Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Building trust through disagreement and disappointment
Bonding, developing rapport, following through on promises, asking questions, listening, thinking and acting as a business partner – yes, they are all major ingredients of building a trusting relationship, most certainly. Trust is comprised of sincerity (authenticity & openness), credibility (logical & consistent), reliability (truthful & consistent), and transparency (clarity & openness). But why do we so often translate these elements just to practices like keeping promises and delivering what’s agreed upon? This is only one side of the coin and I’m about to present you a different one.
We all know that people tend to buy from someone they like. We also know people buy from someone they believe understands their business, their circumstances, and their problems independent of their own sales agenda. What you might not realize is that people return to buy more from someone who has the courage and the skills to do what most of us dread – what many of us have learned to label as disrespectful and that is to openly disagree, to provoke in order to awaken, and possibly to disappoint by selling ‘no’ or selling by something else than was originally requested. I’ll give you two examples.
1. Not every customer is meant to be your customer.
I once invested in a company who quickly turned out to see me as a mere on-demand supplier of coaching and workshops, not as a partner. They expected ready-made, instantly available coaching programs and workshops like you buy a do-it-yourself kit for whatever job you need done around the house. This is not how I operate. First, I wish to know the team or individual employee I’ll be working with - if I think I should work with them at all - and second, I appreciate time to reflect on a request, on the organization and on how I can best serve its needs. Yes, I do have things on shelves, of course. I successfully recycle what has worked in the past. But I do not go in blind with a good set of eyes. I ask questions, I observe, I process, I design, and I discuss, redefine, retune, and redesign – or I don’t design at all. All this happens before I start a project and most of it is complimentary and doesn’t take long. After having seen me succeed with a few coaching projects and workshops in their company, my contact person expected me to jump into situations and requests. I was their supplier of quick solutions, I had proven myself to be quick, nimble, knowledgeable etc. However, to be true to my beliefs and method and to stay in a trusting relationship, I had to deliver ‘no’. I will not be pressured into quick delivery. Not for the sake of not wanting to be pressured but for the reasons already mentioned. After quite a few persuasion attempts and of course conversations in which I learned more about the organization’s needs and wants, I decided we were not a good match. My contact was more than surprised and disappointed. I was kindly reminded that I was taking an unusual stance by declining to be their partner for Learning & Development – it was a big company with many employees. Fast forward: A few months later this company recommended me (for being so trustworthy) to another business who became a regular client, and they themselves hired me a year after my turn-down. I was hired for a specific project under conditions we could both believe in and work with and the trust I enjoyed was unshakable.
As Vanessa Merit Nornberg of the wholesale body and custom jewelry company Metal Mafia wrote on inc.com this past Friday: Rather than attempt to be everything to everyone, you can and should focus on growing your business with the right customers, for example companies who can get real value from your products or services, and who recognize that the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. The right customers are willing to tell you when you have done something well, but also when you could do something better. So they know they can trust you.
2. The truth must be told. I will do it with courage, candor, and consideration - but the truth will be told.
A manufacturing company active in the field of engineering and construction of steel structures such as for oil platforms received a recommendation from one of my customers to contact me for the communication training they were contemplating for about 100 of their factory personnel. I was asked for a first meeting where I inquired about who else they might be talking with. The only other company they were talking to turned out to be a well-known coaching & training consultancy business, established, successful, and published. I was surprised, honored, and yes, somewhat nervous. I asked my questions, probed deeper, presented my beliefs, ideas, and approach and wrote a proposal. To my surprise I was chosen to deliver and so I did, but not after asking what made them choose me. Their answer was clear: the quality of the questions I asked, the care with which I had written the proposal, the content that I presented and the candor I had shown during the conversation. Half way through the intakes and some of the training sessions with the 10 groups that I had to work with a concerning theme became apparent: A coercive leadership style from top management. After some careful consideration I insisted on a conversation with the founder and CEO of the company and collected all the courage and creativity I could. I was very aware of the fact that I was to risk a customer that I was proud to call my customer after having ‘beaten’ my much larger and more established competitor. I was equally well aware of the fact that employees could have several reasons to portray only part of the truth or to portray a non-truth. So here I was, sitting across the table from the CEO. I assessed whether he was aware of his style (yes), whether he agreed to my definition of that style (yes), whether it was a conscious choice to use this style (yes), whether he was aware of the positive and negative consequences of his style – the answer unfortunately being ‘yes’ again. And the guy really seemed to mean it.
I explained how I could not continue my training sessions since they were not only aiming to increase staff’s communication effectiveness but also to increase their critical thinking and their creativity and independence which had all been worded in the proposal and which would not be supported by, let alone used by, leaders with the described leadership style. We had a discussion and weren’t sure how to proceed – or I should say: he wasn’t. I respectfully told the CEO what I saw happening, what it meant to me in my role there, what I feared was going on in his company, and how leadership style was involved and had to change. Of course this was a non-topic so I immediately choose to withdraw from the project. He was stunned, tried to joke himself out of it and was pretty creative and persistent in trying to convince me to stay on the job. I did not and thanked him for the opportunity to learn, for the trust he had placed in me, and relayed that I was sorry we could no longer collaborate. I negotiated a closing session with the group I hadn’t finished yet and that was the end of it.
So how is any of this related to trust? Staff had to be able to trust me to do the right thing. This whole company had to be able to trust me in deciding whether our values and practices were aligned and ready to help reach the stated objectives, which they were not. I walked away knowing that I could not trust the CEO nor many of his leaders in a way I wished I could, and knowing that, he could not trust me to do what he wanted me to do. And without trust, no collaboration, no project, no outcomes.
A last brief example: a machine operator with many psychologically related complaints and sick days whom I was coaching was totally surprised, if not to say shocked, when I told him during his second coaching session that I was afraid he was not willing to let go of his self-induced problems and of the image of ‘problem-child’ because the benefits of getting attention, being let off the hook, and of ducking responsibilities were too big. Belief me, the guy wasn’t very happy with me in that stage of his coaching project, but trust was built.
So, to build and demonstrate trust you:
- Show you are there and really present
- Show you care and listen
- Show you are committed and determined, also regarding values
- Show you have courage and provide relevant feedback
- Show your limitations, doubts and mistakes
- Show you are an expert even if it implies unraveling something dark, denied, and difficult
In a trusting relationship you might have to disagree with your client. In a trusting relationship you might have to shock your client. In a trusting relationship you might have to disappoint your client by not-delivering. In a trusting relationship you might have to reconsider a promise you made.