Skip to content

Chapter 9: We Are Average at Trust-Earning

Let's be honest with ourselves. We are utterly average at earning trust.

If we happen to be good at it, we need to ask if it is really because the bar is low and the thing we're good at earning trust for is not really that important in the grand scheme of things. After all, we do practice a profession in which the world does not insist on requiring a license or continuing education. Most of us earn around a 90th percentile income with far less formal training, certification, or licensing than is required of a dental hygienist (73rd percentile) or massage therapist (48th percentile).


28: They've existed in an informal sense for longer than that!

Or maybe it's because consulting is new? The discipline of management consulting, if we use Wikipedia's history of it, is only 126 years old. Lawyers have been allowed to take fees for services for around 2,000 years. [28]  It seems to take a while to build up the infrastructure of a profession.

Either way, the task of earning sufficient trust from our prospective clients is thrust upon us as individual indie consultants. There's no standards body to confer trust upon us through licensing, and most of us get started doing project work that can't imprison or kill anybody (or any organization), and so it's relatively easy for us to earn enough trust to do that kind of inconsequential-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things work.

And so we are average at earning trust, and this is fine . We trundle along doing good work and then one day we decide want to do better  work. Work that actually is more impactful and would therefore require more trust from our prospects. Or work that would be genuinely transformative for them, if they could just trust us enough to embark on a journey of transformation together.

When we hit this trust-earning ceiling, we start to get more interested in understanding how trust is built. Let's start there.

Inherited Trust and Preternatural Trust Magic

Our first move when facing the "How do I earn trust?" question is to examine the landscape around us and observe what others are doing to earn trust. As we do this, we will first notice others who have inherited or lucked their way into trust, and then we will notice those who are earn trust but don't seem to have to work hard at it.


29: Yes, you can earn visibility without trust. Examples include Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Back to Matt Cutts, the former Google employee who—if he had become an indie consultant after leaving Google—would have immediately become the single most visible consultant in the SEO world. He also would have become the most trusted  consultant in the SEO world. [29]

This is inherited trust, and when we think about the idea of pedigree, we are thinking about inherited trust. Using inherited  in the way I am here is intentional. It's not that Matt Cutts didn't work his ass off at Google and develop real, transferable expertise there. I'm sure he did. But if he'd put in the same hard work at Microsoft on their Bing search engine, he would inherit less trust because Bing is a second-tier, rather than first-tier, search engine. Matt Cutts is an example of inheriting trust from a parent institution.

Consultants who leave large, famous consulting firms inherit trust from their old employers. Employees who leave a management position at a company to become self-employed inherit trust from their old employers as well. In these cases, the market trusts that if the consultant's expertise was valuable enough for Google or McKinsey, for example, it's good enough for the market.

There are others who, though lacking pedigree, have a preternatural ability to earn trust from strangers. Maybe they are exceptionally good bullshitters, or maybe they are simply exceptionally good with people. These people's trust-earning ability is truly horizontal; they could earn enough trust to sell waterfront luxury condos in Miami, tractors in North Dakota, or consulting services in Silicon Valley.

Most of us, though, have a mediocre ability to earn trust. We lack that preternatural trust magic, and we eventually reach a point where the opportunities we seek require more or a different type of trust than we're easily able to earn, and so we have to figure out how to earn deeper levels of trust. Our limited trust-earning ability starts to create a ceiling on our business's ability to access opportunity.

It's at this point we start to care about the other part of "doing marketing," which is earning trust.