How can service based business owners convince clients to hire us, instead of someone else? One of the most persuasive ways is to claim an expertise in a narrow field.
Of course, there are other factors that clients take into consideration: pricing, branding, or just liking your personality more than that of other service providers. Skill is not the only thing we sell: we also sell our worldview, and our unique client experience. That said, being considered an expert in your field opens doors for more high-end clients, as well as more media exposure and possibly speaking engagements.
In this article I’ll explain what it takes to be an expert, and how to demonstrate your expertise to your clients.
Who is an expert?
A person who is considered “an expert in their field” may have one or several of the following:
- Advanced formal education.
- Extensive practical experience in the field.
- Unique insight into the field.
- Industry awards and other types of exclusive recognition.
Generally, these qualifiers add up. Someone with no formal education can build their expertise on experience and original insight, and another person may pursue a purely academic approach as far as it goes. Each of them can be considered an expert, but they probably offer a complementary view of the field because of their different sources of knowledge.
It’s possible that someone new to the field connects the dots in a way that others haven’t before, perhaps thanks to their fresh perspective and the skills they bring from another field. But this insight has to be verified by people who have the required knowledge and experience to be able to evaluate it.
Expertise can be deep or broad, and it’s often both.
If someone has been working in the field for a long time, they’ve likely learned a ton about their industry in general, so their breadth of knowledge is greater than that of a novice.
Broad expertise is more common in careers where it’s important to have a strategic overview of the field, rather than a library of information in your head. People who are trying to improve systems, or to predict future changes in their field, need to pay attention to many things at once.
Experts who are solving more immediate practical problems will naturally specialize in certain skills for a specific type of client or consumer, because that makes them more effective.
In careers with a high degree of responsibility where a lack of knowledge would end in a disaster (like medicine, engineering, manufacturing, law, or finance), the expert has to be reasonably certain that they’re prepared for any scenario and can solve any problem that comes their way. Since it’s impossible to know “everything” about every part of the broader field (like psychiatry), experts often specialize in a sub-field (like addiction, personality disorders, ADHD, etc.) that allows them to stay on top of new information.
Popularity doesn’t make one an expert.
Having a bajillion social media followers or a bestselling book may look impressive, but it’s not proof of expertise.
There are quiet and modest people nobody has ever heard of whose skill and knowledge would blow everyone’s minds.
How to recognize a fake “expert”
A book, podcast, or a video show can help people to be perceived as an industry authority, deservingly or not. Some of them just repeat what they’ve heard from other experts, and have very little experience and original insight—yet people will eat it up if they don’t know any better.
These fauxperts can be exposed in individual settings like interviews or Q&A sessions, when they struggle to give straight answers to practical questions that a true expert should have no problem with. If an influencer just repeats the same thing no matter what the question is, offers basic information that everyone in the audience would already know, and can’t explain why they recommend something, they’re probably not an expert.
When a true expert doesn’t know the answer, they’ll simply say they don’t know, rather than waffle or say something outright incorrect. A true expert can provide logical reasoning behind their advice, examples of situations when they applied this advice, or the source they’re quoting (research study, another renowned expert, etc.)
Is expertise necessary?
It depends. I’ve heard many business coaches say:
“You don’t have to be an expert, you only need to be a few steps ahead of your clients.”
This view resulted in a proliferation of coaches and consultants without any qualifications, which is worrying. When some of us dare to question this view, we get accused of “gatekeeping”.
Here’s the deal.
If your failure to provide a high quality service wouldn’t hurt your clients, it’s OK to dabble in it—we all had to learn our skills somewhere! But then your fees must be appropriate for the level of service you’re offering, so the clients have a reasonable expectation of your skills. It’s misleading to charge the same amount as someone who’s been doing this work for years, and consistently provides high quality work. Clients often interpret the price as a sign of someone’s experience, especially if it’s impossible to judge the professional’s skill in other ways.
If your failure to provide the required quality of service could harm your client’s health, finances, reputation, or emotional well-being, you’re playing in a dangerous territory.
Higher stakes require expertise.
I’ll use graphic design as an example, but we could apply this to other B2B services:
- Literally anyone could design a poster for a yard sale or a local farmers market. All they need is basic text editing skills, maybe add a photo or a clipart here and there, and done.
- A small neighborhood shop that needs signage will usually have the signage manufacturer design it. Most of them are not graphic designers but printing technicians, but they usually know how to use Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, so it will be fine.
- If a small business owner needs basic business cards, again they can let the print shop design them, or pay a design student to make one which will look slightly better.
- A business that wants their products displayed in retail stores needs to work with an experienced packaging designer.
- An entrepreneur preparing for a sales meeting with bigshots in their field, or for an international fair, or some other event where their offers will be judged by discerning professionals, they better find a great designer to create top-notch business cards, brochures, presentation slides, and other marketing materials.
- A large company that invests a lot in advertising and wants their brand to be seen by millions of people will accept no less than a renowned agency who has worked on projects of similar scale before.
The more impact the visuals have on the business, the more important it is for them to be created properly, because any mistakes may result in business losses. That’s why logo design prices can range from less than $100, to literally millions of dollars. The more important the project, the more skills we need to bring to it, and in large-scale projects it usually takes more than one person to deliver it.
It’s the same with personal services. A beginner make-up artist can practice on their friends for Friday night clubbing, but a bride won’t be willing to risk her wedding look—she’d rather hire someone with a great wedding portfolio.
If the field is brand new, there may not be any experts around!
Back in the 00’s there was no such thing as a social media manager. There were just young people who used social media for fun. Once businesses smelled an opportunity for new marketing avenues, anyone who knew how to use social media and had a bit of marketing sense was able to get a job as a social media manager.
Since then the field has evolved. Now there’s special scheduling and analytics software, and it seems like every year we get one or two more platforms. Keeping up with it is a full time job, and there are legit experts who stand out from the rest of the folks who aren’t quite as proficient.
If you’re among the first people doing something, you don’t have to be an expert. Once the field gets saturated, that’s when being able to differentiate from others becomes important.
If I’m not an expert, then what am I?
We might assign skill levels as follows:
- Lay person: no knowledge or skills
- Novice: interested in the skill, reads about it, occasionally does something for friends and family
- Student, amateur: actively learning the skill through formal or informal means
- Professional: qualified to perform entry to mid-level work duties
- Expert: highly qualified and experienced professional
Novices or beginners are interested in acquiring a bit of skill, but they don't have enough experience to complete complex tasks without following step-by-step instructions, and the skill is not an important part of their day-to-day work.
Students are either formally enrolled in a vocational school or a university, attend extracurricular classes, or are an expert’s apprentice. Self-education is more common in amateurs who customize their own learning experience based on their particular interests and how much free time they have.
Professionals have enough skills to be earning money, but not quite enough to excel in their field, or teach others how to become professionals.
Ah, there we are. Who gets to teach?
Almost anyone can teach others something, but we need to be aware of the limitations of our knowledge.
Students, amateurs, and professionals may teach lay people and novices the basic skills. Usually we’re talking about lower-level practical skills that won’t turn anyone into a professional, but they can solve someone’s immediate problem. Video tutorials fall in this category.
Experts can teach anyone, though their time is best spent teaching students, amateurs, and professionals who already know the basics, and want to learn the advanced stuff they can’t learn elsewhere. Typically they’re teaching strategy or specialized practical skills. They may even create advanced certification programs that guide participants to develop enough skill to start earning money as professionals.
People who aren’t qualified to get a job are definitely not experts.
I know that not all professions can translate easily into a conventional job, nor am I claiming that you have to be able to get a job before you can freelance or start a small business. But if there is a dream job for you out there, even if there’s just a handful of them available in the world, would you qualify? I don’t mean would you get chosen among a competitive pool of candidates, but do you check the minimum requirements?
Would a reputable expert in your niche consider hiring you if they needed extra help? Or would they say you need more training?
It can be difficult to assess our own level of skill objectively. Some people never feel quite good enough, while others are overly confident. Neither is good. The job market, with all its flaws, can at least give us an idea of how we would rank in terms of title and pay.
If you are an expert, own it.
I know some people are critical of the “cult of the expertise”, but expertise is real.
Yes, we are all experts on our own individual experience, and sometimes it’s wise to ignore the “real expert’s” opinion if they don’t know the whole background of the issue. I ignore most marketing experts’ advice, because it only works for neurotypical people. Some folks have to argue with doctors who dismiss their symptoms, to be able to get adequate care. Experts can be wrong. And every single one of us has to be willing to admit when we’re wrong.
Still, expertise is valuable. It can save people’s lives. It can save them time and money. It can multiply their investment. It can help them overcome serious challenges, or create more satisfaction in their lives. When I can afford to choose, I pick an expert rather than someone less experienced.
How to say you’re an expert
Saying “I’m an expert in X” can sound pretentious, and perhaps it makes you uncomfortable. That’s fine. There are alternative ways to get the point across:
- “I’ve been doing X for over Y years.”
- “I’m specialized in [a narrow field of X].”
- “I’ve worked with over Y clients.”
- “I’ve completed over Y projects.”
- “I’ve helped develop X for [famous company 1], [famous company 2], and [famous company 3].”
- “I’ve trained hundreds of people in X.”
- “I’m regularly invited to speak about X at universities and industry conferences.”
- “I’ve taught X alongside [superstar expert 1] and [superstar expert 2].”
If you have a website or a LinkedIn profile, go through your biography and services description and add some of these statements. Instant boost in perceived expertise!
How to show you’re an expert
Since most people will scan your website instead of reading every word, visuals that demonstrate your expertise will catch their attention.
- Display portfolio pieces.
- Publish case studies and include photos, screenshots, and graphs.
- Publish client testimonials (with real names, if you’re allowed to share them).
- List logos of clients and partners.
- Embed videos of your media appearances.
- List logos of most prominent media outlets where you’ve appeared.
- List logos of awards you’ve received.
- List logos of certifications or exclusive industry memberships.
These markers don’t have to all be on the same page. Sprinkle them on various pages of your website where prospective clients are most likely to look. (Home page, About page, Services page.) If you gather so many logos that it starts looking like you’re trying too hard, display only the most renowned ones.
Just to clarify, even if you show you’re an expert, I’d still advise you to spell it out as well. Don’t count on everyone to draw the conclusion themselves, since they may not know what those certifications and awards mean.
Modesty doesn’t pay the bills.
I know what type of people my writing attracts, and I’m fairly certain that most of you reading this are way too modest. You may feel awkward talking about your accomplishments. You don’t want to show off.
Maybe you’ve been that smart and talented kid in school that other students teased or bullied when you’ve excelled. Those experiences teach us to keep our heads down and hide our true abilities. That behavior doesn’t serve us anymore and we need to stop it. (I’ve shared tips about it in my article 10 steps to overcoming your fear of visibility.)
Admitting you’re hella good at something doesn’t make you vain. You’re just stating the facts! Whoever has a problem with it can fork off.
Prospects who don’t know how good you are will pass you over, in favor of someone else who was more confident. If you’re the better person for the job, people need to know that. Hiding information that would allow your clients to make a better decision doesn’t help anyone.
Deep breath. Say it with me:
“I am an expert.”
Feel into that sentence. Get used to it.
There are people waiting for you to share your brilliant expertise with them.