In a survey of 2002 people by Opinium, respondents answered this question:
How trustworthy, if at all, would you say the people in the following professions are generally?
The researchers found that 85 per cent of people found nurses to be the most generally trustworthy, closely followed by 80 per cent of people who trusted doctors. Importantly, the survey asked how trustworthy these people were generally, not just in their area of expertise.
We interact with a lot of doctors and surgeons who are in the business of advising their patients. These folks are accustomed to watching most of their patients listen intently and do as they say. Interestingly, doctors often enjoy the curious privilege of people who are not their patients listening to their advice, even about matters that have little to do with medicine, just because they’re doctors!
Why do people implicitly trust doctors, whether they are talking about medical issues or not?
The reason is the phenomenon known as ‘expert power’. People exercise ‘expert power’ when they possess in-depth information, knowledge, or expertise in an area that people respect (i.e. medicine). Because this person has this high level of expertise, they can often persuade others to do things for them using trust and respect.
Sounds good, right? It’s mostly good until it isn’t. Let us give you an example of when this power resulted in disastrous consequences. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, relates a fascinating story of when expert power combines with deeply-embedded cultural norms.
Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
The problem was that the co-pilots were too deferential to question the pilots when they had made errors that would eventually lead to crashes. This catastrophic effect of super-charged deference to expert power resulted in hundreds of lives lost.
Most people listen to doctors without question, and that includes those who work for them, because of expert power
Doctors too face life and death decisions, and perhaps this is why we trust them so much. The cognitive error we make, however, is to expand the circle of confidence we have in them beyond their area of expertise (i.e. medicine). Why would we expect a doctor to know much about law, or accountancy, or marketing?
Business advisors like marketing consultants need to understand ‘expert power’ and how it can lead to doctors being their own worst enemies. We can’t begin to count the number of times a doctor client told us how to solve a marketing problem expecting us to do as they say because everyone else does.
Of all the business advisory professions we mentioned above – lawyers, accountants, and marketing professionals – marketing professionals are most likely to fall into this ‘expert power’ trap. Why? Because while many people understand that legal matters are best handled by lawyers and financial matters are best handled by accountants, most people imagine that marketing is something anyone can do. We know this because many prospective clients call us and tell us that they’d do the marketing themselves if they only had the time. We resist telling these folks that we’d do some doctoring, if we only had the time, too.
The importance of challenging expert power to get the best result
At LiveseySolar, we’re different. One of the reasons we started working well with doctors in the first place is that we stand behind our own expert power, in our specific area of expertise which is marketing and business development. We are the people with the knowledge and know-how when it comes to solving marketing problems for our clients, regardless of how much they know about their medical specialty.
We believe that when doctors hire us to solve marketing problems, they’re not buying a pair of extra hands they can attach to their brains. They’re paying for our brains, in addition to our hands, and we’ll bring both our brains and our hands to the table.
Let us provide an example. Recently we presented a website to a doctor who was surprised to see that their website felt like an advertisement with a call to action. They wondered why we chose to put the prospective patients’ problem up front on the home page, followed by a clear call to action to solve it. They asked us why we didn’t emphasise their logo, feature a big picture of themselves as the doctor, and have a big list of all the things they can do?
We told them that most of their prospective patients aren’t cataloguing the internet in search of the local doctors in their area. They don’t have time for that. Instead, when prospective patients have a medical problem, they will find the option that looks like it offers the best likelihood of solving their problem. Only after the prospective patient detects that the doctor is in the business of solving their problems will they investigate the people behind the promise.
Using marketing to address a typical patient’s problem-solving approach is not the norm. It isn’t normal, not because it’s not the best approach, but because most doctors don’t understand it. Most doctors see a website akin to a brochure that their receptionist might hand to a patient in a clinic. They’re used to the patient wanting to know about the doctor and their credentials. They’re partly right. But as we’ve just explained, prospective patients see your expertise as a secondary concern, only after they believe your organisation has the right approach to solve their problem.
So why do so many independent doctors present a brochure-like presentation of themselves and what they do on their website’s homepage? It can only be for three reasons:
- They told their web designer to do it, and their web designer didn’t challenge them on it.
- They told their web designer to do it, were challenged, and ignored their web designer’s advice.
- Their designer didn’t know enough to challenge them on this.
Our doctor clients are prepared to be challenged on their marketing and sales opinions
We are transparent with our clients that we will challenge them on anything we feel is not in their best interest. The good news is that most of them love this! Of course, we’re aware that we don’t hold all the answers either. We’ll respectfully listen to the views of our clients with an open mind. Should they have reason and logic on their side, we’ll change our views to align because we’re keen to do the best thing for the success of their practice. If our client insists on making wrong marketing decisions, despite us challenging them on them at least twice, we’ll tell them we’ll do as they say but that we strongly disagree with the approach.
What we won’t do is blindly follow our client’s directions without question. This is dangerous for the client. It produces substandard results. It’s crucial for professionals in any field to understand that ‘expert power’ is subject-matter specific. And there are two players in this dance. So for doctors working outside their field of expertise, it’s key to work collaboratively and allow the subject-matter expert to do their work. And for the subject-matter business expert, it’s important to challenge your client when they are providing opinions surrounding your area of expertise. Anything less will not provide the best result for your project.