How to Give Expert Advice: Don't Say Too Much

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"The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself." --Oscar Wilde

Do you give advice in your professional life? What's the most annoying thing about it? I would hazard a guess and say it's when your customers don't listen to you. 

So how can you get someone to listen to your expert opinion? Thankfully, recent evidence provides an answer. 

Decoding the roots of adherence
In an enormous study of 17 nations and 11,735 consumers, an International Journal of Research in Marketing paper explores the sources of nonadherence to doctors' advice. The researchers' curiosity about this issue was partly driven by the modern trend of engaging and empowering consumers to participate in decision-making, rather than handing down advice in a more traditionally paternalistic manner.

So, does empowering consumers work? It turns out the answer is yes -- but only if they ask

Weirdly enough, when doctors try to facilitate "informational empowerment," or the provision of extra information explaining the logic of and alternatives to a particular course of action, patients feel happier about the quality of the communication but are less likely to follow advice. However, when a patient initiates such a dialogue by asking questions, they are more likely to adhere to the advice.

Too much information is counter-productive
The researchers theorize that the emotional and informational burden of getting information they didn't ask for makes advice more confusing for patients. The result is that they're more likely to either forget what they were supposed to do or just decide against it entirely. This can be detrimental in a medical setting, but it could have significant costs in any area (provided the advice was good, of course). 

"Consumer nonadherence to doctor advice contributes to disease progression and increased mortality rates, resulting in annual direct and indirect health care costs of at least $290 billion in the US alone."

Having the opportunity to ask questions, however, is helpful -- and for patients who do ask, getting the additional information is possibly a source of comfort and reassurance that the doctor's suggestion is the right course.

Getting your customer to listen 
That means that if you want someone to follow your advice, don't dress it up with alternatives, explanations, or background details. Just give your advice and wait for him or her to ask the questions.

How you leave the conversation also matters.

The authors found that higher "decisional empowerment," meaning leaving the final decision up to the customer, is also detrimental (a phrase like, "The final decision is completely up to you, just let me know what you decide," is a good example of decisional empowerment). In these situations, not only were consumers less happy with communication quality, but they were also less likely to adhere to the advice, whether on purpose or on accident.

The lesson here? Don't back away from your recommendation in an attempt to demonstrate that you value the autonomy of your customers. They might not appreciate it, and it'll make it harder for them to follow your lead. 

Again, give your advice, wait for questions, answer any questions, and leave it at that. 

The impact of culture
What's also interesting is that culture could have an important role to play in all this. For example, it's more harmful to add on additional information in Western Europe than it is in the U.S. -- so if you have European customers, think even harder before demonstrating the ins and outs of your opinion! The same goes for leaving the decision in the customer's hands: it seems to have less of a negative effect in the U.S. than elsewhere.

However, the implications and the lessons are the same: If you want to be treated seriously as an expert and reduce the possibility of both intentional and unintentional nonadherence to your advice, stick with this simple formula: 

Give your advice, wait for questions, answer questions, and leave it alone.  

To learn more, take a look at "The Effect of Customer Empowerment on Adherence to Expert Advice" by Nuno Camacho, Martijn De Jong, and Stefan Stremersch.

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