Building and maintaining trust across the full lifespan of a customer relationship takes attention and focus in the following areas:
1. Prepare with the customer in mind.
If, when you prepare, you find yourself spending more time preparing your solution or positioning points than you spend thinking about your customer and their issues and challenges, then you need to rethink your preparation strategy. You should begin and end with your customer in mind. If you prepare for your meeting by thinking about what they might want to get out of your time together, then not only will you build trust, you will also create more value in the meeting.
2. Ask great questions, not bad ones.
There is no such thing as a bad question, right? Wrong. We’ve seen bad questions asked time and time again. A bad question is one you should already know the answer to if you have done just a little bit of homework. Not doing your homework and asking questions about something you should already know not only destroys your credibility, but it also signals to the customer that they aren’t worth your effort in being well prepared to meet with them. If, as your potential customer, I am not worth your preparation, then why would I trust you to act in my best interests when you do have my business?
Instead of undermining your trust with bad questions, you can actually build trust with great questions. Imagine doing your homework on an industry issue facing your customer and asking how that issue might be impacting them. That question demonstrates an interest in their business and begins to build credibility and trust. Asking about risks and rewards, strategic drivers, and emerging initiatives are all great question topics to show that you are thinking about the customer’s business as a whole — not just the immediate opportunity for you to make a sale.
Remember, sometimes the best questions can actually do more to demonstrate your credibility and trustworthiness than positioning a great solution.
3. Create value proactively, not reactively.
Even if you respond to customer needs in a timely and well-rounded fashion, you could very well be in what we refer to as the “Respond” mode. Sure, you met the customer’s stated needs, but how well are you getting ahead of the curve? The best trusted advisors are always thinking about their customer’s business and looking for ways to add value proactively — even if it doesn’t mean an immediate sale. They know that trust and value built over time will lead to a stronger relationship. There is a balance, of course. But the more you do to bring insight and value to your customer before they ask for it, the more you will earn their trust and demonstrate that you are someone who can help solve their business issues as a partner.
4. Be honest about what you can and can’t do.
Just because you are asked to bid on a piece of business or asked for your capabilities in a certain area, you don’t have to swing at the pitch. Being honest about your capabilities and core competency is important. That doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your capabilities — but be careful and honest. The fastest way to destroy trust is to take on a piece of business on which you know you cannot deliver. Your personal brand and reputation are on the line when you say you and your team can deliver.
5. Make your value explicit, not implicit.
You know that your solution is the right fit. You know you add value. But, unless you make it explicitly clear how each part of your solution fits exactly to you customer’s needs, you are asking your customer to connect the dots. When I am a customer, I have no desire to do the work. I expect a partner to clearly link their solution to my needs and in the exact order that I care about them. Leave out the extraneous information, and make it easy to understand how you are addressing my needs. I need to trust that everything that I might pay for has specific value to me. And I need to trust that you diligently assessed and captured everything I must have and are addressing them all to drive value for me.
6. Always maintain a collaborative tone, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.
A salesperson’s ability to establish and maintain an environment of openness, collaboration, and mutual respect is central to navigating the customer dialogue effectively. The seller has to continually build credibility and earn the right to the customer’s time and attention in the dialogue. So, how do they do that?
It is a combination of things that we do — and frankly, things we don’t do — that helps us to manage the emotional tone of the meeting. The ability to manage the emotional tone of the dialogue begins first and foremost with self-awareness. That’s why, at Richardson, we have the saying that “feedback is a gift.” Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own emotions and the impact that they have on your decisions and actions. We have to have self-awareness around the impact of our actions on the customer — how we phrase a question or statement can elicit a more positive or negative emotional response from the customer.
We have to be able to anticipate, look for, and accurately read the customer’s emotions so that we can be sensitive to the potential emotional response in preparing for the dialogue and in navigating the dialogue in the moment.
We must remember that while we are reading the customer’s emotions, they are also reading us and making assumptions about our intent. Any behavior that evokes a feeling within the customer that we are being self-serving and trying to control, manipulate, or push our viewpoint on the customer will immediately trigger a negative emotional reaction from the customer. Sometimes, they let this visibly show, and other times, they try to mask their true feelings. We’re at a disadvantage because our role is to “sell,” and the customer knows it. From a self-awareness standpoint, we have to be ultra-sensitive to this dynamic. Customers are very savvy about being “sold to” and have little tolerance for it today. Our behaviors have to clearly show our openness and collaboration, without necessarily agreeing with the customer.