Building Client Trust: Part 1

Peyton Crump, Former Design Director

Article Category: #Strategy

Posted on

When Tom polled the Viget team recently to see what makes for the most satisfying projects, trust from the client came in as the third most critical factor.

With it being so important for us (and I'm sure many agencies and freelancers alike), I took some time out to think on it a little more. How do we frame trust, what are its challenges in a business/client setting, and what are we doing to gain or lose trust?

Framing Trust

To think about trust in a business setting correctly, we have to first remember what trust really is. It's far far far from a signature on a contract. Just a handful of the most simple observations and quotes quickly show that we're dealing with a high-maintenance concept here (and high maintenance is often bad news in business speak):

1. Trust is powerful, yet fragile

I'll start letting my guard down when people stop giving me reasons to keep it up.”

2. Trust is not given, but earned

It takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it.”

3. Trust is rarely fast-tracked

Trust is built over time, can't be forced and has to be seeded and nurtured and given time to grow.”

Framing Mistrust

If trust is so fragile and high maintenance, mistrust must generally be the human default. Some basic social/psychological research tells us that's absolutely true:

1. Communication creates vulnerability

A serious down side of communication is that it opens the door for deception.”

2. Lying is common

Lying is more prevalent (and more expected) than we think. The average person lies about something every day.”

3. People are naturally skeptical

The human brain has powerful mechanisms for searching out and finding complex and hidden causes.”

4. Preconceived notions are hard to change

Once we have accepted a belief, we have a host of cognitive mechanisms designed to bias us against rejecting it.”

5. We're built to be on alert

The mind is designed like a smoke detector, set to go on red alert at any possible sign of threat in the environment.”

6. Stress breeds mistrust

People in downtrodden situations are more prone to mistrust. Our brains turn up the volume on our danger systems when we are under distress or threat.”

Here's the Thing

If we're not careful, we'll consciously know trust is important but subconsciously shrug off the challenge and the effort it takes.

What I've thought before:

  • Everything Viget does contributes to building trust. If we communicate well, present well, and deliver well, we'll be trusted. I mean, just look at our portfolio and track record.
  • If a client doesn't trust us, it must be due to their conservatism, naivety, personality or circumstance. There's just not a lot we can do with those.

While there may be some truth in those thoughts, man are they scary. They're full of passivity and excuse, and there's definitely a healthier outlook.

What I'll be trying to think more:

  • Most clients are under some type of distress, and for good reason (reread 1-6 above). If they don't already have internal mandates and conflicts they're facing, hiring an agency equates to exposure to risk, financial concerns, loss of control, political battles, etc. We should be ready to be mistrusted and questioned, and we should be ready to work through it. And we shouldn't take it so personally. It's often more about the distress than it is about us.
  • It isn't wise, as any agency of any caliber, to assume that our reputation precedes us and that we should naturally be trusted. There is always a lot to prove.

The Discrepancy and Challenge

What trust asks of us (long timelines to slowly build and nurture) is pretty counter to what we're working with (short timelines to quickly execute and deliver). It's not an easy job to rectify this discrepancy, but in part 2, I'll start sharing some of the obvious and less obvious ways we're thinking and working to bridge this gap. In the meantime, work on your resiliency. It's an important part of working with clients as well.

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