As we reach the end of the year, many of the salespeople we work with are focused on closing sales and hitting end of year targets. We are regularly asked, what is our #1 sales tip to help meet and exceed sales targets? At this late stage in the year it may feel there isn’t much you can do to magic new sales or prospects out of thin air. However…if you focus on building trust with your customers (whether existing or prospective), you cannot help but reap the benefits – whether in this year, next year or further into the future. It can often be the differentiator that pushes deals over the line.

Trust forms the basis of cooperation, collaboration, and healthy interactions between individuals and groups. It’s dynamic, yet fragile – you can spend a long time building it, only for it to quickly be eroded or even destroyed  with one false move.

Reaching Trusted Advisor status is a worthy aspiration in any consultative customer relationship. But what is it that high performing sellers and account managers do to build trust? How can we take a more systematic and disciplined approach to establishing something as elusive as trust? In this blog, we introduce the fundamentals that underpin trust and that will support your sales approach as you head towards the end of the year.

The Importance of Trust

Trust gets deals done! According to recent research (LinkedIn State of Sales Report, 2020), 88% of purchasers buy from Trusted Advisors. When asked what qualities they value in a salesperson, buyers across the 10 countries surveyed ranked “trustworthy” as the most important factor.

It would seem that salespeople agree with their customer counterparts. More than one-third of sales professionals (35%) ranked trust as the critical factor in closing deals, whilst 23% ranked it second. They ranked it higher than factors such as price, ROI, and strategic counsel in getting deals done.

We’ve all heard the maxim ‘people buy from people’, that customers buy not just your products and services, but you – the person who brings them those solutions. Would a customer openly share their needs, their challenges, their hopes and deepest fears, if they did not trust us? Probably not! If a buyer does not feel trust has been established, it will be extremely difficult to successfully navigate them through the remainder of their Decision Cycle. However skilled the salesperson may be, they may still find it an uphill task to successfully engage the customer. So…

How is Trust created?

According to Maister, Green and Galford (‘The Trusted Advisor’, 2002), trust is created in three main ways:

  1. Credibility: Credibility is your level of expertise, clarity and honesty, as perceived by the customer. That perception can to some extent be manufactured (e.g. through a formal qualification), but really it comes from their experience of you as a person.
  2. Reliability: This is the extent to which the other party believe you are dependable, and that you behave in consistent ways.  This perception tends to be built up over multiple interactions.  You need to work hard to build reliability quickly in a new relationship.
  3. Business Intimacy: The degree to which the customer feels you are emotionally engaged with the issues they face, that you understand their needs and their challenges. Where intimacy exists, others are willing to talk to you about difficult issues.

Whilst it can take time to build trust, it can also be eroded in seconds. Trust is dramatically reduced by Self-Orientation.  This is the extent to which the customer perceives you are putting your own goals, targets and fears ahead of theirs.  High self-orientation can result from taking a short-term, deal-led view, then jumping to solutions and proposal too early. Low self-orientation doesn’t mean you don’t have an agenda, just that where necessary you suspend it, in order to put customer needs first.

Why should we aspire to be Trusted Advisors?

In a “Low Trust” relationship with customers:

  • We are continually asked to justify and reduce price
  • We have to pitch against the competition for new opportunities
  • Our relationship is characterized by Service Level Agreements, penalty clauses, reviews and costly administration
  • Our sphere of influence is limited
  • Calls and mails are not responded to quickly.

In contrast, in a “High Trust” relationship:

  • There is less pressure on price and agreed terms are held
  • New and repeat business comes more easily
  • Our relationship is characterized by a sense of shared goals and beliefs, quality is assumed. Mistakes are forgiven
  • We are introduced to senior personnel and/or multiple contacts in the customer organisation
  • There is a constant flow of communication.

Let’s look at how you can improve your standing across the four trust factors:

How can you build Credibility?

In order to build Credibility, you should:

  • Ensure the customer is aware of your credentials
  • Be realistically passionate about your subject
  • Know all you can about your customer (company and individual stakeholders), their market and challenges. Keep up-to-date!
  • Use their business terminology
  • Be prepared to introduce your customers to each other when mutually beneficial
  • Demonstrate a good understanding of your product/service capabilities by offering options and solutions to solve their problems
  • Work collaboratively, externally and internally; be connected to your team
  • If you don’t know, say so – quickly and directly.

You should not:

  • Show off
  • Jump to solutions: only give advice when you are sure it is being asked for
  • Exaggerate or lie
  • Gossip about competitors
  • Be unprepared (e.g. ask questions about information that is publicly available)
  • Show a lack of enthusiasm (boredom), or too much (exaggeration)
  • Fail to listen
  • Overlook leveraging other resources.

How can you demonstrate Reliability?

In order to demonstrate Reliability, you should:

  • Find opportunities to demonstrate your reliability – meeting agendas, summary notes, sending the customer interesting articles and/or research
  • Let the customer know if you are away, and ensure they know how they will be cared for in your absence
  • Be timely for all meetings and calls
  • Over-deliver where possible
  • Match each customer’s working patterns, terminology and communication preferences. Ask how they prefer to be looked after
  • Be clear where there are challenges and obstacles that you may struggle with, and that could impact the customer.

You should not:

  • Be late
  • Fail to communicate and/or create a contingency plan if you are away
  • Over-promise, glossing over any likely problems, then under-deliver
  • Exaggerate or lie. Be clear where there are challenges and obstacles
  • Have a lack of or poor documentation
  • Have a lack of reliable processes
  • Mismatch with the customer’s desired working patterns.

How can you increase Business Intimacy?

In order to increase Business Intimacy, you should:

  • Flex your communication style to match your customer’s
  • Learn about them beyond their professional life (e.g. outside interests) and use that to create proximity and build rapport
  • Explore commonalities and differences
  • Listen, ask questions and demonstrate you understand
  • Go beyond product needs – demonstrate you really care about the customer’s business
  • Extract compelling ‘so-what’s’ from publicly available information, bringing new insight to the conversation
  • Record/remember what’s been said in the past and refer to it
  • Treat your customers as you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes.

You should not:

  • Go too fast: check if they feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics
  • Have the same types of customer discussion, irrespective of stakeholder role/level
  • Fail to demonstrate care for the customer’s well-being, concerns and experiences
  • Just focus on products and services.

How can you reduce Self-Orientation?

In order to reduce Self-Orientation, you should consider both the micro and macro environment:

  • MICRO: Conversational Skills
    • Put the customer first in any dialogue with them
    • Ask questions and demonstrate that you’ve listened, before adding value
  • MACRO: Align to their processes, timeframes, etc.
    • Act like a trusted advisor; be willing to challenge even if it could make your life more complicated
    • Focus on the customer’s needs, not just your own (timescale, commission, targets etc.)

You should not:

  • Interrupt, finish sentences, listen passively etc.
  • Try to look clever
  • Put forward solutions before understanding their needs, etc.
  • Follow your own benefit agenda: pushing timescales to suit your personal needs, taking a short term deal-led view
  • Succumb to your own needs, fear, desire to win or take control.

Trust and the Customer Decision Cycle

Trust plays a critical role as we help navigate our customers through their buying journey. The earlier you engage in the Customer Decision Cycle, the greater the opportunity to build Trusted Advisor status. Research shows that the win rate for competitive pitches is two-three times higher if you are involved in the customer’s Discovery phase.

In addition, we need to be increasingly agile in the way we interact with our customers to build their trust. According to Gartner, customers are typically more than halfway (57%) through the buying journey before they have the first meaningful contact with a seller. Furthermore, the sales experience is the primary driver (53%) of customer loyalty.

High performing sales organisations typically adopt a blended approach, by:

  • Being truly consultative
  • Achieving Trusted Advisor status
  • Creating value quickly
  • Collaborating with buyers to jointly build a compelling business case
  • Tailoring messages for customer stakeholders and taking control of the overall conversation

We can further differentiate by delivering thought leadership, and sharing value building insights to help develop trust and loyalty. Building and maintaining trust is an ongoing process that requires consistency, authenticity, and a genuine commitment to the well-being of the relationships involved. As we approach the end of the year, ask yourself the following question:

  • What could you be doing more of, less of or differently, to improve your trustworthiness with each of your customers/prospects?

Get in touch if we can support you and/or your team(s) around the topic of this blog.