By Stuart Maister, Joint MD
We could have spent the day discussing the issue of the currency of trust in business. Introhive and Mutual Value hosted 20 senior professionals over breakfast in a beautiful room in London, and the energy and ideas which flowed demonstrated how central this issue is to businesses right now.
The agenda for our discussion was this: of course trust is important in B2B relationships. It always has been. But classically this is trust in an individual, with the relationship built up between a partner or account leader and his or her client.
Our question was about how firms can design trusted relationships as a central part of their whole go-to-market strategy. In fact, whether this should become the focus, with deal winning, revenues and margins flowing from that position. This is about conscious trust, and our thesis was that our recent collective experience has brought this centre stage.
Why? Because of two factors:
- Dramatic change shows you need to decide who you want in the room when you need to urgently respond. Covid turned all those ‘the world is changing’ statements into sharp reality.
- Interdependence is the unspoken dimension to B2B relationships. Suppliers depend on clients for successful outcomes and vice versa. The last 18 months have dramatically illustrated that, and so you want to trust the organisation on which you depend.
PwC certainly believe this, having invested $300m into their new Trust Leadership Institute and what they call the new ‘trust paradigm’. Julian Gray, Senior Partner in the UK, kicked off our discussion with the importance of trust in the brand. The reputation of the whole firm sits behind him when he turns up. He is the priority partner for 85 accounts but he quoted one recent meeting where the client said he wanted a relationship with PwC, not just Julian.
Julian felt the key was active listening – which is perhaps the toughest skill for professionals who turn up believing their role is to provide the answers rather than the questions. But he meant by the firm as well as the individual. He said the aim should be to become trusted partners, not trusted advisors, and was kind enough to quote my article on the subject.
Ryan O’Sullivan of Introhive researched business relationship quality for his doctorate. When his respondents were asked who they remembered for their client relationship, and why, the number one reason they named someone was because they trusted them.
He quoted one:
“If you have trust, nothing else matters. If you don’t have trust, nothing else matters.”
Kevin Vaughan-Smith of Mutual Value stressed the importance of shifting the mindset of our people, so that when they turn up to clients they see their roles as building trust, not closing the deal. This shift becomes the basis of firm-wide behaviour.
Barriers and drivers of trust
Those in the room were tasked with identifying the barriers and drivers of trust that they see in their organisations. That question could have taken up a day’s workshop and been a profitable exercise. They had 20 minutes.
As you might expect, the barriers were behavioural and organisational.
The perception of self-interest on the part of the vendor came up as a key barrier. Once it is perceived then it creates a resistance on the side of the client who questions the advice on offer. However, organisational pressure to ‘increase share of wallet’ and ‘close the deal’ makes it difficult for front line teams not to act in a self-interested way. Tackling this intent is a critical role of leadership.
A related factor that drives great or poor behaviour is the reward and incentive structure. Typically, of course this focuses on driving sales and individual performance, but one participant suggested the key question was whether the system rewards ‘we’ or ‘me’. This creates a culture and defines achievement, and of course that manifests itself in the way people work with their clients.
And, as one guest said, that determines if the firm really lives its values.
An interesting and highly strategic insight was the suggestion that effective time management was a key factor in trust. Deciding where you spend your time and with whom will be the foundation for how effective you are and the reputation you build.
This led directly to the key suggestion about what are the drivers of trust: consistency in behaviours and reliability of delivery. As one person put it simply:
“ You do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it.”
The idea of consistency was unpicked. Consistently what? For example, do you consistently bring me new ideas, challenge my thinking, show me what others are doing, innovate? Or do you simply consistently respond to my requests? The point was made that the answer to this question will determine the quality of our relationship.
And it’s not enough to do well – you must be seen to do so. Visibility was suggested as a key component of building trust, and we would say that recognition and storytelling feeds the energy of trusted relationships.
This discussion was not a warm fluffy chat about a nice to have, but about a hard-edged commercial conversation about a must have. So, how do you measure this?
Of course, the desired outcomes are usually growth, revenues and profits. So, our conversation centred on the lead measures that tell you you’re heading for healthy lag measures like these.
Firstly, customer satisfaction. However you score this, higher levels of trust must translate into your customers’ happiness.
Secondly, the number of service lines into the customer. This derives from a key measure of who is in the room when meetings take place? How wide or narrow are the connections between the firms? Introhive’s tools track this and Ryan made the point that you can map the meeting patterns of successful relationships and compare them to others. Typically, stronger relationships will have a more complex web of connectivity.
Thirdly, the pattern of engagement. One participant talked about the difference between winning and delivering projects. Senior people turn up until the project is landed, then Introhive’s data shows there is often a gap until it gets going, when more junior staff have most of the contact. I call this the focus on the wedding and not the marriage – but it is in the long term relationship that trust is built.
In our experience the big challenge in most organisations is to turn warm words into real behaviours. Part of that is deciding what those behaviours should be, and ensuring people have the right skills to demonstrate them; and part of it is measuring that this is happening so that you can consciously design and drive an effective trust strategy.
After the session Ryan, Kevin and I recorded a short video reflecting on these takeaways. You can view this below.
Does this resonate? If so, let’s have an open discussion about what this might mean for your business and what difference it would make for everyone to build trusted relationships with your clients.