Building Deep Trust with Clients and Partners

Trust is the faith that others will tell the truth, act in your best interest and reliably deliver the results they promised. It’s the glue that holds partnerships together, whether personal or professional.

Whether someone else trusts you isn’t entirely up to you; some clients won’t fully trust you no matter what you do. The vast majority, however, are willing to trust you after you prove yourself. Just doing good work may not be enough.

So, what exactly do you do to build trust?

Twenty-five years of field observation has validated the following five strategic steps as the pathway to sustainable and deeply trusting partnerships:

1. Align Behind a Broad, Compelling, Strategic Goal

2. Create a Realistic Plan of Action

3. Create Clear, Explicit Agreements

4. Keep Your Agreements…or Make New Ones While There’s Still Time

5. Build Mutual Accountability

1. Align Behind a Broad, Compelling, Strategic Goal

Let’s say your team has been charged with installing and integrating a major software system for your client and educating their team on how to optimize its benefits. First, it’s important that your team and the client team align behind the vision and the strategic goals for the project…not just the technical vision, but the business vision.

What business benefits will the client receive by fully adopting your software and training their people how to use it well? Understanding these benefits will provide motivation to keep moving forward when the going gets tough. They will also provide leverage to influence clients to act in their own best interest when they’re acting tactically or reacting to “perceived” problems and threats.

2. Create a Realistic Plan of Action

Once the vision is clear, it’s critical to establish a practical, realistic plan of action. Milestones, timelines, budgets and roles all need to be clear and achievable. Players on all sides must believe that the plan will be effective, efficient and that it will help them to reach their goals. Doubt about any of these three parameters will rob the project of momentum and energy that are needed to make the project successful.

3. Create Clear Explicit Agreements

To effectively implement the plan, clear explicit agreements must be established between all players involved. Lack of clarity opens the door to conflict as each player will form his or her own interpretation of “what’s supposed to happen” and will often judge other players if they see them operating differently.

An agreement is only explicit when it has been verbalized between partners and fully agreed upon by both parties. Writing important agreements down gives them more power and sets up mutual accountability, since neither partner can realistically say “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t understand.” Be sure that each agreement is specific about expectations and timing. If it’s an action to be completed, be sure that there is only one “driver” for the action who is ultimately responsible to get it done. Creating clear, explicit agreements is one of the most powerful practices you can adopt to build deep trust with partners of any type.

4. Keep Your Agreements…or Make New Ones While There’s Still Time

We often tell people during our live trainings that once you’ve created a clear, explicit agreement with your partner, you’ve now created a “crisis”. Within every crisis is both opportunity and danger. The opportunity, if you consistently keep your agreements with your partner, is that you’ll prove yourself trustworthy and their trust with you will deepen over time.

The danger is, if you don’t keep your agreements with your partner, you’ll prove yourself untrustworthy and their trust with you will erode over time. So, explicit agreements are a key pivot point for building trust. Keep your word and trust will naturally expand. Break it and trust will diminish.

But what do you do if you’ve made a clear agreement and you’re not able to keep it for a good reason? The answer is you propose a change to the agreement well before your partner will be impacted by the change. Your client can handle tactical changes to schedule specific resource allocations and implementation strategies as long as you manage their expectations early and often. Help them understand how these changes won’t harm them and may even help them.

5. Build Mutual Accountability

The fifth and often most difficult step is building mutual accountability with your partner. As you make clear agreements and consistently keep them, your partner will come to believe that you’re accountable to the agreements, the plan and the strategic goals of the project. But what do you do if clients don’t keep their agreements with you? Sadly, many people in services and consulting just “suck it up” and work harder and faster to keep the ship afloat without the client’s help. This is a dangerous strategy because if the ship sinks, who is the client going to blame? You guessed it, it isn’t them!

It’s critical that we teach clients as early as possible in the relationship that we will hold them accountable to the agreements they make with us. We’re walking a tightrope here because we need their accountability but we don’t want to push them into defensiveness that could lead to a battle. The key to success is “meeting them before we try to move them.”

We’ll describe exactly how to do this in future articles as we address specific skills that transform conflicts into problem-solving conversations. In our next article you’ll learn how all clients’ build a world of their own interpretations and how understanding their “structure of interpretation” builds trust and partnership while avoiding unnecessary conflict.

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Steve Vislisel and Marty Friedman are the co-authors of this series and the co-creators of the “Power of Partnership”, a dynamic, interactive training / coaching program for consultants and professional services pros.

They teach the specific principles and practices required to systematically create both great results and phenomenal customer experience in each client engagement.

They created this methodology for Accenture and have delivered it to over 10,000 services and consulting professionals in great organizations like E&Y, HP Software, Cisco, Visa, Bell Canada, Jive, Apptio and Lithium.

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