You hear people toss this around all the time, especially people in professional services or in the advice business. (Financial advice, parenting advice, health advice, whatever.)

“I’m a trusted advisor to my clients,” they say. As if “trusted advisor” were printed on their business cards. It’s not, of course, and it can’t be.

Trusted advisor is a label we have to earn. And it turns out there’s an actual formula for becoming a trusted advisor. It was developed by David Maister at Harvard, who wrote a book called (big surprise) The Trusted Advisor.

Maister and his co-authors say the trust equation looks like this:

Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy

Credibility is about words. It has to do with your credentials and your Presence. Do you know your stuff? Do you look like you know your stuff? Are you honest? This is the most rational piece of the Trusted Advisor equation. We might make a pretty quick conclusion about whether someone is credible.

Reliability is about actions. Do you do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it, the way you say you’re going to do it? Do you make commitments and keep them?

Consistency enters in here … it’s about experience over time. So one transaction isn’t enough to establish a reputation for reliability. It takes the repeated connection between promises and actions.

Intimacy is about emotions. Being open about your own feelings and creating space for the other person to be open about theirs. Now this is a business formula, after all, so we’re not talking so much about your private life, but rather about the business issue at hand, whatever that might be.

If your client can feel comfortable expressing a strong emotion, you’re on the way to intimacy. In any relationship, one person has to take the risk of opening up first – if you want to deepen the relationship that’s you.

So let’s say you have credibility and reliability and intimacy in a business relationship. You’re on your way to being perceived as a Trusted Advisor.

But there’s a possible hitch in the rest of the formula. That Trusted Advisor reputation you’re carefully cultivating is divided, or diminished by self-orientation.

Self-Orientation is about motive. This is the minefield. What is self-orientation?

Basic selfishness or greed is a pretty obvious manifestation of self-orientation.

But self-orientation also shows up in the need to be right. And:

  • The need to look right.
  • Having to be on top.
  • Name-dropping.
  • Wanting to have the last word.
  • Jumping right to a solution.
  • Concern with ourselves and our reputation.

So if we interrupt, if we finish the client’s sentences for them, if we show off about how much we know or how talented we are … they’ll recognize our self-orientation. And they’ll be less likely to consider us their Trusted Advisor.

Often self-orientation is connected to arrogance or cockiness.

But just as often it stems from deep insecurity. The professional who isn’t quite confident about her abilities is likely to be preoccupied with how she’s perceived, whether they think she’s smart, whether they like her. All that self-ing undermines her chance to be a Trusted Advisor.

On the other hand, credibility, reliability and intimacy can be multiplied by Other-Orientation. Other Orientation shows up when we

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Invite them to talk about what’s behind an issue.
  • Listen closely, and check to make sure we really understand them.
  • Acknowledge their feelings.
  • Hold off on offering a solution until we deeply understand the issue.
  • Trust our ability to give them something of value after we’ve fully heard them.
  • Give them the gift of our full attention.

In your conversations with clients and prospects, notice whether your focus is on them … or on you. Pay attention to the way you ask questions. And the way you listen to the answers.

Shine a spotlight on those interactions for a few weeks. Just by creating an awareness of the Trusted Advisor formula you’re likely to spot opportunities to shift from self-orientation to other-orientation. When you do that, you’ll increase the level of trust people put in you. And that should pay off in your business. People buy from people they trust, right?

Let me know what you find out.