Trust series 2 of 5: Is trust a prerequisite for doing ground breaking work with clients?


  • Do you really need to have high trust relationships with all your customers? Is that even feasible?
  • When is a high trust relationship a prerequisite to doing brilliant work?
  • Are too many of your business relationships superficial and unable to support the depth of partnership required for some types of work? How do you fix that without bearing your soul and being inappropriate?

Do you really need to have high trust relationships with all your customers and is that even feasible?

You only need high trust relationships for certain types of work which I’ll say more about shortly. Given that most advisers have limited resources to invest in deepening relationships, they need to make those investments wisely. One lens to look through to inform that investment decision is the Kraljic Matrix[1]  In summary, it says that the way a purchaser views your service is based on two factors:

  1. How many other suppliers can offer what you do? The fewer the number of suppliers the greater your power.
  2. How much they will be spending on this service? The more they are spending, the more significance you have to them.

See the visual for more detail:

So let’s say you are supplying a basic range of stationery items (bottom left on the Kraljic Matrix); you are probably viewed as a transactional supplier. In that situation it would be unwise to burn up your limited and precious time in building a high trust relationship. Yes, get the basics right:

  • Deliver what you commit to and do it on time.
  • Make sure there are no unpleasant surprises.
  • Be proactive in bringing ideas and insights where it is easy for you to do so.
  • Be easy to do business with.

Do this consistently over time and you may well be able to either sell a wider range of products and services or even start to migrate towards the top right of the matrix.

You need to know what type of relationship you are in

If your service is regarded as being a strategic item by the client then you can expect them to be seeking a partnership based relationship. That will be characterised by a high degree of collaboration and a strong alignment of interests. This may even be enshrined in a contract or a legally binding agreement. Acting unilaterally and with short-term objectives can be catastrophic for this type of relationship. For example I was talking to the CEO of a SME that was in this fortunate position with a FTSE 100 company – they were a niche supplier of a highly sophisticated and difficult to replicate product. Unfortunately they didn’t fully appreciate the nature of the partnership relationship they were in; moreover the purchaser hadn’t been clear in their contracting around the relationship. When the SME hit some short-term financial pressures they acted decisively by unilaterally increasing prices by 18% (because they could) and the FTSE 100 Company had no other option (in the short term) than to pay. That unilateral act signalled the end of the partnership and ultimately the relationship. It took nearly twelve months to execute, but the FTSE 100 Company invested a lot of energy in finding and nurturing an alternative supplier. When they were ready they terminated the relationship with the SME.

When is high trust a prerequisite to doing brilliant work?

There are certain types of work where a high degree of trust is essential to being able to work effectively. Typically this involves problems or challenges that a client is experiencing where they know they need a high level of expertise in the people they work with to fix them. That’s not unusual, however when the problems evoke a degree of shame or embarrassment in the people that want them fixed, then a high degree of trust is absolutely essential. In these situations the ability of the adviser or consultant to build high trust relationships is essential – both to winning the work and being able to deliver what’s needed.

For example a leadership team has made a public statement about their strategic intent but they are failing to deliver. They’ve pulled all the usual organisational levers but it’s still not working. They are starting to feel desperate and vulnerable and recognise they need help, but asking for help in an appropriate way could be tricky. Given all the sensitivities it is easy to see why the consultant needs to be highly skilled in navigating the emotional dynamics of the situation. If they are too expert and seem to display an attitude that the problems are easy to fix they will likely alienate the client. But on the other hand, if they don’t display a level of confidence in their ability to help the client, the client won’t trust them. A delicate balancing act!

Assuming the adviser or consultant has the capability to do the work, the capacity to build a high trust relationship starts to become critical. How do you do this and quickly?

Here are some practical approaches[2] based on a trust equation[3] where:

To increase intimacy:
  • Name the proverbial elephant in the room. This lets people know they can count on you to speak the truth but the challenge is to do it respectfully and appropriately.
  • Listen with empathy. Clients need to know you are skilled at handling the emotional dynamics of the situation.
  • Be appropriately affirming of your client. Easier said than done and if it isn’t sincere it is sure to backfire.
  • Be yourself and appropriately disclose your feelings about different issues. You are asking your client to be open and vulnerable and it helps if you can reciprocate.
To keep your self-orientation in check:
  • Be generous and give ideas away.
  • Build a shared agenda – do it with your client not to your client.
  • Be wary of solving problems prematurely, even if it makes you feel better. Linked to this is the next point…
  • Consciously open up conversations and hold the space for your client to explore an issue, even if you think you know the solution to the issue you are exploring.
  • Trust your instinct and be willing to ask questions that feel out of scope or beyond the immediate issue. Most complex problems have multiple layers and numerous connections across an organisational system. Exploring those can be extremely valuable but you need to be secure enough to go with the flow of the conversation where ever it may lead, and that may be outside of your area of expertise.
  • Be completely present for your client and be wary of anything going on in your world that could distract you and lead your client to feel you are preoccupied. Linked to this is the next point…
  • Practice thinking out loud so you free yourself from the pressure to present perfectly polished and articulated views and you collectively shape an issue. This requires a high degree of self-assurance.

What is hopefully becoming clear is that the process of being capable of having these kinds of trusted relationships is a deep development journey and it’s not for everyone. Because it’s not an easy capability to develop it’s also not an easy capability to replicate. This can lead it to being truly distinguishing which can be highly valuable commercially.

A few years back I did an MSc Change Agent Skills & Strategies and one of the essays I wrote explored this topic in a lot more depth than I’ve been able to do here. I analysed a client relationship where we did a high risk and complex piece of work which turned out to have a huge commercial impact. I considered the role that trust played in making that possible. If you’d like to have a read, click here to download it.

1. Need some tools to apply these concepts and skills? Click here
2. Need people in your organisation to be better at building trusted relationships? Click here for a short module that you can deliver which will achieve this.

Previous articles in the trust series

Trust series 1 of 5: What can Valentine’s Day teach us about deepening business relationships?

  1. Should you move from a Transactional Relationship to a Shared Risk Partnership? The Partnering Portal
  2. Do You Really Want Relationships? by David Maister 2005

[1] Source: “Purchasing Must Become Supply Management” by Peter Kraljic, Harvard Business Review, September 1983

[2] Based on the work of Green C H & Howe A P (2012:159-161) ‘The trusted adviser field book: A comprehensive toolkit for leading with trust.’  John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ. I have focused on ‘intimacy’ and ‘self-orientation’ as these are the most challenging to grow (in the appropriate direction!)

[3] Source: Maister D, Green C, Galford R (2000) ‘The trusted adviser.’ Touchstone, New York