Building Client Trust: Part 2

Peyton Crump, Former Design Director

Article Category: #Strategy

Posted on

In part 1, I found it helpful to reframe big-picture trust and mistrust in an attempt to reset my expectations around client trust, or the lack thereof. In the end, what trust asks of us (long timelines to slowly build and nurture it) is pretty counter to what we're working with in a client setting (short timelines to strategize, execute, and deliver). It's not an easy job to rectify this discrepancy, and we can't assume that our trusted reputation or portfolio precedes us.

With that in mind, the key to trust-building (to me) is to remember that it's intentional and active (hence the building part). It has to be. We can't assume that it's just going to happen. We're typically looking at a matter of weeks, early in a project or pitch, when gaining the client's trust is a necessity. So we have to go after it.


Here's a list that I reference when trying to establish trust in any new client relationship. I like these tenets because they're verbs:

  • Listen
  • Empathize
  • Prepare
  • Inspire
  • Educate
  • Collaborate
  • Communicate
  • Adapt


I didn't want to spend a lot of time defining the tenets in the list. I imagine you get them. Instead, here are a handful of real, specific examples of how those tenets intersect and play out. I tend to learn the most about trust-building when I'm able to hear specifics on what's working or not working for others. So, in no particular order, these are some that came to mind for me and are generally true for Viget:

Back ideas with data tenets: prepare, inspire, educate:

Ideas alone can feel risky for clients. When possible, we use data to inform and back ideas. This takes time and investment, but is typically worth every minute and penny. In general, clients respond well to a dose of objectivity in what can feel like a sea of subjectivity. Intuition and expertise plus evidence is typically a winning combo for trust.

Understand feedback expectations tenets: listen, empathize, collaborate, adapt:

Early on, we try to understand the desired involvement and availability of our client. Some clients prefer or need weekly stand-ups and real-time collaboration with our team (frequent and light touch points) whereas other clients prefer more milestone-ish connection points (infrequent and presentational).

Repeat the goals tenets: listen, prepare, communicate:

We intentionally clarify and restate the client's goals early in the project. This seems like a no-brainer, but it's incredible how quickly goals can get lost as everyone gets into the weeds of a project. We constantly tie decisions back to those goals, resolve conflicts through those goals, and, oh yeah, try to obtain those goals.

Discover and share your touch-points tenets: listen, empathize, prepare, inspire:

Whenever we have a personal connection to a project, it's useful to recognize and share it with it the client. We often go into early client meetings with genuine stories about how their brand or idea or product has touched or could touch us or someone we know. Being mindful of these connections helps us get invested and excited, and it helps clients feel confident about our passion.

Co-own ideas tenets: empathize, inspire, collaborate:

We're able to sell ideas better when clients realize they were a part of imagining the ideas (assuming that's really the case). Letting go of some ego for the sake of collective ownership, buy-in, and excitement is a tradeoff that is always worth it.

Retrace communications tenets: listen, prepare:

For internal use, we sometimes create a chronological timeline of early communications (from the client and amongst our team) and retrace those to get a real feel for how the relationship has developed. At Viget, that looks something like Highrise notes + emails + IM conversations + phone calls + Basecamp messages. So much early insight can fall between the cracks because of multiple tools, locations, and conversations, so capture it and order it and see what you take away from it.

Emphasize the team tenets: empathize, communicate:

If clients are paying for a team to solve their problem, remember to reflect decision-points as team decisions. It's a relatively small thing, but when clients hear too much "I decided this" instead of "we decided this", they can begin to think they're paying for collaboration and group strategy but getting an individual with blinders on. If you're working on a team, in most cases your decisions have at least been vetted by the team, and in that way they're group decisions.

Share the language tenets: listen, empathize, prepare, communicate, adapt:

From the initial touch-points with the client, begin listening for and jotting down key phrases that they use and repeat. Begin developing a vocabulary and language built around those. Certainly track down definitions for words and acronymns that you don't understand. Adapt to the client's lingo and environment where you can, rather than expecting them to adapt to yours.


Clearly there's no exact science to trust-building, and any "methods" fall apart if they're not rooted in a genuine, real desire to do great work that will benefit the client and their customers. Our work is very much about people (clients, customers, users) and gaining their trust, and that's a rewarding business to be in.

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