Keeping Credible

My own experience serving on selection committees has been that it’s rare for people in the initial stages to actually look for whom they’re going to choose; instead, they look for people to eliminate so they can narrow their choices to a “short list.”  At a recent workshop, I asked participants if they thought it was more important to build credibility with prospects or avoid losing it.  Most admitted they hadn’t given the latter much consideration. We then generated a list of “credibility killers” that we notice when we choose professional services. We agreed on three broad categories that put credibility at risk.

The first was illocutionary suicide—killing your chances of being believed by what you say.  When you commit illocutionary suicide, people aren’t looking for proof of what you say; they’re looking for a way out of the conversation.  Some examples included: “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this” (I’m indiscreet) and “To be honest with you” (it’s the exception instead of the rule). Before a communication workshop to a group of orthopedic surgeons last year, I sat in on some of their sessions, listening to the presentations.  A doctor who had been very successful with a certain procedure began his presentation this way;  “I don’t know why they’ve asked me to speak to you” (I don’t have anything valuable to say, so feel free to tune out).

The second credibility killer stemmed from the use of clichés and “business speak.” We had all heard people who were short on expertise and long on vocabulary. “We’ll need to revisit that offline in a face to face, so that we can ramp up the synergies that give us a strategic fit we can run up the flagpole.  Because at the end of the day, we want cutting edge best practices that help us think outside the box.  Then, we can bench mark our bottom-line.  Now, let’s put that to bed and get back to square one with our bread and butter core competencies.” We also took aim at the expression “Core Competency.”  When I choose a professional, I don’t want to hear that she’s just competent.  Competent means having just enough skill or knowing just enough to complete the assignment. That would be like going into a surgeon and asking how much do you know about surgery, and getting the response, “I know what tools make what cuts.” Competent is just over the line from incompetent. Doesn’t it make a better impression to talk about your expertise or your experience?

The third credibility killer, I argued, was the canned “sales close” technique. They are so well-known, they even have names:  the assumed close, the pen close, the puppy dog close, the urgency close and the big ego close are just a few examples.  My advice was contrary to much sales training. But, too many of these approaches operate on the premise that you’re trying to trick someone. While they might work for telemarketers and transportation investment consultants (car salesman), they will be less effective with more sophisticated buyers who are in the market for professional services.  A Roper Starch survey on how Americans communicate reported that only 18% felt comfortable communicating with someone who was trying to sell them something. A canned sales close follows a transaction model. In my experience, the most successful model isn’t transactional; it’s relational.  People will be more comfortable communicating with you when you work at building a relationship instead of hoping for a stimulus-response.

We compete as much for the trust of our prospects as we do for their time.  Avoiding credibility killers positions us much better to stand apart from the crowd.

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