From The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford. Excerpt from Chapter 3, “Earning Trust.”
In an instant, Charlie’s mind seemed to have been sucked dry. He had no idea what was meant by industrial consumables. Then, a revelatory thought popped into his mind: the man is talking about sandpaper! But that knowledge only served to deepen Charlie’s fear. He was sure that his firm had not done any such studies.
Charlie felt sure that if he told the client the truth, he could not win the business and would probably spend the rest of his career at his firms in leg irons and public shame. In the next millisecond, his training as a consultant kicked in, and he began formulating (in his mind) an answer.
“Not exactly,” he planned to say, “but we have done many marketing studies, some of them for products quite similar to industrial consumables.”
What products might be quite similar to industrial consumables, he would figure out later.
But just as Charlie drew breath to speak, his senior partner leaned forward. He looked directly at the client, and then said,
“None that I can think of.”
He paused for a long moment. then he looked the client in the eye, and continued:
“Given that, is there anything else that you think it would be helpful to discuss?”
The client looked unconcerned and then asked what similar experience the firm had that might be relevant. They proceeded with their pitch.
Had Charlie given his answer, it would have sacrificed his credibility and revealed his own focus on self-interest. It would have signaled to the client that he was willing to fudge his own credentials. Who would trust such a person.
The answer the senior partner gave contained quite a different subtext. It said:
“I will answer your questions, directly and truthfully, even if it means losing a chance at your business.”