone sufficient, and trust is built over time through repeated exposure to the planner. And in today's world, the digital age is leveling the playing field; it's not just about being on television or having a radio show anyone, because any planner can begin to build trust with potential future clients, through blogs, e-newsletters, videos, social media, and other channels of the digital world!

The inspiration for today's blog post is a continuation of last week's discussion about what financial planners can learn from Suze Orman about building trust virtually. Because the reality is that while many financial planners may not appreciate Suze Orman's particular advice recommendations, she still demonstrates a number of key points for developing trust with the people to whom she gives advice but whom she has never met in person. Fundamentally, these are steps  to building trust that can apply for any planner before a face-to-face connection is made, and indeed steps to building trust that are strong enough to generate client action even without any in-person interaction at all!

People Work With People

The first key point is that if you want to delve further into learning about Suze, what you ultimately get is not information about Suze, but the story of Suze. You're not learning about the expert from whom you'll receive advice; you're learning about the person with whom you'll be developing a trusted relationship. Yes, Suze includes her bio, and information about her awards and accomplishments to build expert credibility, but it starts with her personal story. As human beings, we relate to other human beings.

And notably, so much of what Orman does is visual. Although she has authored several books, you don't interact with her solely through books. In fact, when you look at the initial page "About Suze" all you see is a single paragraph of text, and a video; visitors don't learn about Suze by reading about her, but by seeing about her, and are then invited to read more of her story.

From the financial planner's perspective, this means that it is crucial that your website communicates you as a real human being. For starters, this means every bio should include a picture (if it's not part of the overall website), and not just text; ideally, video should be included as well (and fortunately, in today's world, creating video and hosting it on a website can be done for a few hundred dollars or less). It also means that your bio should include more than just your technical information and your credentials; it should communicate why you do what you do, what motivates you, and convey a depth beyond your professional world alone (as discussed previously on this blog, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it"). Again, your prospective clients don't want to work with a professional expert automaton; they want to work with an expert human being.

Credibility Is Necessary But Not Sufficient

While expert credibility matters, the best trust relationships are built on more than just credibility; it is a necessary condition for trusting someone to give advice, but not solely sufficient. As the graphic below from Charles Green of the Trusted Advisor illustrates, ultimately trust also requires building an intimacy with clients, and showing a genuine authenticity in acting in the interests of the client (and not yourself).

In Suze Orman's case, her introduction video, as well as the experience of her television show itself, provides a demonstration of her authenticity, her ability to connect intimately with people to deliver advice relevant to them, and that her focus is on her 'clients' to whom she gives advice, not herself (although obviously she is still trying to run a business, as are most advisors). And Orman doesn't just say that she helps people; through the video, and especially through the show, you see people being helped and getting the advice that they need.

From the financial planner's perspective, this suggests that planners also need to better show howthey communicate with clients. While a planning firm might not necessarily be able to show a video of a client engagement, do you at least provide a video showing you describing in your own words what you do for your clients and why? Can your prospective clients see your video and in the process envision themselves communicating with you on financial planning issues that are important to them?

Trust Is Built Over Time

The reality is that trust is not established immediately; it is built over time, just as Orman provides her audience the opportunity to build a relationship with her over weeks, months, or even years. Not every viewer is going to take whatever advice is provided the first time he/she watches the show. But Orman's various offerings - from the show, to her website, to her books, etc. - allows for multiple touches on an ongoing and regular basis. Even though it's actually a series of one-to-many experiences, for the end user, the trust relationship is built systematically through repeated familiarity and interaction. In other words, Orman builds trust with the people to whom she delivers advice gradually over time, in a similar manner to how almost any advisor builds a trusted relationship with a client; Orman simply uses different tools and a different communication medium. Radio personalities build a trust relationship with their audiences in a similar manner, culminating in a first point of interaction often described as "Long-time listener, first-time caller; I have a question..."

From the financial planner's perspective, the key to developing a trust relationship with prospective clients virtually is to give them opportunities and ways to get to know you, over time, before it comes time to actually become a client. Whether it's regularly reading blog posts, getting a newsletter, seeing videos, or some other means, providing ongoing and regular contact through content allows planners to establish a remarkable amount of trust, before the client ever contacts the planner directly to take the relationship to the next level.

The Digital Age Levels The Playing Field

The good news is that as we enter the digital age, the tools required to provide ongoing content that establishes the foundation of a trust relationship with prospective clients are increasingly accessible to all. In the past, this dynamic has been the exclusive realm of those who ran radio or television shows, or who published books; in today's world, though, the existence of blogs, videos, and social media give any planner the opportunity to cultivate a following and begin to develop the foundations of a trust relationship... such that ultimately, when any particular person reaches the point where more help is needed, the outreach to the planner is a familiar, trusted point of contact, not an unknown stranger. In fact, when the content is done well enough, you don't even have to search for more potential clients, because they find you!

Best practices in this area are about more than just the content, though. It's also about taking steps to make the planner more human, and more authentic - showing (literally, with video and pictures) prospective clients who you really are, and telling the story of why you do what you do, even while establishing expert credibility. The combination of all of this, over time, puts you in the position to be a catalyst for client change.

So what do you think? Can planners develop an initial level of trust and familiarity with prospective clients they've never met by delivering regular and ongoing content to them? Does it help to not just read about someone but see them, too? Could you develop financial planning relationships faster with clients if they already had some comfort and familiarity with you before the first meeting? Would it make the first meeting easier and more comfortable for the client?

  • Larry Qvistgaard

    Michael, great piece. Thank you. I too use video, podcasts and blogging to reach clients and prospects. A couple other thoughts on the idea might be that when someone can listen, watch and/or read about you on their own time, they don’t feel “sold” anything. And, by recording your bio, sales idea or concept, you ensure that you’re able to clearly state your message.

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  • deborah nixon

    Excellent article. I know Charles Greene well and you were wise to reach out to his model. As somebody who has spent many years researching and on building trust relationships, especially in the financial services sector, I know first-hand the importance of this. Dealing with people’s money is a huge commitment.

    One thing to bear in mind, and I speak on this, is that the virtual world also has its minefields. I have often been brought in to deal with a dysfunctional team or relationship that went sideways because the parties communicated via email rather than just sitting down together.

    So as much as I love the freedom and flexibility of the virtual world, we still need to get a sense of the other person. To hear their tone of voice, see their body language. Never think that anything can replace that. I love Skype but even that is second-best to being there.

    Trust can be built virtually, no doubt. But it can be solidified and anchored more quickly in person.

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  • deborah nixon

    There is little that is new. Everything has existed for ages. But people don’t do it. In fact, it’s violated daily. My inbox is proof of that.

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Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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