Our current business culture is going through a credibility crisis.  Every day, I get Twitter messages offering me “20,000 Twitter Followers for Only $49.99!” It’s easy for anyone to throw up a fancy website, manufacture reviews, or pad a resume.  Business owners get burned at epidemic rates by contractors and employees they insist seemed credible – but were really just charismatic. It doesn’t matter if you’re online or in person. As we discussed last week, appearances can be deceiving. 

But the biggest credibility crisis of all isn’t people being scammed by incompetent contractors.

It’s competent, skilled, experienced business owners who undermine their own credibility – because they don’t understand what credibility is. 

Here’s a crash course in credibility: what it is, what it’s not, and how you may be killing yours.

Credibility: What It Is

The cornerstones of credibility are trustworthiness and expertise. Trustworthiness comes from having a history – an established pattern of behaving a certain way, reliably delivering results again and again over a sustained period of time. Expertise is demonstrated by applying special skills and knowledge to solve, explain, and adapt to changing conditions or problems. Credibility is just shorthand for saying that someone has a proven track record of delivering positive results.

Business owners lose credibility when they focus on appearing unique, exciting, or confident instead of proving they are trustworthy experts. They get lost thinking that credibility is about first impressions and charisma. So they try impersonating a caricature of credibility – as unrealistic as the World’s Most Interesting Man – without realizing that they already have it.

6 Ways You’re Undermining Your Credibility

1. Trying to Have All the Answers

Some people can’t stand not being the smartest person in the room. You’ve met these people – and you’ve probably been one of them at some point. In moments of insecurity, you’ve probably faked expertise in a subject you only know about because you read a couple of infographics on Pinterest. It’s ok. We’ve all had moments we regret. But real experts know how much they don’t know – and they’re not intimidated by that knowledge. Instead, they ask lots of questions and listen carefully before giving thoughtful input. People with real experience are the quietest, and they can always see through the know-it-alls.

2. Spouting Feel Good Fluff

Optimism is a great coping mechanism, and sometimes people need to be inspired. But if you want to earn trust, you have to be willing to call a spade and spade. You just look like you’re in denial when you constantly emphasize the positive and refuse to dig into negative realities. I once worked with a developer who kept insisting that his project just needed “a few more tweaks” – until it finally came out that he had been inflating his progress reports and the project was dangerously behind schedule. Two years later, when the company was bankrupt and embroiled in fraud litigation, he explained to shareholders that he’d just been trying to stay positive because he’d really believed it would work. Your customers and employees don’t want to work with someone they can’t trust to give accurate, honest, complete information.

3. Offering Spin Instead of Substance

Real credibility isn’t about being interesting. It’s about being consistent and knowledgeable – and providing enough evidence to prove that to others. But a lot of business owners overcompensate for insecurity by trying to be clever instead. They try to stand out with unique job titles, the latest buzz words, or new ads – all superficial changes – instead of distinguishing themselves with their skills, accomplishments, and results. I once ran into a woman at a networking event who told me that her job was “Helping people live their bucket lists!” It took 15 minutes to finally get out of her that she sold investment products – and by that time, her credibility was shot with me. But imagine the cred she’d have earned if she’d told me “I’m an investment broker, and I get amazing results for my clients. Here are some examples of problems I solved, questions I answered, and results I delivered.”

4. Using $5 Words

Never use a $5 word to impress people when a few $0.05 ones could inform them instead. Use words that accurately fit the real work you do– NOT the image you want to project. The way you describe your work and yourself should be just that – a description of who you are and what you do for the customer– not a wishful fantasy. If you’re a web developer for small businesses– say that. Don’t try to bill yourself as a “cyber data micro-strategist.”  Just be an awesome web developer, provide evidence of your expertise, and show people the awesome results you deliver.

My husband’s cousin started a tutoring firm a few years ago, and I’ve always loved her title: “Head Tutor and Book Enthusiast.” It tells parents, kids, and teachers everything they need to know about her, her services, and her company in just five words – no dictionary needed. If your work is good and you’re struggling in the market, you don’t need to rework your job title or marketing materials to sound more exciting. You just need to tell stories about your past experience.

5. Being Defensive

Want to kill your credibility fast? Get defensive when someone gives you criticism, feedback, or suggestions. And if someone points out that you’re being overly sensitive or over-reacting — deny it completely. Bonus points if you resort to pointing out the other person’s flaws.

By definition, being defensive means you’re trying to protect yourself from a real or perceived attack. Most defensiveness is triggered by insecurity – particularly an extreme fear of embarrassment or failure. There are times when someone is unfairly and openly attacked, and it’s appropriate to be defensive. But those instances are extremely rare. If you can’t openly discuss important issues without taking it personally, no one will trust your ability to make decisions or solve problems. And if you bristle at the slightest sign of criticism or conflict, people will (rightly) doubt your ability to handle the day-to-day realities of business relationships.

6. Over-Promising & Over-Marketing

A lot of business owners and executives try to change their public image by talking about the future – but that’s looking in the wrong direction. Credibility isn’t about vision. It’s about past experience and results. It’s defined by what you did and how you did it. Likewise, reputations aren’t improved by making promises. They’re made by delivering on them. Your credibility dies a little more each time you makes a promise that you can’t back up with experience and results. That means you can not improve your credibility by talking about your big plans for the future, by overselling an unproven idea (regardless of how much you believe in it), or by rebranding your business. You can only do it by pointing people to your past, by letting your track record speak for itself.

That doesn’t mean you can’t try new ideas or offer new services! It just means that you have to accurately represent that it’s new territory for you, and give evidence of times you successfully navigated new territory in the past. One of my clients, a social media expert, does this every time a client asks her to start using a just-released Facebook or LinkedIn feature. She’s upfront with them about what she knows about the feature and what she doesn’t know. She lays out a plan, and is honest about where her experience ends and hypothesis begins. And she offers discounts to the first clients to use a new feature because they’re being her guinea pigs. Instead of undermining her industry cred, her honest approach enhances it.

A Better Approach

And that’s true of everything.  Honesty enhances credibility, but only if you trust your potential customers – and yourself! – enough to be honest with them.
Lasting business relationships and reputations aren’t built on impressions. They’re built on reliability and results. You can spend hours choosing your outfits, practicing elevator speeches, rewording your website, designing flashy business cards, and trying desperately to make a dazzling first impression – but it’s a waste of your energy.  Your track record is more powerful than any of that. 

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.