Think you’ve got the competition cornered with your superior products or pricing?
Don’t get too comfortable.
Markets move so rapidly that most competitive advantages last only briefly before your competition catches up. Innovation and cost leverage are important, of course, but you can’t build a sound business on them anymore.
So what’s the most powerful weapon to compete in the marketplace? The new currency of competition is trust.
High-trust client relationships transcend marketplace churn. A Watson Wyatt study showed that high-trust companies outperformed low-trust companies in total return to shareholders—by 286%.
To develop high-trust relationships with your clients, you have to address trust within your organization first.
Trust isn’t a nice-to-have cultural virtue. It isn’t something you either have or you don’t. It’s a critical economic lever—arguably the most important one leaders have, particularly in a salesforce.
Trust is something you can learn. You can develop skills around it. You can measure outcomes against it. Most important, you can intentionally increase it. It starts with your leaders, trickles down to your salesforce and then elevates your client relationships.
Diagnose The Level Of Trust In Your Organization
If you’re lucky enough to work in a high-trust culture, you know that it creates observable energy and momentum. People share information freely and collaborate. Teams can safely experiment, take risks and innovate. Bureaucracy dissolves. Work speeds up.
But if your organization isn’t quite there yet, begin with a tough look in the mirror. In your organization, what’s the level of trust between sales leadership and salespeople? Between departments? Within teams? Do you spot the symptoms of low trust?
The word “symptoms” is not an exaggeration—because a low-trust culture feels diseased. Business is choked by bureaucracy, micromanagement and office politics. Business slows, costs increase, and innovation snuffs out. It makes it difficult to sell.
Low trust particularly affects salesforces, because they’re under a different microscope than other parts of the organization. Salespeople often hear things like, “The bottom 10% of sales people will get the ax every year” or “If you don’t hit your numbers, you’re out of here!”
That kind of communication does nothing to build trust within your organization, and make no mistake—your clients will pick up on it. If you don’t trust each other, your customers won’t trust you.
Build A High-Trust Organization From Within
Increasing trust is a leadership imperative. Organizations where front-line sellers trusted senior leadership had a 42% higher return on shareholder investment than low-trust businesses, according to another Watson Wyatt study.
Leaders who intentionally build trust can earn an overwhelming list of benefits: improved customer satisfaction, innovation and risk-taking, productivity, employee engagement and retention, strategy execution, and organizational agility, to name a few. There’s a reason why Stephen M. R. Covey, one of the world’s experts on this topic, says trust is “the one thing that changes everything.”
Ready to build trust? Covey has identified 13 specific behaviors that leaders can implement in their very next conversation. Here are three that are particularly critical in the sales environment:
- Talk straight: Share information as freely as possible, without spin. Let people, especially sales people, know where they stand, without the counterproductive “you’re outta here!” threats. Give honest feedback out of a sincere desire to help people improve—and ask for the same about your own performance.
- Show loyalty: Leaders are critical to modeling this behavior. Make it clear you don’t tolerate gossip or backstabbing; in other words, stay loyal to the absent. One FranklinCovey executive will simply say, “I’m going to reserve judgment until I can talk to them directly” when the conversation steers toward speculation.
- Keep commitments: When we think about destroying trust, we often think about huge betrayals. But often it’s small acts that steadily erode trust: breaking appointments, not following through with deliverables, missing deadlines. Make promises carefully and only when you intend to keep them. If you must break a commitment, don’t attempt to “PR” your way out of it.
Extending Smart Trust
Part of promoting a culture of trust is dealing with toxicity. In any organization, there will be a subset of people who simply are not and will not be trustworthy.
During employee orientation in my company, we talk about one thing: our values foundation. We made it clear to every employee that it was acceptable to have a performance gap. We could work on that. But if an employee lied one time, that would be their last day. Trustworthiness was not negotiable. Leaders must be clear—if an employee violates trust, they can’t be part of the team.
Remember that the vast majority of your people want to trust others and to be trusted in return. Leaders, set the example with your behavior. Wear that badge with honor.
I’m indebted to my colleague Stephen M. R. Covey for his work on trust. Read more at his website.
This is the first of two articles focusing on trust in business relationships. In the next article, we'll discuss how to infuse trust into your client relationships for the ultimate market-proof competitive edge. Click here to read the second article.
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