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The Language of Trust

“Do you know what’s going on in your clients’ heads — in that bubble over their head — when you’re having a conversation with them?” Maslansky asked attendees. He explained the way our audience responds to what we say is even more important than what we’ve said. “It’s not what you say that matters; it’s what people hear,” he said. “We try to send one message, and yet they hear another.” We’re fighting an uphill battle trying to gain our clients’ and prospects’ trust, Maslansky explained.

He described the time we’re living in as a “post-trust era,” when consumers have experienced broken promises from the government, media and big business, including recent events in the financial services industry. As a result, consumers who were once more willing to trust financial professionals are now more skeptical and cautious. “Old narratives about our industry die hard,” he said.

The language of trust what you say is important, but how you deliver it determines whether you’ll earn and retain clients’ and prospects’ trust. By Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE

At the 2013 MDRT Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Court of the Table and Top of the Table members were invited to attend a special session presented by Michael Maslansky. An author and CEO of the communication strategy firm Maslansky + Partners, he challenges companies to use the principles of credible communication to build or rebuild trust with their audiences. At this session, he advised members of MDRT’s highest production levels to find the right language and messaging to gain their clients’ trust.

As a result, the way advisors say something is more important than what they’re saying, Maslansky explained. He illustrated this effect using research his firm did on the difference between talking with clients about “financial solutions” versus “financial strategies.” A quick poll of the MDRT audience showed about half of the attendees preferring each term.

Maslansky’s research, however, showed that respondents made a distinction between the two terms. To them, the word “solutions” implied that their financial situation was a problem needing to be solved. On the other hand, “strategies” sounded like something that would provide them opportunities over the long term. “Just a simple change in language implies a different kind of partnership between a client and an advisor,” Maslansky said. Maslansky offered a four-pronged approach to communicate more effectively and build trust in this environment: Keep it personal, plainspoken, positive and plausible.


Make sure your conversations with clients are ultimately about them — not you, Maslansky said. Clients want to hear what you can do for them. When you’re explaining your service, describe how you’ll apply your process to their specific circumstances, creating a custom solution for them. Otherwise, they might feel like they’re just getting what everyone else is getting. He recommended asking clients to outline their preferences to further customize their experience. Find out how they would like to be communicated with and how often they would prefer to meet.


Using jargon takes simple concepts and makes them more complicated for clients. Even the terms you think are understood by most consumers can cause confusion, Maslansky said. If a client feels confused by your explanation, they might decide to find someone they have an easier time understanding. He said advisors also tend to use “clutter words,” such as best in class, propriety, state of the art and world class. Maslansky explained that when advisors use these terms, the client is left thinking, “Everybody says that, so what does it mean for me?”
Another part of being plainspoken is knowing when to provide a real answer, Maslansky said. If a client asks what your fee is, they specifically want to hear a numerical answer — even if it’s a range of numbers, he explained. If your immediate answer does not include a number, the response is negative.


Maslansky’s research shows that, by more than 2 to 1, people prefer to hear advice framed in terms of opportunity than risk, he said. “Even if we’re trying to help clients address a risk, we don’t have to talk about it that way,” he said. There are ways to keep the message positive, Maslansky explained. By putting the discussion in context of a solution, you keep a positive focus. For example: “We’re going to come up with a plan to stay on course in this economy and every economy,” he said.


“Nothing matters if they don’t believe what you say,” Maslansky said. “Sometimes the promises we make are simply rejected because they’re not credible.” Any investment strategy has weaknesses, he continued, and if you are proactive about discussing them, rather than waiting for the client to bring them up, you’ve earned trust. On the other hand, if someone has an objection and they bring it up before you do, you’re done, he said.
This is relevant in retirement conversations, as well. Consumers’ expectations are lower than you might think, Maslansky said. His research on individuals’ retirement goals showed that 83 percent simply want the investment that will perform as expected, while 51 percent want a “comfortable retirement.” Only 12 percent have their heart set on living the dream retirement. “When we make promises that sound like we’ve got all the answers, we lose people,” he said. To get clients to listen to what we have to offer them, we have to engage them, Maslansky said, and that comes with consistent and authentic messages.

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