Every relationship hinges on one key thing: trust. Client relationships are no exception. But how can we dissect what trust is all about in order to create strong relationships with clients, particularly in an increasingly challenging business environment? In professional services – clients can now choose who they want to work with globally, and it is increasingly common that we don’t get to meet face-to-face with our clients. Out of all the trust models out there, the one I refer to most is the Trust Triangle by Frances Frei, a Harvard professor. It is a formula for building trust within organizations that has three key components: authenticity, logic, and empathy.
When it comes to establishing a client relationship, I always start with focusing on authenticity because that has an impact on the level of trust being established at the very beginning.
Authenticity is being who you are. It is about how comfortable you are allowing clients to experience the real you. As a litmus test for authenticity, ask yourself: do I assume a different persona when I am around clients vs. my friends or family members? If the answer is a resounding yes, be aware that clients can pick up on that. This is because the human brain excels at identifying inconsistencies subconsciously. When clients cannot experience the real you, the relationships will always remain professional in a sense that is transactional, cold and indifferent. This makes advising on and co-creating solutions more difficult.
The “clients are always right” motto can potentially stop us from being authentic. When holding this belief, there is a tendency to withhold our genuine thoughts and dance around ideas instead of being creative and forthcoming. In a professional world, clients look for your professional knowledge and insights. They want to hear your views to help them move forward. Of course, there are times when professionals need to be tactful in expressing their views when things are sensitive.
Another dimension of authenticity is the consideration of the time horizon. If you are working with a client for an extended period of time, authenticity is also about delivering your promise over time. If you keep promising your client the highest quality work but fail to deliver on that promise, this inconsistency will erode your authenticity.
Logic is the science part of trust. It is about sound reasoning and judgement. It is also about how knowledgeable you are in your field, and your capability of making the most appropriate decisions, and reaching a desirable outcome given the situation. Reading more books and learning from industry experts can help improve logical thinking.
Communication is an integral part in being perceived as logical. One of my coaching assignments years ago was to help a highly knowledgeable chief financial officer to transition into his new role. An important aspect of the role was to manage stakeholders, including board members and business heads. One piece of feedback my client received was that he needed to be more logical, which surprised him. I learned from the stakeholders that they found his presentations and communications confusing. Therefore, to be perceived as someone who is logical and an expert in a particular field, professionals should be able to make technical information more digestible to a non-technical audience so that a coherent picture can be presented.
Empathy is something professionals usually fall short in when it comes to building trust. This is often because we feel that we know more than our clients, and therefore feel they should unreservedly embrace our advice and suggestions. But it’s important to recognize that there are things that we may be unaware of, and that what may seem silly or small to us, are real concerns from the client’s perspective, and should be addressed with high priority.
The definition of empathy by the Oxford dictionary is: “the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of another person.” The client should believe you care about their well-being and success. The easiest way is to put yourself in your client’s shoes and try to see the world from their perspective. What are their fears? What are their desires? Fear and desire are strong emotions that drive most decisions, and also connections. A renewed understanding about the client can bring greater clarity on the range of solutions that are acceptable to the client, and areas that you bring the greatest value to the relationship.
The art of building trust
What if the authentic me strongly believes the client should pursue something, but the empathetic side recognizes that is not possible? Building trust is an art. It takes time, and trial and error to make things work. When facing a situation like this, I like to tell clients: “Can I be honest here, despite hearing your concerns?” This is because I believe having the courage to speak up wins both respect and trust.
Whenever I feel that the client relationship is not going smoothly, I always revisit each corner of the Trust Triangle to see what the problem could be. Am I being too focused on earning higher fees that I am losing my authenticity? Am I relying too much on my past knowledge and experience, and not updating myself on the latest market trends, leading to unsound logic? Or am I allowing my ego to block my empathy? These are all good questions for when we have challenges in establishing client trust.