Look up "credible" in Webster's Dictionary, and you'll find "Capable of being credited or believed; worthy of belief; entitled to confidence; trustworthy."

OK, so no surprise there.

Credibility gives you permission to speak, and gives the person you're speaking to permission to listen.

Regardless of whether you are in the service business or sell a tangible product, everyone needs to establish credibility, especially with prospective clients. But if you're a consultant, adviser or coach, then it's harder for your clients to evaluate the value of your advice and recommendations.

For you, credibility is everything. And if you have it, you can move more quickly into a more productive discussion about issues and solutions without having to justify everything you say. You can be more relaxed. You can let your guard down a little.

With your credibility clearly established, you can be more confident to ask for the business.

So far, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. What you might not know is what credibility really is in a business context, beyond the dictionary definition—how people perceive credibility, and how you can establish credibility more quickly and easily.

Ask a traditional marketer what's the best way to establish your credibility, and he or she will tell you to list your biggest clients or describe one of your most impressive case studies. If you listen to yourself as you speak to new clients, you might hear yourself talking about your credentials as a way to establish how smart you are.

It's true that your client list, successes and testimonials play a role in credibility. But they miss the mark if you hang your hat on them.

Here's why. What is probably going on in the head of the person you're talking to is this: "Wow, that sounds great, and I have no doubt that you did an excellent job for them, but my situation is different...."

Cost of Entry

Guess what? Excellent credentials, a strong client list, impressive successes with other clients—they're the cost of entry, prerequisites to just being considered as a possible supplier or partner. They're expected. Not having them would be more surprising than the fact that you do.

They don't even do much to differentiate you from your competition. After all, your competitors are also talking about their excellent credentials, strong client list, and impressive successes. And the more you talk about the same things, the more you leave your prospective client with a big "So What?"!

Besides, your prospects may have gotten your name from an existing client. They may have picked up some of your printed literature or read your Web site. As a result, they've probably already checked your credentials and might even know some of your clients.

So what should you talk about to establish your credibility?

Nothing. Don't "talk" about anything.

The absolute best thing you can do when you meet a new prospective client is to ask questions—and then listen.

Remember, the only thing that counts in your prospect's mind is how well you understand his or her situation. And the only way you can demonstrate that is by asking questions—a lot of questions: simple questions, pointed question, questions that rephrase what the person has just told you, questions that allow you to test your hypotheses about challenges and obstacles the person might be facing, leading questions, questions that hint at what you probably already know you'd recommend if your prospect were already a client.

In fact, the mere act of asking questions forces your prospect along a line of reasoning that demonstrates you really do know what you're talking about. And when you follow up with suggestions and recommendations, you have all the credibility you need. Why? Because you asked all the right questions!

Like a Surgeon

If you're not ready to accept this approach, imagine that you're sitting in a doctor's office because you have a sore back. Would you be impressed if five minutes into the consultation he or she recommended back surgery?

Probably not. So why should your clients and prospects be "sold" on your solutions before they are totally convinced that you understand the problem?

A good doctor will ask questions to reveal other symptoms. "Does the pain radiate downward?" "Is it accompanied by abdominal pain?" "Oh, and are you also experiencing excessive urination, especially at night?"

If the answer is no, then the doctor simply moves on to another line of questioning. If the answer is yes, the doctor explains how all these symptoms indicate that nothing's wrong with your back. Instead, you have kidney stones!

Not in a million years would you have linked these different symptoms to each other. Most importantly, it's the doctor's ability to paint a complete picture of what was going on that really impresses you.

That's credibility.

And it's more than simply focusing on your client's pain—as you might have heard from other experts. The pain is just one of several symptoms. By uncovering other symptoms, and by showing how they all link to the real problem, you are establishing enormous credibility before jumping in with your recommendation.

A Real-Life Example

A senior, seasoned and successful accountant was sitting in on a workshop that I was leading. His arms were folded across his chest, and his face practically had "prove it" written across his forehead.

You know the type. Almost at the start he raised his hand and proceeded to tell me and the other people in the workshop why accountants could not do marketing like other companies. I let him speak. He then explained that he had learned a long time ago that if he wanted people at social functions to talk to him, the last thing he should say was that he was an accountant. He'd tell people he was a movie producer or had some other glamorous career. When he was done, all I asked him was to keep an open mind.

About a half hour later, I was talking about how credibility was rooted in our ability to understand the other person's situation. To prove my point, I picked up an accounting publication that had published one of my articles:

Do people get all excited when you start talking about your business or about accounting in general? Once people at a party find out that you're an accountant, does the news travel around the room with lightning speed until suddenly you find yourself mobbed with pretty young men and women who all want your autograph, or at least display a sincere interest in your career and hang onto your every word?

I didn't think so.

I stopped reading and put the article down. That was it. He laughed, unfolded his arms and gave himself permission to listen to what I had to say. To quote Webster's, in that moment he deemed me "worthy of belief."

So next time you're standing in front of a prospective new client, or sitting across from someone at a boardroom table, resist the urge to prove how smart you are. Hold back and just listen. Then ask a few questions. Then listen. Then ask a few more questions. Then offer a tidbit of a recommendation. Then listen. Then ask a few more questions. Then listen.

Then ask for the business.

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Michel Néray is an author, speaker, consultant and trainer. Reach him through www.EssentialMessage.com.