The Competency Trap

The Competency Trap

Originally published on Advisor Perspectives, July 23, 2018

You are about to meet a new, high net-worth couple. You desperately want to convert them into a client. If you had to pick either “warmth” or “competence” as a personal trait to convey, which one would you choose?

A little-known conflict

I’ve met hundreds of advisors. None came across as incompetent. But few projected warmth.

According to a new book, The Trust Mandate, by Herman Brodie and Klaus Harnack, this is a serious problem. Brodie and Harnack believe projecting competence can be a curse.

The authors believe warmth conveys a feeling the advisor will act in the best interest of the client. Yet, in their efforts to be perceived as competent, advisors can come across as cold and impersonal, leaving a negative impression and reducing the possibility of a successful outcome.

Some tips

In the ideal scenario, you would project both competence and warmth. Brodie and Harnack have these tips for doing so:

Convey good intentions

In my Smartest Sales book, I recommend you “ditch the pitch.” Instead, ask open-ended questions intended to get to know the prospect and elicit their agenda.

Brodie and Harnack go one step further. They suggest you share a story showing how you always put your client’s interest first.

Stories showing your motivation should take precedence over presentations intended to demonstrate your competence.

I found this observation compelling: When the plan sponsor says, “Tell me about yourself,” he is not asking for further demonstrations your competence – he is offering an opportunity to convey warmth. He wants to learn about good intentions.

Downplay your status

High status displays competence but not warmth.

Your Rolex watch, custom shirts and luxury car convey high status, but a lack of warmth. Avoid conspicuous status symbols and make the meeting more about the person you want to convert.

Be aware of the impact of your words. If a prospect tells you she just returned from a trip to Paris, avoid regaling her with a story about the $300 bottle of wine you consumed at an expensive restaurant there.

Show vulnerability

It’s hard for most of us to relate to perfect people because we are flawed ourselves. Conceding an error in the past, or other mistake, increases the perception of warmth while not materially affecting your image as competent.

The takeaway

Brodie and Harnack believe financial service professionals don’t understand the importance of conveying warmth. Instead, they prioritize demonstrating competence, which has the unintended consequence of appearing cold and impersonal.

This summary is insightful: Sadly, no amount of competence can compensate for a lack of warmth. Furthermore, as warmth is the primary dimension of social perception and always provokes an active response, the client’s overall impression will not be positive, unless he or she perceives the provider as warm.

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