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Sales reps are always looking for ways to close bigger and better deals, while developing long-lasting sales relationships with clients and prospects.

While there isn’t a single silver bullet to improve sales success, there is one often overlooked ingredient that can dramatically improve deal size: trust.

Charles H. Green, co-author of The Trusted Advisor and CEO at Trusted Advisor Associates is a leading authority on trust in Sales. We were lucky enough to be able to speak with Charles and get his insights into why trust is so essential, how it can improve sales, and what reps can do to become trusted advisors.

Why is trust building so important in the sales relationship?

The presence or absence of trust affects a lot of factors in the sales relationship. For starters, as Steven MR Covey pointed out, there is speed and cost. Where there is trust, things – including sales – go faster and cost less. Where trust is absent, things go more slowly and cost more.  

And it’s possible to be very specific about that. Repeat business goes up with trust; and that drives down cost of sales. Sharing of confidences goes faster with trust, and that accelerates sales.  Clients with trust are more willing to accept statements by the seller, thus reducing the need for greater detail and time. 

Besides cost and speed, the presence of trust increases collaboration, which in turn increases creativity and innovation in the sales conversation. Trust relationships are less reliant on price, which means less price competition. Trust-based sales relationships are more likely to lead to referrals out to others, and cross-selling internally. 

And that’s just a starter kit. Trust does a lot for sales. 

If it's so important, why don't more sales teams actively manage trust?

In a word – actually, two words – fear and greed. Trust requires that each party takes some risks, and fearful parties don’t take risks. As a result, they also don’t get trust.

As to greed, salespeople are often too afraid to focus on the long run, fearing that if they don’t “close” a sale right now, or grab the bird in the hand, they’ll lose. They also believe that their jobs are measured by short-term performance, and that pursuing trust takes too long; they are wrong about this last point, but it continues to be a widespread belief. 

What are the obstacles to trust creation? Why is it so hard to achieve?

The obstacles are based on the reasons above – fear and greed. Most salespeople are fearful that if they don’t control all aspects of the sale, somehow the sale will go bad. As a result, they try to over-control their clients and customers. They do this by forcing short-term decisions, withholding information, trying to bargain with their customers in a zero-sum manner, and being too focused on achieving their own goals.

The result is paradoxical, but obvious if you think about it: if we encounter a salesperson who is all about him or herself, focused on him or herself, tries to maneuver discussions and data and conclusions to the short-term benefit of him or herself – then we as the buyer do not want to deal with such people. 

Your book talks about earning the right to give advice. Isn't a salesperson's advice inherently suspect because of the sales agenda?

At the very outset, a salesperson is inherently suspect – but only in the same sense that meeting a stranger for the first time makes that stranger suspect. That supposition can be overcome very quickly, if the salesperson understands what kinds of signals to send. 

You must quickly indicate that you have your client’s agenda and best interests at heart; that you are completely willing to be completely transparent and truth-telling, including about the comparative competitive benefits of the product that you’re selling.  And that you are willing to take the first risk, by offering hypotheses, doing advance work on spec, offering up free samples, or other ways to add value from the start.  

It doesn’t have to take long at all to be repositioned as un-suspect. 

Do you have to like a prospect to earn their trust?

Fortunately, no.  You probably have to not hate them, but you don’t have to like them. All you have to do is treat them fairly and with respect. All the criteria above – being truthful, focusing on the long term, working for the other party’s agenda – have nothing to do with liking someone. They all have to do with respectfully serving the Other.  

Your Trust Equation includes credibility and reliability -- which are unsurprising. But it also includes intimacy and self-orientation. Can you explain these?

Yes. These are versions of the “soft” skills, though it turns out they are actually more powerful.  And I mean that with statistical precision. The strongest of the four factors, when analyzed in a regression equation, is the Intimacy factor.

Intimacy is defined as the degree of comfort that the other person has with sharing information with you. Will they offer up personal information? Risky information? Do they trust you to have empathy and understanding for their point of view?  

Self-orientation is the degree to which your attention and consciousness are focused on yourselves, as opposed to others.  “Selfishness” is one subset of self-orientation, but only one. The more common in business is various forms of self-obsession, neurotic self-awareness, turning every event into worries about what it means for oneself. By contrast, an other-oriented person is self-confident enough that they can turn their attention to others. 

The Trust Process outlined in your book is a five-step process: Engage, Listen, Frame, Envision and Commit.  Can you explain Framing and why it's so important?

First, the most important step in the ELFEC process is inarguably Listening. It is almost always the one that goes wrong.  When trust conversations go wrong, going back and re-executing Listening will fix more than half the problems. 

Framing is of course important too. Done right, it takes the least time of all. Framing is another word for “problem statement.” The key attributes of framing done well is that both parties agree to it, and that it is clearly stated enough to suggest a path forward. 

For example, “My client is a jerk” is not a good problem statement, because your client is unlikely to agree to it. And “We disagree,” while potentially productive, is still a little too imprecise to suggest a clear path forward. 

If you could suggest doing only three things to accelerate trust-building in a sales relationship, what would they be?

  1. Make sure to do listening in the way that we talk about it in the Trusted Advisor program: not just listening for data, but listening as a sign of respect – listening that indicates to the other party that we have truly understood not just their words, but the intention and perspective behind them. 
  2. Take a risk. Risk-taking kicks off the cycle of trust. Go out on a limb on a hypothesis, make an observation about your client’s emotional state (or your own), ask what might be a ‘dumb’ question, and when you don’t know something, say so.
  3. Offer some value up front. Look at the wisdom behind content marketing. Look at how ice cream stores use sample selling.  Figure out something that is useful and educational to the client, and serve it up. 

Is honesty always the best policy?

There are so few exceptions that it’s really not helpful to list them.  Maybe if you think my wife is ugly, you don’t need to tell me out loud.  But beyond that, honesty – if combined with care and sensitivity – is almost always the best policy. Undoubtedly, the absence of honesty is a far greater problem than the over-presence of it. 

If trust is broken, is there ever a way to rebuild it? 

Yes – in fact, if done right, trust regained is stronger than trust gained in the first place. The right way to do it includes two steps:

  1. Fully acknowledging what happened, 
  2. Slightly over-compensating for the responsibility of what happened. (Not heavily over-compensating, because that leads to exaggeration; but absolutely not under-compensating, because that leads to the Watergate syndrome – an attempt to cover up).

Our thanks to Charles for taking the time to answer our questions, and for his illuminating answers. For more of his thoughts on the role of trust in the sales relationship, connect with Charles on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @CharlesHGreen.

Emotional framing is a highly under-used technique for building trust in the sales relationship. For more tips on emotional framing and building trust, take a look at our SlideShare where we reveal the winning sales apprach that hardly any reps use.