The Importance of Trust in a Service Provider-Client Relationship

March 14, 2023

by John O. Burdett

Successful business development means building trust with the client (potential and established) every day, in every way.

As we move away from hierarchy and top-down leadership, the ecology of partnership, transparency and a different way to think about what it means to be a team (e.g., remote employment) produces an unprecedented need for collaboration. Trust building, of necessity, moves to centre stage. Meanwhile, best-in-class professional services firms offer an innovative way to think about successful team-to-team and team-to-client relationships.

Think client – think “intimacy,” “lasting relationships” and a “serving spirit.” If “customer,” “buyer,” or some other descriptor is a better fit in your emerging business environment please substitute it whenever you see the term “client.”

To build business with market leaders, a strong brand + a winning value proposition represent the basic commercial platform needed for success. One knocks and the other opens the door. Assuming that they are both in place, the provider-client relationship moves forward based on the provider’s ability to move the client through four incremental levels of trust:

  1. Capability
  2. Connection
  3. Context
  4. Caring

1. Capability

The provider displays the competency and experience needed to deliver on the promise. I trust you because your dress, deportment, location, qualifications, international reach, maturity, marketing material, experience and perceived value (added or created) separates you from the competition. Distinct competitive advantage: a strong brand + a winning value proposition + assumed capability.

For the uninformed, impatient, and/or overworked client, a value proposition that offers little by way of differentiation + assumed capability may well suffice. In the meantime, don’t expect provider-client stickability.

2. Connection

The provider builds a business relationship that draws on the assumption of shared values. I trust you because how you think and act are congruent with the behaviour I give primacy to. Distinct competitive advantage: a strong brand + a winning value proposition + capability + shared values. For the experienced client all of the factors described in Capability play a role in the buy decision.

In addition, however, the client needs to feel that when faced with a problem or unexpected disruption, the provider will act in a way that the client would endorse. Note: it’s strongly to the provider’s advantage if:

  1. Their values are explicit (e.g., website).
  2. Their mode of communication, dialogue and delivery reinforces their values.
  3. The support team, in every interaction with the client, exhibits those values.
  4. The provider’s team takes time out periodically to review, validate and assess their behaviour against those values.

3. Context

The provider develops trust based on either:

  1. Past experience with the client; and/or
  2. The experience of other clients with the provider.

I trust you because there is a strong history of excellence in how you deliver. Referral and endorsement play a key role. Even more important is storytelling. Leaders are storytellers. When competing against the best to serve the best, it’s how you share past success that is the difference that makes a difference. Distinct competitive advantage: a strong brand + a winning value proposition + capability + shared values + earned reputation.

The savvy client will often be prepared to take a risk with a new provider if the conditions of excellence – as identified in levels 1 and 2 + a track record of excellence – are met.

4. Caring

I trust you because I have every reason to believe that you will put my needs ahead of your own. In everything you do and say, it’s clear that you authentically have my best interest at heart. Distinct competitive advantage: a strong brand + a winning value proposition + capability + shared values + earned reputation + a collaborative partnership.

For the masterful client the opportunity for collaboration enables problem solving to move to breakthrough thinking. Beyond that, mutual coaching means that both the provider and the client grow as a result of the relationship.

Incremental Levels of Trust

In a world marked by increased competition, moving through all four levels of trust becomes a non-negotiable priority. Indeed, “caring” becomes such a pivotal business development issue that it’s worth delving deeper into the final step in earning trust (level #4).

It’s important to recognise that you can’t move from one level of trust to the next until you have satisfied the characteristics of trust in the level below. You may have values that the client admires, but if you lack the desired capability those values will carry little weight. Similarly, you may be able to cherry pick those times when you have been successful, but the client you want won’t take capability and/or the provider’s values at face value.

Keep in mind that if you have a “me too” value proposition you are, essentially, fishing without bait. Trust, as might be expected, still enters the picture – right alongside hope and the tenacity to collect a lot of “no’s.”

We have to earn trust, build it and deliberately create an environment where trust flourishes. This isn’t a sometime skill. Successful business development means building trust with the client (potential and established) every day, in every way. In moving through the four levels of trust we draw out our point of difference, consolidate our capability, validate our values, exploit our experience and open the opportunity to be coached by our client.

Disruption breeds distrust. Uncertainty undermines understanding. Agility draws on authenticity. Remote employment resets resilience. Building trust, thus, becomes central, not just in moving the provider-client relationship to higher ground but in everything those who lead seek to influence. You must have a winning value proposition. Without it you are in the wrong business. But is a winning value proposition, on its own, enough? Developing business involves a degree of analysis and logic, but the client’s final decision is, ultimately, based on emotion. And what could be more emotional than TRUST?

This article is an extract from “Competing to Win: Beyond a Better Value Proposition“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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