Why trust is the indispensable basis of a good customer relationship. How to build trust. And why talk is silver and listening is golden.
Shortly before the agreed start of our meeting, he quickly disappeared into the office next door. When he came back, the first official fifteen minutes of our meeting were already over. He apologized, muttered something about "just smoothed out another topic". Then he dropped into the chair next to me. Obviously with his thoughts still on another project. We had planned so much for our second meeting: My customer wanted me to give him a compact introduction about the concept of the agile organization in order to then discuss it with his management. We had agreed on a dense, challenging agenda, which we wanted to work through quickly. And now we had to seamlessly tackle the first two points to somehow recover the lost time? Sheer impossible! Instead of manoeuvring my customer from one stressful situation to the next, using terms such as Scrum, Daily, Backlog or User Story, I first had to let him tell his story. About his new team, which he had just taken over and was unsure about on how to address this new task. About his new boss, with whom he still had to become comfortable. And the video conference with a customer who wanted to talk about the pitfalls of the DSGVO immediately after our meeting.
Empathiy is also expertise
None of this had anything to do with our actual agenda - and yet, these ten minutes were the indispensable starting point for a highly productive exchange. Why? Because I addressed the needs of my customer. Because I got involved with his thoughts and his pace, asked him only a few times at most and picked him up in his flow instead of immediately pushing him into the actual topic. Until he was ready for our agreed topics. Indeed, we were then able to go through them much faster than expected. Good professional preparation is sometimes a hygiene factor, which the customer takes for granted. However, the real difference is the atmosphere of trust.
Trust means efficiency
Why do I talk so much about this experience with my client? Because it demonstrates that often the topic or the task should not be the focus of our consultation, but the person behind the assignment. That alleged small talk or active listening are not inefficient time wasters, but the basis for a highly productive cooperation. Because they strengthen the trust between consultants and clients. And because this trust is not just a negligible aspect of client work, but rather the decisive factor and indispensable prerequisite for an efficient, rapidly functioning customer relationship.
As colleagues, we talk to our customers at eye level right from the start. We can and should also address unpleasant issues. Instead of simply implementing feedback, we bring in our own perspectives and discuss the best possible approaches with the customer.
This is a context that does not automatically arise, even for in-house consultants. On the one hand, because we send newly assembled teams to a new customer every three to six months on average. On the other hand, because trust does not automatically appear by just working with our clients in the same company for years. Even though our clients are colleagues at the same time: Every one of us has to earn this trust again and again.
Hence, a relationship that is characterized by empathy, logic and authenticity - such as Frances Fei, Professor at Harvard Business School, defines trusting relationships. But also, through an environment of inspiration, humility and feedback – this is how we at CSP have defined trust as a cornerstone of our values. In short: it is about creating a surrounding in which people have the courage to contribute their ideas and express their opinions openly. And to inspire and support each other with feedback. Which by the way, also means putting oneself aside when it is necessary - without being afraid of falling short.
Trust pays off
A look at the figures proves, that it pays off in the long term to cultivate such values: For example, US neuro-economist Paul Zak has found a direct connection between trust and long-term economic growth: Employees in so-called "high trust companies" report 74 percent less stress. They are 106 percent more energetic, have 50 percent higher productivity, 13 percent fewer sick days, 76 percent more commitment, 29 percent higher life satisfaction and 40 percent fewer burnouts. Companies such as Google have already recognised this for themselves, anchored the subject of trust into their values and developed programmes to create a trusting team atmosphere.
Credibility instead of self-orientation
What this in turn explicitly means for our understanding regarding customer loyalty, is summarized in the concept of the "Trusted Advisor" by David H. Maister: It is assumed that building a customer relationship is not fundamentally different from other relationships we build with other people. He summarizes the core elements for a good and trusting customer relationship in one formula. On the one hand, it consists of a sum of credibility - I can trust the words of my counterpart - plus reliability - I can trust the person and his actions - plus intimacy - I feel comfortable discussing issues with the person. The whole sum is then divided by the so-called self-orientation - the assumption that my counterpart genuinely cares. Conversely, this means that the higher this value of self-orientation is, the stronger the interest of one's own needs and the weaker the sense of the other's needs, resulting in a lower level of trust.
But what does this mean in practice? What is my role as a consultant? How do I manage myself and the customer in the relationship? How do I deal with the conflicting tension between functional expertise, consulting neutrality, efficient process, as well as effective project management and customer loyalty, in which I constantly find myself as a consultant? And how do I manage to develop and maintain the fragile good of trust in all this - as an indispensable foundation for fruitful cooperation?
Question as a key to the customer
The focus lies on the ability to create a common foundation quickly, which allows to engage in a constructive discussion about critical issues and to be involved as a consultant during the essential points. This takes time, which we have to take for the client. After all, the key is not just expertise and industry know-how, but also the ability to listen and to put oneself in the customer's shoes. To ask the right questions, to develop and use empathy will thus become a key to the world of the customer. An ability that we train together at CSP, through platforms and exchange on peer-level.
"I can always call them."
These methods have already helped me in many customer relationships. Unfortunately, they are no panacea, every customer situation is another challenge. However, I use them in all my conversations, have a clear rhythm in which I see my customers and am closely coordinated with the project managers on how we approach our customers. We always take the time as a team to discuss where we stand in terms of content, but also in terms of the general relationship with our customers. The more confident and trusting I feel with the client, the clearer and more openly I address critical observations or ask about sensitive issues.
Passion that goes beyond the actual projct. Joining forces builds bonds and provides a trusting basis for future relationships. The greatest praise is when an customer says about us: "I can always call them, I can rely an them".
This also includes staying in touch with our colleagues, building long-term personal relationships beyond the project period and cultivating them over the long term. Be it at a business lunch or at corporate events such as Christmas parties or management meetings. As CSP, we often consciously create such events and platforms in order to facilitate this exchange as a natural part of our work - our alumni event is such an example. Like my colleague Fabian Kirsch, we are committed to receive the feedback: "CSP? I can always call them, I can rely on them" and may I add - professionally as well as personally.
5 TIPS: HOW TO CREATE TRUST
1. Take the time to understand your customer, his environment and his topics
2. Do not onla keep an eye on the contents and topics of the customer, but on the person behind them
3. Avoid monologues, listen carefully and ask empathic questions
4. Refrain from self-optimization if you want to be efficient
5. Let the customer look beyond his horizon
5 tips as download (pdf, 225.1 KB)