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The delivery of advice is ultimately built on a foundation of trust; even if the client is otherwise ready to make a change, if the client doesn't trust the advisor, the advice often won't be taken and implemented. And because most planners struggle and work hard just to establish client trust through in-person meetings and a one-on-one relationship, many are skeptical that advice will ever fully shift to a more virtual world where trust must be built at a distance and possibly without ever having the client and planner meet in person at all. Yet there is a surprisingly visible demonstration of how trust can be built effectively in a "virtual" environment where the person taking the advice may have never met the person delivering the advice: the Suze Orman show. Does that mean planners have much to learn from the success of Suze Orman, who has built a virtual relationship with millions of people who are all willing to act on her advice, even while so many planners struggle to build trusted relationships one in-person prospective client meeting at a time?

The inspiration for today's blog post was a recent
conversation I was having with another planner, who was questioning some of my
recent predictions about how planning will increasingly be built upon technology-augmented,
virtual relationships
. "Come on," asked my planner friend, "will
anyone ever really be willing to take advice from someone they've never met in

"Absolutely," I replied, "just look at Suze

Taking Advice From A "Stranger"

While I realize that many planners dislike the particular
advice that Suze Orman often delivers, the reality is that from the perspective
of "trusted advice at a distance" there are few more effective demonstrations of the potential for success. As I have noted in the past - whether we as planners like it or not - an incredible number of people watch
Suze Orman's television show (and read her books, and buy her products), and do act on her advice. Despite the fact that virtually none of the
viewers/readers/buyers have ever met and seen Suze Orman in person.

Which means at the most basic level, Orman demonstrates the
reality that a personal one-to-one relationship or an in-person connection is certainly
not a requirement for establishing an
advice relationship. Yes, we may be able to give more customized,
individualized, better advice by knowing
the client and developing a more personal, one-on-one relationship. Nonetheless, the millions(!) of people who tune in regularly for Orman's television
shows and read her books and buy her products demonstrates that, to say the least, the fact that Suze Orman is technically a "stranger" is not a fatal to the process, and the in-person relationship is certainly not a requirement for
actionable advice.

Building Trust At A Distance

So what is it about personalities like Suze Orman that allow
for trust to be established - to the point where people will take the advice
she provides in her books and her website, and on her television show, even
though they've never met her in person?

Charles Green of The Trusted Advisor has found in research
that there are four components to the trust equation:

Credibility - Can we believe what you say?
Reliability - Can we depend on your actions?
Intimacy - Do we feel safe sharing information with you?
Self-orientation - Are you focused on yourself, or on the other person, in your
interactions and motives?

In the context of Suze Orman and her television show, some of these factors score higher than others, and Green's research finds that most people can be defined by the two most dominant traits.

The perception that Orman creates -
through her website, her books, and the existence and production of the
television show itself - is that she is a credible expert in personal finance.
Expert Credibility is one of her trust pillars.

In addition, the process that we see Orman engage in on her
show - where she takes live questions from in-person or on-the-telephone
audience members - demonstrates her ability to create Intimacy with the people
to whom she is giving advice. She demonstrates that it is safe to share
information with her, by literally having people on the show engage in a
process where they share personal information. Yet by doing so in a public way,
Orman not only creates a level of intimacy with the person being given the
advice, but with all of the viewers who are a part of the experience. Even
though, in most cases, the advice interaction is not live and in person, and
regardless was advice really directed at only one person, the experience nonetheless creates a level
of intimacy that forms a bond with most of the viewers!

The focus on giving advice to her viewers, in a manner
directed at them and intended to solve their problems and empower them for
financial success, also serves to keep the orientation on the viewer, not Orman. This drives down the level of self-orientation - the denominator of the
trust equation that, when it rises too high, reduces the overall trust
quotient. In fact, much of the criticism directed at Orman in the past few
years years, especially with the recent launch of her own prepaid MasterCard
offering, is that the number of Orman-branded products are suggesting that the
outcomes are in Suze's interests as much as her viewers, and have undermined
her trust a bit.

In fact, the 2-minute video below - directly from Orman's website - serves
to establish Orman as an expert, oriented towards helping her viewers, and
creating a level of intimacy with them through both their interaction and the
authenticity of her personality. 

And in the end, Orman's success as building trust based on credibility and intimacy speaks for itself in terms of her ability to reach the public, and establish a trusted relationship that drives people to actions that ultimately improve their lives.

So what do you think? What can we learn from Suze Orman as a model for building trust at a distance? Could it be replicated on a "smaller" scale for an individual planner developing prospects and growing a financial planning business? Would the results be even better when the planner can ultimately combine trust at a distance with ultimately building a one-on-one relationship where individualized, customized advice can be delivered in the end?

  • Mackey McNeill

    What Suze teaches best is to be your authentic self, in person, on the web, everyday. I do not care for her style, but it is 100% hers!

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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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