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Financial Planning > UHNW Client Services > Family Office News

How to Project Competence to Clients and Prospects

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“If you got it, flaunt it!” That flamboyant Braniff rebranding ad campaign reportedly tripled the airline’s business in the late 1960s-70s. Similarly, it’s not enough to be skilled and hardworking — you’ve got to show and project your competence to persuade people you can be counted on to deliver, argues Jack Nasher, founder of the Nasher Negotiation Institute and Stanford University professor, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

However, people are poor judges of actual competence; instead, to assess ability, they use criteria such as verbal and nonverbal communication prowess and how confident one appears, says Nasher (, an expert in reading and influencing people.

In his new book, “Convinced! How to Prove Your Competence & Win People Over” (Berrett-Koehler Nov. 2018), Nasher serves up strategies and techniques designed to boost one’s perceived competence. Oxford University-educated, the best selling author, 39, trained at the law firm Skadden in New York City, and was formerly with the German Mission to the United Nations.

In the interview, he discusses strategies for giving clients bad news and makes the case that advisors who use plenty of jargon will convince prospects they’re highly competent.

The Nasher Institute, based at the Munich Business School, provides experts who travel worldwide to train companies in how to improve their negotiation strategies. Nasher has helped auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and a host of startups.

In the book, he details the “8 pillars of competence”; in the interview, he names two of the most critical for financial advisors.

An expert in lie detection, Nasher has worked with lawyers, police officers and insurance investigators. He teaches at Stanford on the Oxford University campus, part of the Bing Overseas Studies Program.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Nasher, on the phone from Munich. He talked about how principles in his book apply to financial advisors and provided a glimpse of the way he combines magic and psychology for audiences at Hollywood’s Magic Castle. There, among his other stunners, he detects liars, an expertise about which he has written two other books.

Here are excerpts from our interview:

THINKADVISOR: You say that perceived competence is “certainly more important” to your success than actual competence. Why?

JACK NASHER: Actual competence is more important in the world. But if you want to be successful, it’s perceived competence because people can’t judge competence accurately. It’s very hard, especially when lay people are judging expertise about which they know nothing, like that of doctors, lawyers and financial advisors.

Where does trust enter the picture? A prospective client will think, “Can I trust this advisor with my money?”

Competence and trustworthiness are the two most important factors in a professional context. People trust that someone competent will deliver. It goes hand in hand.

Is being strategic about projecting your competence  trickery?

It’s not so much about faking. It’s much more about showing what you can do and making your talent visible to show what you’ve got. People who are very good at what they do think,” I just want to do a good job.” The problem is that doesn’t work because people can’t judge it accurately. They base their judgment on things that have nothing to do with actual competence.

Such as?

Verbal communication, nonverbal communication, the level of confidence someone shows.

Hmmm. There seems to be a fine line between using strategies to project competence and being a BS artist.

There is a very fine line. The difference is that if you know you will fail, don’t give the impression that you can do it — because then you will fail; and it will be embarrassing. But research very clearly suggests that if you show more confidence, you’ll be perceived as being more competent — and you will actually become more competent. You’ll perform better because of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Human beings tend to behave the way people treat us.

Fear is the key factor in decision-making, you write. How does that apply to financial advisors and their clients?

When people make a choice, their main motivation is to avoid a mistake. You have to know what your client is afraid of. Maybe they had a bad experience with someone who was slow to respond or was very uncreative. You have to find out what they’re scared of, what their main fear is. When you eliminate that fear, you have great leverage.

You say there are “8 pillars of competence,” including the perception of brilliance, the anticipation effect and the power of symbols. Which are the most critical for advisors?

Status and how to give bad news. One of the most important things, research suggests, is perceived status. That doesn’t mean wearing a gold watch. It means you have to be aware that everything surrounding you talks about your status — the pen you use, your shoes. So be very careful what you pick because everything gives an impression of you. People with a high perceived status are considered to be much more convincing and more competent.

Does that mean you should look as if you’re wealthy?

Not necessarily. The way you speak can convey status. High-status individuals speak confidently, concisely. It doesn’t sound like you’re asking a question when you make a statement.

What’s the best approach when giving clients bad news?

First, give the good news; then get into the bad news. Next, shift away to something positive. You have to really take advantage of how to present good news — it would be a pity to waste good news.

Several key factors help to judge competence accurately, you write. Intelligence, for example, is “nearly congruent” with competence. But suppose a person is great at showing competence in the ways you describe but isn’t highly intelligent.

There’s a high correlation between intelligence and competence. Usually someone who is intelligent is also competent. It takes a lot to be very smart and incompetent! It happens, but it’s very rare. So if somebody is very intelligent, chances are he or she is competent.

But how is intelligence perceived, apart from “it takes one to know one”?

There are some very clear things we can look at to judge somebody’s intelligence, including the use of understandable speech and speaking quickly.

Some people counsel against FAs speaking fast because that’s associated with high-pressure salespeople.

Speaking quickly is advisable because the perception is that if you speak quickly, you’re more intelligent — and if you’re more intelligent, you’re more competent.

What about advisors who use lots of financial jargon with prospects? Is that a good idea?

Yes, unfortunately, it is. And using excessive amounts of numbers in a presentation also adds to your perceived competence.

You write that giving logical answers will make clients perceive that you’re competent as well.

Right. Because the best way to find out if the other [party] is competent is by asking questions and seeing how he or she answers. Are the answers quick? Are they without hesitation? Are they really answering the question?

You should start your argument with the strongest point and end with the second-strongest point, you write. Please apply that to an investment recommendation an advisor might make.

The first impression is the most important one. If you start with good news, the bad news will look better. If you start with bad news, the good news will look worse. So always start with great news, then give the bad news, and end with something positive. People will remember what you talked about last.

You advise not to deliver bad news in person. But suppose a client’s portfolio is down considerably?

The extreme way is to just write an email. Obviously, you can’t always do that. “Avoiding presence” can also mean that in meetings [if you have bad news], stay seated because the bad news will affect your perceived competence. If you stand up, the spotlight will be on you, and you’ll take all the blame. So if you have bad news, stay seated and accept full responsibility, talk about your mistake but then immediately shift to optimism, focusing on something positive — and talk about what you learned from [your mistake].

In the book, you present a scenario showing a financial advisor’s display of competence. One way he does that is by putting his hand on a worried client’s shoulder while giving advice. Is it suitable to do that? Suppose it’s a female client and a male advisor.

No, not at all. I was writing about nonverbal communication and that physical contact leads to greater perceived competence and to be perceived as a leader. Does that mean we should always touch people? Of course not. You have to have a [sense of] the situation.

When would touching be appropriate in the financial advisor context?

If you can shake someone’s hand and put your other hand on their shoulder while you’re doing so, that’s fine. It’s not rude or creepy in any way. If you watch politicians and world leaders meeting, you always see that. It’s like a competition of who touches whom the most.

People with “almost a narcissistic personality disorder,” who are “convinced of their own grandeur,” can be extremely successful, you point out. For instance, you cite Donald Trump, who won the U.S. presidential election “by displaying an exuberant confidence in his skills.”

He really used status to an extreme extent — with Trump Tower in the background [etc.] He [appeared to be] super-confident, always talking about how fantastic and great he is without backing it up. Yet it worked extremely well.

Is that unusual — limited to a few, like Trump — or is it a common approach?

No politician ever says, “I don’t know if this is going to work. Let’s try it out.” They say, “This is going to work for sure, and it will be fantastic,” even though they can’t know that. Yet they always get away with it again and again. It’s a great example of how far you can go with claims and confidence without any backup whatsoever.

Tell me about your performing at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, where you conduct “mind mysteries” and manipulate audience choices. What’s it all about?

I’m a mentalist, fusing magic and psychology. There are psychological tools that influence people, like suggestion and hypnosis, to make them do something, to forget things, to manipulate memory and so on. This is psychology but for entertainment purposes.

Do you hypnotize people on stage?

Sometimes, but I also like to use suggestion, which is a more subtle form of hypnosis. It’s really fun. The human mind is very amazing time and time again. Things can be quite surprising.

— Check out 5 ‘Weapons of Mass Attraction’ to Help You Gain More Clients on ThinkAdvisor.


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