Building trust with your customer

Trust means we can depend on future action

It is common to speak of building trust within a project team.

We debate ways to build trust, how we break trust and to what extent this “trust notion” is important anyway.

I have written about trust building with regard to noticing the implicit promises we make each other, and how very “real” they are to us in terms of consequences even though we don’t know they exist.

I know some cynics who say that trust does not exist… but I also accept that is how a true cynic might see it, and I move on.

So in this post, I want to talk about the trust we build with our customers… something relevant to every technology leader. (Actually, the core reference for my post above had to do, in part, with a marketer’s perspective of software developers.)

Revisiting components of trust

I have introduced a distinction for trust as:

An assessment of sincerity, reliability and competence to hold our promises for long horizons of time

You might use a different distinction, but I offer this one as the basis for the rest of this post. It is a standard distinction produced and taught by The Aji Network, which you know if you follow me is an educational discourse of business professionals with whom I have learned and grown professionally.

Actually, when I say “long horizons of time”, it is more specific to say “as long as needed”. If you trust me with a promise not to tell about a surprise birthday party… I am off the hook for that promise after the event.

So what is our task?

You can't keep any promises you don't make

Given that distinction for trust, we only build trust with our customers when they assess we are:

  1. Sincere – we mean what we say
  2. Reliable – we recurrently do what we say
  3. Competent – we’re not claiming a skill we don’t have

AND… we have to hold our promises [for as long as needed].

The thing is, if we don’t make any promises, we can’t build trust.

Now, I’ve heard some people adopt this as an intentional strategy – if we don’t make promises, they can’t distrust us. Actually, the opposite is true — if we don’t make promises, our customers WILL grow to trust us — to NOT take care of them.

We can’t hide demand by ignoring it exists (or saying “no” to everything), and we can’t build trust by saying “yes” and failing to deliver. So what is left for us to do?

The natural human planning cycle: 90 days

Here are two examples from domains outside software projects:

These books have at least one thing in common – they both refer to the human psychological implications of 90 days as a powerful window for planning.

Things change a lot in our business lives, and in the business lives of our customers. That is one reason we gravitate toward agile, or at least to short-cycle projects. Here we have two examples of other domains that suggest a familiar theme – give yourself space for feedback and time to adapt… and don’t pretend to know everything.

So let me offer this natural human planning cycle as consistent with a powerful move to build trust with our customers. Don’t delay a release unless something drastic has happened. Communicate clearly and confidently about what will be “in” the release, but don’t miss the ship date.

Over time, your capacity to recurrently hit ship dates (reliability), with solid features (competence) as you have said you would (sincerity), you create the opening to change the moods and attitudes of customers who might have great reasons not to trust due to historical patterns.

One strategic purpose for building trust with customers

There are many reasons to build trust with customers, but I will leave that to another post.

Today, I just want to link back to a past article I wrote about the role of project managers to hold customers to their end of the bargain – that they take receipt of our products. Not every team has this problem because they have their customers’ trust.

Some teams don’t have the problem because they have psychologically strong coaches who can force acceptance on their customers regardless of trust. (I haven’t directly observed this, but I leave open the possibility that it might exist.)

For the rest of us, not having your customer’s trust means they may become over-demanding, asking for more because they know they won’t get it all. They may get beaten down and stop asking for your help. Or I don’t know if this is worse, but they may take their budgets and look elsewhere for help.

They are not “wrong” in acting that way… but you can get ahead of them by investing in building their trust. Find promises you CAN make, if you can’t do everything. (Who can?)

…and deliver on those promises, consistently, competently, sincerely and recurrently… for as long as needed.

About ken
Creative insights, passion and technical adrenaline - strategist, agile coach and marketer, providing a good life for wife of 20 years & 2 awesome teenagers!

4 Responses to Building trust with your customer

  1. bfmooz says:

    Since it’s so fresh in my mind (all the way back to my post last night), I like how your three needed attributes for gaining customer trust very much align with the three principles of gaining understanding outlined in Covey’s fifth habit of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

    The real terminology Covey uses is the principles of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos is our credibility or our ethical appeal. Pathos is appealing to the emotional needs of others. Logos is influence by use of reason and logic based on facts and expertise. These very much work in harmony with the ideals of sincerity, reliability, and competence.

    I also think a lot of times people confuse the reluctance to commit to a promise with fearless and sometimes reckless ambition because they do not understand the strategic nature of promises. One train of thought would say that I don’t want to promise what I can’t deliver, but the other side can just as easily be “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Promises are just as much a commitment to ourselves as it is to our customer, and likewise fulfillment of that promise provides us with an equal portion of self confidence and trust in ourselves as it does our customer.

  2. ken says:

    Thanks, Moose. When you mentioned Covey’s quote, I was triggered that its essence goes back to The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, I believe… let me seek rather to be understood, than to understand. Maybe Covey derived it from that… but it’s English after all. There are just so many words and so many ways to combine them.

    I like that you hit on promises to ourselves. That is a great topic for another day, but one question you can ask about commitments we make is whether or not we are really committed. We can outwardly say we are… and we can really mean it, but when it comes to action, our intentions are what drives us.

    My distinction for intentions is promises (or commitments) we make to ourselves… and our intentions (internally) drive our commitments (externally).

    Cool, huh?


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