How Marketers Can Combat Today's Challenges with Client Trust
Trust in business is eroding, and it’s not only from big compliance breaches or incidents like the recent Panama Papers. How can professional services marketers help establish and keep trusting client relationships? PSMG Magazine invited Leigh Dance, Helena Samaha, and Jill Warren to share their thoughts on building trust.
Q: What’s behind erosion of client trust in business and the professions that serve business?
Dance: I see three roots. The most current is our unstable global economy, combined with volatile markets and geopolitical changes that make clients feel very uncertain. Regulators and legal and financial services have made clients feel even more uncertain by creating so much complexity. Uncertainty and complexity are enemies of trust.
The second root of trust erosion is explosion of information sources. Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that business clients most trust search engines for news, far beyond newspapers or TV. It’s hard to get a trustworthy picture from a quick Google search.
The third root is not new but still difficult for marketers: globalization. Unfortunately, English is not the language of business globally. Cultural and business practices are vastly different, even within Europe. Your clients may be able to read or hear the English, but have no idea what you are trying to say.
Samaha: I agree with Leigh. The global, macro issues are beyond our individual control. They are compounded by sensationalist media coverage (scandals, investigations, fines…). Yet, advisers are expected to provide counsel and guidance on how to deal with these issues. A back-to-basics approach is important: take one issue at a time, one client at a time. Each business has its own risk exposure, footprint, industry, financial objectives, regulatory constraints. To build lasting trust, advisers should focus on simplifying (issues and language), and tailoring to the client’s specific needs (information and advice). This is a micro/individual level activity. As you build trust between individuals, you can connect the dots to form trust between the firm and the client organisation.
Warren: I would add that the increased reliance on search engines and other digital, impersonal sources for obtaining and validating information is lessening our reliance on personal and professional networks (ie, people we trust) as reliable and trustworthy sources of information, validation and referrals.
Q: What can professional services marketers do to counter trust erosion?
Warren: Listening to our clients is key. Professional service firms need to build awareness within their organisations of just how important that is to building and maintaining client relationships built on trust. We need to ensure that we regularly ask our clients the right questions, listen to what they have to say, and respond to their feedback and needs. Next is to make any necessary corrections or improvements to the relationship and the client service we deliver.
Ideally, client listening should happen not only in the course of day-today relationship management, but also through structured interviews or surveys. Formal input provides insight into specific relationships and draws out wider themes the firm can then address to meet clients’ needs and reinforce trust.
Dance: Law firms have leapt forward with more transparent and predictable billing, a trust kingpin. Marketers should focus on clear and simple. Clarity (short sentences, basic words) and simple structures fight complexity. Complexity exasperates clients who lack time but must make issues clear for their stakeholders. Fee earners must be able to tailor how they describe to each client what they do best in a couple clear and brief sentences. Your website must help clients find what they seek in two or three clicks from a handheld. Too many layers and you lose trust.
Samaha: Advisers must take a step back from assuming they know a client’s day-to-day pressures and understand their needs. Ask your client what they need. In a former role, I got my panel firms to agree to not send us standard marketing material, bulletins, etc. We wanted only relevant materials tailored to our organisation. A great way to understand someone is to step into their shoes for a while. Studying the client’s corporate communications can help you understand their style. How about reverse secondments? Regular communication and alignment maintain trust.
Q: What do you suggest for building trust with international clients and prospects?
Warren: A little cultural awareness and understanding can go a long way towards building trust. Make sure your people have access to the background information and training to successfully navigate cross-border client relationships. Staff your projects with people with the right language skills and international experience. Put the right people forward when pitching for new business. I agree with Helena on finding out what clients want. It’s all about taking time to understand the environment and context our clients and prospects operate in. We must cater for their needs; applying a one-size-fits-all approach erodes trust.
Samaha: To simplify, tailor, communicate and align with the client are trust-building principles that apply for international clients too. However, you should inform yourself about business practices of the jurisdiction before engaging with local teams of international clients. In some cultures, clients welcome meetings and documentation in English. Others prefer local language in meetings, and dual language documents. Advance research and local resources on the team are important to build trust.
Dance: I find that trust is often built differently with global clients since there is much less face-to-face contact. Often a few fee earners will work with a few professionals on the client’s team. Contact points are frequently remote, and cross culture and language differences are rife. The classic Maister equation misses a key to build trust cross-border today: information (visual 1). Information offsets complexity. But information that builds trust follows Talmud’s quote and the chart (Visual 2). Cue to marketers: tailor pitches and work product to avoid misunderstanding among clients and prospects whose native tongue and business approach are different than yours.