How to Differentiate Between Experts and Fraudsters

Emperor Has No ClothesWarning: this post is a bit of a rant (but does have a story and some practical advice). Does it seem like every day there’s a new pile of “experts” cropping up on every subject imaginable? Social media expert. Blogging expert. Communications expert. Strategy expert. Wingdings font expert. It’s enough to make me gag. Sorry but having a bunch of twitter followers or being at the top of the twitter elite for a podunk little town doesn’t make you a “social media expert.”

Even worse than the seemingly-viral proliferation of these “experts” are the egregious rates they expect for their services. Just because you call yourself an “expert” it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the fee levels “real experts” charge (then again, if you’re the individual hiring an “expert” and paying them ridiculous fees, I can’t save you from your own insipidness).

Lastly, the worst aspect of these “experts” is the damage they can do to your organization. In some cases I’d love to sue some of these folks for malpractice of the trade they proclaim they’re an expert in.

So how can you as a leader of your organization protect yourself from the damage false experts can cause and how can you find the real experts among that mess? How can you ensure the expert isn’t like the false tailor and you end up like an emperor with no clothes?

It all boils down to asking the right questions.First, let’s define expert: a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field. SPECIAL. Special meaning very few have this ability and said ability has and can generate value. SPECIAL. Meaning a level of expertise well beyond the capabilities of others. A quote that infuriates me exemplifies this point: “You only have to know 10% more than those you’re teaching before you can call yourself an expert.” 10%? Really? Are our performance expectations really that low? Hogwash I say! All of you reading know what your expectations of an “expert” are but too many times we let that standard slip as we’re interviewing potential expert service providers.

I recently heard a story about an “expert” that was pitching his services to a senior executive. After the “expert’s” pitch, the senior exec said “I’m sorry but your resume indicates nothing that makes you even remotely qualified to advise us on these topics. Beyond that, the fee structure you’re requesting is nowhere near commensurate with the value I believe you can provide, which, incidentally, given your lack of real experience in this field, is very little. I suggest you get some real-world practical experience in this field and demonstrate some tangible results before you hock your services as an ‘expert’ in this field.”

Oh. My. God. I love this guy. As my son would say, his response was an uber pwn in the world of business rejections. While the story is hilarious and you’re probably cheering for this guy, he’s also provided a valuable lesson you shouldn’t lose during your applause and cheering.

Ask for examples of relevant experience
Any “expert” should be able to readily and easily provide a laundry list of real-world experiences where they’ve utilized the skills they profess to have. Make your expert cough up the stories about how they’ve used what they’re teaching during previous job assignments or consulting assignments. If they can’t, your warning siren should be warming up.

Ask for evidence of impact they’ve had
I’ve said this a million times – I don’t care about activities. I care about impact. An expert must be able to link the provision of their expertise to real tangible results. Your organization must improve as a result of your investment in this person’s services. The likelihood of that happening if the “expert” has never before demonstrated bottom line impact is pretty low. If the expert is unable to provide direct evidence of the results they generate (either in the form of numbers for “hard” impact services or testimonials and survey results for “softer” skill services) the warning siren should begin emitting its wail.

Ask how they’ll transfer or apply their expertise
Experts can be like a street drug. Once you get hooked on their services, you might need to keep having them back to provide those skills. That gets expensive over time. The best kinds of experts are those who put clients first and try to render their services obsolete. Yes, I know you once again think I’ve lost it but that approach benefits both the expert and the client.

An expert who can build the skills of the people in your organization gives you leverage for your investment in their services. You now have a more capable team because the expert built their skills and those skills can now be applied more broadly in your organization. It’s beneficial to the expert because such an approach builds their reputation as someone who puts client first which should result in more work coming their way.

Ask your “expert” how they’re going to build your team’s skills and how they feel about rendering themselves obsolete by doing so. If they hem and haw, the warning siren should be at full wail.

Compare their rate to their value
Payments you make to an expert are an investment in your organization. You should expect a healthy return on that investment. “Good” experts will be able to articulate how their fees compare to the market as well as how their expertise will drive value to your bottom line. “Great” experts will actually shoot for a target of value to fees. A reasonable expectation is 5:1. A high expectation is 10:1 (said differently, if an expert charges $1 for services, they should drive between $5-10 in real, tangible value).

If your “expert” can’t articulate the investment return on their fees, the warning siren’s full wail should by now lead to an evacuation of the building. And to clarify – the only person who should be “evacuated” is the so-called expert who really isn’t.

Do you have any “experts” running around your organization? Are you considering hiring any? Ask them these questions and see what happens. It should make for an interesting conversation. You might just learn the “expert” is the tailor who believes you’re simply a foolish emperor and he’s willing to sell you invisible clothes. And if you’re touting yourself as an “expert” and you’re not, stop, go get some experience and figure out how to deliver value because eventually the market will decide whether you’re an expert or not. And when the market does make that judgment, it won’t be too kind if you’re not able to deliver on your so-called “expertise.”

How do you evaluate “experts?” What has your experience been? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

9 Responses to “How to Differentiate Between Experts and Fraudsters”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    One other reason that companies hire “experts” is the glamour of hiring someone from “outside” with “all the latest skills”. Too often I’ve seen that happen – the company pays a lot of money for advice that is mediocre at best.

    Another side effect of this is that the company leadership who hired the “expert” will look very foolish to their employees. The effect on morale and mutual trust can be quite striking. The best employees will be thinking “If this is the best we can do, why should I work here? I’ve got better ideas than that!” The rest will be thinking “Look what they spent my raise on.”

    Choose your “Experts” Carefully. Their effect goes farther than you think.

    • Jim Halbruegger says:

      Another frustrating situation is when management hires an “expert” who provides advice that is virtually the same as the organization’s own employees have been trying to communicate. When management won’t listen to it’s own employees, or doesn’t ask, there is a big problem, not only with wasting company resources but demoralizing your own people. Obviously, it will discourage employees from expressing themselves in the future – a major loss for the enterprise.

  2. Joe Zenevitch says:

    Good article. Unfortunately, there are not that many people out there like the exec you mentioned, and a lot more that are sold based on dubious reasons. For example, someone might go to a conference and see a speaker who seems to talk a good story, and so they pursue that person. There are too many speakers and book writers out there who can speak and write but not necessarily do.

  3. Brian Ahearn says:

    When I saw “rant” I knew I had to read.

    “Expert” or “Authority” aren’t words we should take lightly. Doing something a long time doesn’t make you an expert. In March I’ll have been married for 25 years but I’m hardly an expert on it…just ask my wife. So to your list I’d add:

    1. Read what they write about. You’ll quickly see if they know how to apply their knowledge. Application is the key.
    2. Ask to see them present. Hopefully they have some video online but if not, go to an event where they speak because it will reveal their understanding of their area of expertise. An old proverb says, “Even a fool seems wise till he opens his mouth.”
    3. Check references. Are the considered experts by already experts in the field?


  4. Rey Carr says:

    Thanks for providing some ideas about how to differentiate between experts and con artists. One area this will be helpful is in the emergence of a new type of “mentor,” the mentor who charges a fee for what traditionally has been a free or voluntary service. This phenomenon is on the increase and the Internet is now full of people who promote themselves as “mentors” for a fee. Often they are associated with finances, real estate or some other commercial success activity. Being able to differentiate which ones are truly mentors from those who are just using the term to attract unsuspecting clients would be a valuable service.

  5. Shari says:

    Just like automotive experts, Social Media darlings are cropping up on every consulting corner. If no evidence exists that the so-called expert is winning the engagement game by applying the techniques he or she is recommending, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.

  6. Alex Freund says:

    Mike, I LOVE your article. I had a smile on my face while reading it perhaps because my company’s name is Landing Expert – Career Coaching. So I asked myself why do I consider myself an expert? The answer is simple. I’ve been specializing in the career coaching field in the interview preparation besides doing career coaching as others do. I’ve been doing this for over seven years and I have built a successful practice growing every year between 20% to 40%. I could go on and on but I certainly do not like to sound like bragging. But more important than how I see myself is how my clients view the services I provide. On my LinkedIn profile I have an inordinate number of unsolicited recommendations supported by an even more (embarrassing number of) endorsements. Am I an expert?

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for the thoughts Alex. Obviously long hours and tons of energy spent devoted to a field are a prerequisite to becoming an expert. I think the more important part is how *good* is someone at what they do? It’s about impact. I could spend countless years swinging a golf club but if I never master the skill and get better at it, it’s hard to consider me an expert at golf. If, however, I dedicate that time and energy and get to a point where I’m regularly shooting great golf and can tangibly help others improve their scores too, then I’m approaching the level of being an expert. I think your recommendations and endorsements start hinting at your impact. I’d encourage you to collect numbers/data around the impact you’ve had and share that information in your marketing materials. Thanks for reading!

  7. frank niles says:

    Great article. I look at it from the perspective of a consultant, one who provides services knowing that the market is packed with hucksters. On the positive side, it allows us to stand out. On the negative side, there are lots of skeptical (and rightly so) prospective clients. My credentials and record speak for themselves so I mostly let satisfied clients and my content speak for themselves. I also find being able to estimate ROI helps assuage the concerns of skeptical clients. For coaching, the client also doesn’t pay unless they achieve the agreed upon behavioral change. From a client’s perspective, make the consultant/coach create some benchmarks and measures of the success. This usually winnows the field.

    The barriers are so low for consultants and free-lancers to hang out a shingle, I find that to stand out, you just have be better in terms of produce and service than everyone else. And form real relationships with those you serve.

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