Selling occurs in the dialogue, person to person. The interaction may be face-to-face or over the phone, but a successful outcome is based on trust between seller and buyer.
Therefore, salespeople must be at their very best, bringing value to the table and to their customers. If they just push products, they sacrifice goodwill and trust. Their sales success is likely to be short-lived.
Unfortunately, many customers have grown distrustful of many sales professionals as a result of unethical business practices across industries.
How To Build Trust With Your Customers
Building and maintaining trust across the full lifespan of a customer relationship takes attention and focus in the following areas:
Prepare With The Customer In Mind
Most of the preparation time should consist of understanding the customer’s issues and challenges, not product positioning. You should begin and end with your customer in mind. Building trust means preparing for your meeting by thinking about what the customer might want to get out of the time together. Asking yourself this question early will create more value in the meeting.
Preparation is easy to ignore because it doesn’t feel like a profit-producing activity. In truth, preparation does drive profitability because it creates the foundation for a successful sales conversation. To prepare, you should:
- Develop a clear and client-focused objective that identifies what you want the customer to commit to by the end of the meeting
- Know where you are in the sales process and the verifiable outcomes you want to achieve
- Identify which other sales professionals you want to be involved in the meeting and in what capacity
- Determine what insights will be relevant and enlightening
Ask Great Questions, Not Bad Ones
Questions can elevate the relationship just as powerfully as they can undermine it. For example, a bad question is one that can be answered with a little homework. Asking questions about something you should already know destroys credibility and signals to the customer that they aren’t worth the effort in preparation. If the customer believes they are not worth your effort now, they will not trust you to act in their best interests later.
Instead, do some homework on an industry issue facing your client. Ask how those issues might be impacting them. That question demonstrates an interest in their business and begins to build credibility and trust. Asking about risks and rewards, strategic drivers, and emerging initiatives are all great question topics to show that you are thinking about the customer’s business as a whole — not just the immediate opportunity for you to make a sale.
Consider using a funnel approach in which the first questions are broad, then become deep. Doing so gives you both the big picture and the detail needed to address nuanced needs. These questions not only serve your ability to meet customer needs, but they also serve the customer directly. In the early stages, customers often do not have a detailed view of what they are trying to achieve. With numerous stakeholders, there can be as many interpretations as decision-makers. Questions help level the conversation for everyone.
Remember, sometimes the best questions do more to demonstrate your credibility and trustworthiness than positioning a great solution.
Create Value Proactively, Not Reactively
Even if you respond to customer needs in a timely and well-rounded fashion, you could very well be in what we refer to as the “Respond” mode. Yes, you met the customer’s stated needs, but how well are you getting ahead of the curve? The best-trusted advisors are always looking for ways to add value proactively — even if it doesn’t mean an immediate sale. They know that trust and value built over time will lead to a stronger relationship. There is a balance, of course. But the more you do to bring insight and value to your customer before they ask for it, the more you will earn their trust and demonstrate that you are someone who can help solve their business issues as a partner.
Every time you let an opportunity to be proactive pass, you invite a competitor in the door. Being proactive is no longer “above and beyond,” it is required because the buyer’s journey is becoming increasingly complex. You need to be proactive to trace this twisting path. Customers today have a heightened sensitivity to risk. They execute the buying process with less time and fewer resources. These factors send the journey into different directions, and being proactive keeps you moving in lockstep with the customer.
Be Honest About What You Can and Can’t Do
Just because you are asked to bid on a piece of business doesn’t mean you have to swing at the pitch. Being honest about your capabilities and core competency is important. That doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your capabilities — but be careful and honest. The fastest way to destroy trust is to take on a piece of business on which you know you cannot deliver. Your personal brand and reputation are on the line when you say you and your team can deliver.
Reputations take a lifetime to build but can be broken in minutes. Offering work that is beyond your capabilities is dangerous for two reasons. First, doing so discredits your standing within the context of that opportunity. Second, dishonesty will also discredit your capabilities, even within the areas where you truly can bring effectiveness and value. By pursuing a piece of business that is outside your strike zone, you risk appearing incompetent even within the context of opportunities you can tackle.
Make Your Value Explicit, Not Implicit
You know that your solution is the right fit. You know you add value. But unless you make it explicitly clear how each part of your solution fits exactly to your customer’s needs, you are asking your customer to connect the dots. Customers expect a partner to clearly link the solution to needs and in the right order. Leave out the extraneous information. Make it easy to understand how you are addressing the customer’s needs. The customer needs to trust that everything that they might pay for has specific value to them. Customers need to trust that you diligently assessed everything needed in a way that drives value for them. Making your value explicit means committing to a few principles:
- Make Observations Specific without Reliance on Jargon: Jargon and technical language often appear as an attempt to distract or overwhelm the listener. Clear, direct communication in the accessible language is effective because it is honest and free of pretention
- Share Information Often and Early: Sales professionals should not hesitate to become an open book. For many customers, the fact that the sales professional is willing to share information is more important than the content of the information
- Contextualize Insights around the Customer’s Specific Challenges: Insights are of little value unless they connect to customer challenges. Therefore, sales professionals should use the “framing effect” to make insights matter within the customer’s nuanced world.
Always Maintain A Collaborative Tone, Even When You Don’t See Eye-to-Eye
A sales professional’s ability to establish and maintain an environment of openness, collaboration, and mutual respect are central to navigating the customer dialogue effectively. The seller must continually build credibility and earn the right to the customer’s time and attention in the dialogue. So, how do they do that?
It is a combination of things that we do — and, frankly, things we don’t do — that helps us to manage the emotional tone of the meeting. The ability to manage the emotional tone of the dialogue begins with self-awareness. That’s why, at Richardson, we have the saying that “feedback is a gift.” Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own emotions and the impact that they have on your decisions and actions. We must have self-awareness around the impact of our actions on the customer — how we phrase a question or statement can elicit a more positive or negative emotional response from the customer.
We have to be able to anticipate, look for, and accurately read the customer’s emotions so that we can be sensitive to the potential emotional response in preparing for the dialogue and in navigating the dialogue in the moment. We must remember that while we are reading the customer’s emotions, they are also reading us and making assumptions about our intent. Any behaviour that evokes a feeling within the customer that we are being self-serving and trying to control, manipulate, or push our viewpoint on the customer will immediately trigger a negative emotional reaction from the customer. Sometimes, they let this visible show, and other times, they try to mask their true feelings. We’re at a disadvantage because our role is to “sell,” and the customer knows it. From a self-awareness standpoint, we have to be ultra-sensitive to this dynamic. Customers are very savvy about being “sold to” and have little tolerance for it today. Our behaviours have to clearly show our openness and collaboration, without necessarily agreeing with the customer.