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How To Build Trust With Potential Clients


by Tom McMakin, author of “How Clients Buy: A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services

Business Meeting

The notion of trust in others is ancient. It allows one buddy to lean on another in war or commerce and combat, but, more importantly, it is sinew that binds communities together, enabling them to do together what they cannot do as individuals.  It is also a critical prerequisite to selling consulting and professional services successfully.

There are two types of trust:

I trust you will get the job done.

I need to catch the 6:00 am out of Dallas to DC.  My neighbor says he is always up early and would be happy to give us a ride.  I know him socially, but I have never used him in this way.  I agree, but I ask him to pick me up thirty minutes earlier than I might just to let me call an Uber if he oversleeps.  I know him, and I like him, but I have no experience with his early morning punctuality.  The tenth time I ask him, though, I am likely to not build in the thirty-minute buffer because I now I know he is always punctual and will do what he says he will do.  I trust he will pick me up.

I trust you have my back on this.

Your mom used to tell you that integrity is doing what is right when no one is looking.  In consulting and professional services, the same holds true.  Clients want to engage with service providers who have their best interests in mind, even if those interests run contrary to their own.  I hire a babysitter to watch the kids while my wife and I go out for drinks and dinner.  If the babysitter gets an invitation to a party halfway through the evening, I want to know that she will decline and that she will continue to hang at the house.  I want her to put herself in our shoes and protect our self interest as an agent of our needs.  I want to be able to trust her.

The first kind of trust is a “head” judgement.  “I believe after reviewing the evidence – your credentials and your track record – that you are likely to get the job done for me.”  This kind of trust is an intellectual weighing of the evidence out of which a buyer makes an informed judgement, predicting a partner’s future behavior.

“When pitching a new client, I think it always comes down to trust,” says Graham Anthony, the principal and founder of Anthony Advisors, a mergers and acquisitions consultancy based in Charlottesville, Virginia.  “Do they have the ability to do a good job?  Clients are trusting that if they come to you with their problem, you will help them solve it.”

To help potential clients trust you in this way, we give them case studies of how we have helped other clients who face the same problems they do.  Or we create a logic around our analysis of the problem and a process we have to address that problem.  Endorsing quotes from clients are particularly a powerful of communicating your effectiveness.  “Gupta & Jones never disappointed.  We asked them to (defend our IP/secure our cloud-based offering/streamline our accounts receivable department/jumpstart our research and development) and they got the job done on time and under budget.”  Note that time in this context are cells that build the body of trust.  Repeated exposure to you doing your job allows a buyer to extrapolate the data set and predict with high confidence that you will do what you say you will do in the future.

The second kind of trust centers on how you feel about another person’s motives.  It is more of a “heart” judgement.  Here a client is not asking if a practice lead can get the job done, but will they put their interests first?  As Graham says, “Do you trust the person wishes you well?”

The consulting firm, Bain, describes this second form of trust this way, “Everything we do is guided by our True North—our unswerving commitment always to do the right thing by our clients, our people, and our communities.”  When clients hear and feel this in their consulting and professional services partners, they are reassured that the firm they are hiring will act in the clients’ interests.  They believe their consultants are true agents for their interests and therefore trusted extensions of their reach and impact.

Kent Grayson a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School says that this kind of trust is broken in cases of information asymmetry.  One party, generally the seller of professional services, knows more than the buyer about the nature of a problem and the appropriate solution.  In this environment where one side knows more than the other, there is room for the advisor to exploit that asymmetry.  Think about going to an auto mechanic who tells you that your valve seal has corroded on piston three and therefore you will need to replace the head gasket.  She or he knows more than you do about how your car works, and this requires you to trust them in order to engage their services.

To help potential clients trust you in this second way, we give them references they can speak with or, better, we refer back to a time when we previously worked with them or a colleague they trust.  Absent that kind of direct confirming relationship, buyers look for other markers as a proxy for direct knowledge.  These can include where you went to school, a previous (and well-known) firm with whom you used to work, and a logo page featuring other clients who have trusted you.

In consulting and professional services trust is the coin of the realm.  Your job is to not only present potential clients with compelling solutions to their problems, but also to buttress their efforts to trust you:  that you can get the job done and have their best interests at heart.


tom mcmakin

Tom McMakin is the author of How Clients Buy: A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services.  He is also the CEO of PIE, a business development consultancy for professional services firm.  He can be reached at tmcmakin@profitableideas.com