Many of our clients brief us on projects that are designed to understand the nature of the trust relationship that they have with their own customers. If anything, it’s been an increasingly hot research topic since the global financial crisis, and compounded by events such as the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK. Public trust has been in short supply.
While we’re conducting these insight projects on trust, we’d be pretty myopic if we didn’t pay attention to our own trust relationship with clients.
So what’s my take on trust in business? The first thing to say is that I believe it’s rarely dependent on any one factor in terms of our performance or behaviour, but is layered and multi-faceted.
Most importantly, trust begins at home. In our case, I can say with absolute conviction that as a team, we trust each other. There is no hint of politics between us, no rows, no lack of respect for each other’s ability or any doubt in our collective commitment. We push that degree of trust very hard in our internal team culture.
Secondly, clients need to be able to trust the basic operation, which is the foundation of our ultimate recommendations and advice. We think of it as brilliant basics – getting the recruitment, sample design and logistics spot on. When there is rigour in the operational detail, clients are more likely to believe there is rigour in the thinking.
The results of trust can be hard to measure, but there are various manifestations. For example, clients might not bother to get an alternative quote for a piece of business because they trust that we will be fair. Or they might provide a verbal rather than written brief when under a lot of pressure. Or they might ask you to attend internal team meetings because they trust you to act with discretion in terms of what you hear.
Trust is hard to earn, and it’s also very fragile. Dishonesty can kill it off frighteningly quickly. That’s why it’s so important to be honest, to admit to any mistakes and to fix them swiftly as best you can. Ironically, that can actually reinforce the trusted relationship.
When these two building blocks are firmly in place, clients are far more likely to trust the ultimate content of the work, in terms of the insights and recommendations that we give. If none of this sounds very revolutionary, then it’s probably because the principles of trust haven’t changed for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
To summarise, the crucial tips for enjoying trusted client relationship that we’d offer on the basis of our experience are:
- Only have people in your team that you implicitly and explicitly trust.
- Work very hard to establish a culture of internal trust among yourselves as a team. Continually challenge yourselves as to whether you are pushing this as hard as you can.
- Invest time and resource in being operationally solid at the heart of the agency. Whichever jobs are pivotal to sustaining good order and discipline to the whole company need to be staffed by brilliant people.
- Admit any mistakes to clients before they find them and be prepared with proposed solutions to rectify them. Mistakes should never be encouraged, of course, but they are normally opportunities to build trust when correctly handled.
- In relation to the four points above, they sound simple, but they are deceptively simple, and it’s only when they are truly incorporated that the power of them is manifest.
Martin Lee is co-founder of qualitative research agency Acacia Avenue. Contact details: Martin@acacia-avenue.com, 020 7014 9500, 07940 574745.