How Consultants Can Build Trust with New Clients
Takeaway: While some people may have difficulty defining trust, everyone can tell when it is present in a relationship. Trust takes time to build but can be facilitated by empathetically implementing certain strategies. Consulting is all about trust because many “experts” can provide business advice, but few can do so in a way that positively impacts a company and the people involved in the long run.
In any relationship, one of the most important factors is trust. We might associate this term more closely with our personal relationships, such as family members and friends. However, when it comes to business consulting, it's not all about cold hard cash. Indeed, trust is one of the top reasons why clients choose a particular consultant over another.
According to a consultative selling survey by Miller Heiman, more than 50% of respondents cited ‘lack of trust’ as the single biggest reason for rejecting a service provider. This poll indicates that building a sense of trust isn't just crucial for working with new clients. It's also a strategy that will help you gain these clients in the first place.
As I wrote in the “benefits to hiring a trusted consultant,” a trusted consultant has the knowledge and skills to help a company, but the benefits of becoming a trusted consultant for your clients are incalculable. If you're searching for a strategy that will enable you to build trust with new business consulting clients, you're in the right place. This article will outline a plan that many experts have contributed to and will help you make better business relationships.
1. Familiarize Yourself With "The Trust Equation"
One of the best books about trust within the world of business consulting is David Maister's The Trusted Advisor. In the book, Maister introduces the idea of “the trust equation” as way to wrap your mind about such an amorphous but important concept. His formula shows the different qualities that can influence your reputation.
He writes that trust is a combination of your credibility, reliability, and intimacy with another person, all divided by your self-orientation. Let's look at what each of these qualities mean:
1. Credibility: The extent to which a client believes you're capable of providing strong business consulting advice
2. Reliability: Whether your client believes you will deliver your business consulting advice on time, to budget, and the agreed standard
3. Intimacy: In a professional context, intimacy is the extent to which your client feels comfortable sharing their business concerns and aspirations.
4. Self-orientation: This element is your selfishness, which Maister believes will ‘poison trust.’ It refers to the extent to which you act to further your own interests as opposed to those of your client (for example, to make a personal profit rather than to improve the quality of your service).
Understanding this consultant-client trust equation is a vital first step to building a solid rapport with your new clients. Once you realize that trust depends on credibility, reliability, and intimacy, it makes it much easier to create an informed business consulting perspective.
In all of your future actions, consider whether your behavior reinforces any of these three qualities. If it doesn't — or worse, if you're acting out of self-orientation — it becomes imperative to be self-aware and make a change.
2. Engage with Your Client Proactively
For a business consulting client, there's nothing worse than feeling as though they have to chase after their consultant. Lack of communication and engagement makes clients feel underappreciated and more likely to replace you.
A great way to build trust, and make yourself indispensable, is to make yourself a part of the decision-making team’s communication circle. This, many times involves making the first move in a way allows the client to know you’re thinking of their business and ready to engage in the work without being a burden. Make sure the client feels like the ball is in their court.
Communication by arranging a catch-up meeting, sending an email to check-in, or even making a quick phone call, will show your client that you're serious about supporting their company and not just calling to sell business services. They already know you’re looking for business! Make them feel like you are there because you believe in their mission and work.
Not only will this type of communication help to build intimacy, it also demonstrates the fact that you're willing to put in some overtime on their behalf; an effective way of dispelling any sense of self-orientation.
3. Listen Before You Speak
You've heard the phrase ‘think before you speak,' but when it comes to business consulting, your strategy should be ‘listen before you speak.’
In The Trusted Advisor, Maister makes the point that many entrepreneurs don't actually want to receive advice. Instead, they want a friendly and sympathetic ear to hear their worries, hopes, and dreams.
To build trust, I recommend that consultants think about their job as involving as much empathy as offering strategy advice. While clients hire consultants for their expertise, they rarely, if ever, want anyone to tell them what to do, especially entrepreneurs and small-business owners.
Always give clients the opportunity to share their thoughts and listen for not just what they are saying but why. The why can help you understand the leader’s intentions, fears, and unstated goals that make up the hidden agenda that is as important to understand as the explicit agenda (i.e. KPIs). Allow clients to open each meeting with some undirected time so they can provide the context to the upcoming conversation.
It can also be valuable to ask them how they're feeling about the work you’re both engaged in. This simple gesture shows that you care about them as a person and as a holistic leader rather than just as a business file, helping to foster a deeper sense of intimacy.
4. Be Honest
The best way to win trust as a business consulting professional is by proving you're trustworthy! You might think this one goes without saying, but how you convey your honesty can be one of the most crucial aspects of your strategy.
Maister gives the advice to tell as much truth as you can without harming others. In a business consulting meeting, a great way to practice this is by (tactfully) sharing your personal thoughts as often as makes sense.
This sharing means expressing the good as well as the bad. Don't be afraid to compliment a client if they have a smart idea or excellent proposal, but also, don't be afraid to counter them if they've made unfounded claims.
As long as your compliments are genuine, you can put your client at ease and make them more receptive to constructive feedback in the long-term.
5. Have Confidence in Yourself
In The Speed Of Trust — another strongly recommended strategy book — author Stephen M. R. Covey makes the point that trust is very similar to confidence. As a result, developing confidence in your own abilities is a brilliant way to boost your business consulting strategy and gain the trust of your clients.
Developing trust in yourself depends on four principles: integrity, intent, capabilities, and results.
1. Integrity: This practice requires being honest, both with yourself and others.
2. Intent: This is your ultimate reason for doing something, and should be meaningful ('I want to solve problems and help build the next generation of start-ups') as opposed to financial or self-oriented ('I want to be rich').
3. Capabilities: Hone and own your different skills and have a desire to learn new ones.
4. Results: Does your strategy have a good track record? Find your wins and capitalize on them.