Building Trust Through Authenticity
Above – Cameron with her kids for Working Mother magazine. Courtesy of Cameron Barsness
Our care, sincerity, reliability, and competence show clients who we are—and achieve results.
Compared to just two years ago, clients are far more aware of ESG as an investment approach. This includes awareness that ESG is, to some, a controversial topic. For example, many clients are aware of the term “greenwashing” — and are asking questions about how to avoid it.
Part of our role as advisors is to dig into investment opportunities to ensure we understand the mandates and how they match up with clients’ goals for a more sustainable future. Then, we have conversations with clients about how they can be part of a forward-looking push toward a better planet and society in five, 10 and 20 years.
None of this works without trust. Trust enables mutual understanding—between clients and advisors and within couples and families. As I think back on my 17-year career and look forward to 2023 and beyond, I see more than ever that trust is the touchstone.
Trust & Vulnerability
A book that’s made a profound impact on me as an advisor is Charles Feltman’s The Thin Book of Trust. “Trust is choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions,” Feltman writes.
What could be a better definition of the trust we require as advisors? Feltman goes on to say that trust is built — or eroded — in four different categories: care, sincerity, reliability, and competence.
I am struck by how important these four categories are to our work as advisors, leaders and investors. At a time when trust in government, news media, science, elections, police and companies is eroded, people are yearning to experience trust.
I’ve learned to think in terms of Feltman’s four categories as I seek to be my authentic self. That’s how I can best serve clients.
Feltman defines care as “the assessment that you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take actions.”
One might argue that in our business care is a fiduciary standard. But we have to communicate care on an emotional level.
First of all, we do so by listening. The worst thing we can do as advisors is assume we know what a client is asking by answering the question we hoped they asked, rather than simply answering the question they really asked.
Second, we share ourselves. Early in my career, I watched as clients shared many intimate details about their families, their struggles, and their dreams. This sharing wasn’t reciprocated by advisors, which I interpreted to mean sharing would somehow make me NOT trustworthy.
But what I’ve learned through my career is sharing about my challenges in raising children, marriage and family forms a deeper connection.
For example, I can never hide the fact that I am first and foremost a mother and that experience has shaped me in profound ways. I cannot decouple my business self from my mom self (or my daughter self). These aspects will forever be intertwined and will deeply shape my view of the world.
Feltman calls sincerity “the assessment that you are honest, that you say what you mean and mean what you say; you can be believed and taken seriously.”
Beyond basic honesty, the need here is to “walk the talk.” Clients need to believe that you believe in and do what you tell them to do.
If you recommend certain investments or investment styles, I believe it is important to invest in a similar fashion (of course, there will be variably due to suitability and income/asset level thresholds). As I sit with clients, I always want to be able to say that I, too, own that investment or would invest my own money in the fund.
“The assessment that you meet the commitments you make, that you keep your promises” is how Feltman approaches reliability.
We all know how client meetings go. We feverishly take notes, talk about the follow-up items and then leave that meeting going directly to the next meeting or task at hand. Circling back to follow up items discussed in a meeting can be a challenge — but one that must be met.
Say when and how you can complete something. It is better to commit to a date further in the future than to be quiet and hope that clients aren’t noticing if deadlines are not being met.
Perhaps most importantly (and maybe hardest) is to say when you don’t know how and when you will get back to the client with the information. In fact, what clients will remember longer is the “reliability piece,” not that you didn’t know the answer in the moment.
Competence, writes Feltman, is “the assessment that you have the ability to do what you are doing or propose to do.”
When you are young in your career, it’s not experience but education that garners clients’ trust in your competence. That is the very reason, at 24 — and just two months into my first job — I dove quickly into the CFP® process. I finished my education component and passed the CFP® exam before my two-year anniversary at my firm — long before I’d fulfilled the three-year experience requirement.
To build competence, I also leaned into my weak spots. When I first started in the field, I hated reading the Wall Street Journal. But my then-boss said it was requirement to be more conversant in meetings and become a better writer.
So, for Christmas I asked for the Wall Street Journal (paper version) from my dad. For years, I diligently read it on the bus to work. Yes, I was that person trying to fold and unfold a newspaper on a crowded bus (sometimes standing up). But I learned a lot — and I became a better, more confident writer because of it. Over the years, my newspaper of choice has changed, but the one thing that hasn’t is my need to read publications and stories outside of my wheelhouse.
Another key aspect of competence is captured by a comment my business partner often makes: “It’s really important to know what you don’t know.”
I remember clearly one very difficult meeting with a client talking about investment returns and thoughts on future market movements. She asked, pointedly, “Why do you guys always have all the answers?”
In that moment, I realized that in an effort to be confident and inspire trust, we inadvertently eroded trust. I stopped the conversation and said, “You’re right. And we don’t. The honest truth is that our job is to do our best to digest information about trends, economics and future possibilities, and help communicate that to clients. The reality is it’s all our best educated guess. So perhaps the most honest answer is that we don’t know for sure.”
It was uncomfortable, to say that least. But it was also disarming. The conversation became more open and less defensive, just with the admission of vulnerability.
To serve clients well, we must gain their trust. We then nurture and maintain that trust by delivering outstanding client experiences in pursuit of client objectives, including sustainability and impact. To do so, we need to be our authentic selves.
Article by Cameron Barsness, CFP®, principal at Seattle-based financial advisory firm Kutcher Benner Barsness & Stevens, Inc. In her work as a primary financial planner to many clients, Cam is drawn to the financial coaching aspect of the business. She leads conversations around values, goals and the integration of these facets into clients’ investment portfolios and broader financial lives. These conversations often lead to strategies around charitable giving, impact investing and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Cam then develops tax-advantaged giving plans and, together with the firm’s investment committee, identifies suitable investments.
Cam joined the firm in 2006 as an Associate and became a shareholder and Principal in 2015. In addition to her work with clients, she serves as the firm’s Chief Compliance Officer and, with her human resources hat on, its Chief Happiness Officer.
In the local community, Cam is active in the Seattle Philanthropic Advisors Network (SPAN). She is also a regular participant in Seattle Mothers in Finance events. In the national financial advisor community, Cam volunteers with the CFP® WIN (Women’s Initiative) mentor program to help other female CFP® certificants and candidates to gain confidence and navigate their careers in finance.
Cam and her husband Erik live in Renton with their daughter Reece and sons Thymer and Ollie. She is a competitive athlete at her core and is happiest when outside hiking, camping or soaking up the summer sun.