02/24/2013 11:09 EST | Updated 04/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Five Ways to Gain Client Trust


Very early in my career, I learned a simple lesson: companies cannot chase or buy a good reputation. Twenty years later, this is even more true in our increasingly democratized communications landscape.

In my industry, public relations practitioners often seek impressions - another word for eyeballs and ears reading, watching or hearing about them in media or online - in an effort to increase their reputation on any given topic. Fact is, communications has the ability to achieve much more. Communications can secure something more valuable than impressions, but far more difficult to measure. That thing is trust.

I've seen and aided companies as they achieved trust - with employees, customers, clients and partners. Even as it unfolded before my eyes, there was something ethereal about it. So, even though it had the power to create great loyalty, admiration and even increase bottom lines, it always felt fragile, as if it could disappear at any given moment. It could and can.

It's the true power of trust that causes it fragility. You see, once the public is aware of your company, you can't reverse that awareness. An organization's reputation unfolds from there. And, the less it is managed, the more it blows in the wind.

An organization's reputation can rise and fall at any given moment, but it's easy to anticipate and determine what will make that happen. Trust is incognito, but It's earned. You earn it by recognizing that it exists in a constant state of flux, with varying degrees of factors like loyalty, admiration and wisdom.

This recognition is what caused me to look to neuroscience, anthropology and ethnography to get a better understanding of how trust is truly achieved. I found that trust has five key elements that require active consideration by any organization seeking reputational appeal with its audiences.

  • Reliability - simply put, do what you say you'll do; follow through on your promises, each and every time
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  • Competence - often "expertise" is a great source of trust; you need to have a recognized ability and skills to apply it in a way that creates value for others - again and again
  • Integrity - don't just do the right thing when everyone is looking; your beliefs and actions must always be aligned; while I couldn't find a stat to back this up, I bet there's a 10:1 ratio when it comes to reputations that have faltered because of things organizations did behind closed doors vs. in the public eye. Assume everything you do will be known publicly, one day.
  • Communication - This is one of the two most important elements to achieving trust. People inherently trust others who believe what they believe, they get behind a common purpose or cause and relate instantly to others who do. For every time you communicate "what" you do, communicate "why" you do it.
  • Connection - Be human. If you can provide a human connection with a positive experience, it will provide your audience with a reason to trust you.

Neuroscience suggests that the brain doesn't have a separate filter for assessing people and organizations or corporations. Demonstrating human traits - reliability, competence, integrity, communication and the ability to establish connections - is the best way to build trust.

Consider this anecdote from ethnographer and leadership guru Simon Sinek: You decide to buy a new TV; you turn to the Internet for reviews; you pour over stats and blog posts; and convince yourself to buy a Sony. If, that evening, you go to a gathering and bump into a friend who's the "tech geek" in your circle and he sneers at your pick, telling you LG is better, human nature will cause you to do one of two things: 1. Go home and figure out where your research went wrong or 2. buy an LG.

This scenario illustrates all the elements itemized above. Your personal tech guru has demonstrated competence and reliability (he's the tech guru, after all), integrity (he buys LG too), communication (he's able to out-reason your research), and connection (he's someone with whom you have history - and a future, which really, really matters). It all adds up to trust.

This whole scenario might be different if you had past experience with Sony, LG, Samsung or other options. However, the components of trust are stacked in your friend's favour.

Companies today have their work cut out for them as they need to take a much closer look at what they're trying to achieve and if they're actually doing what's necessary to make it happen. Trust, like reputation, can't be bought. But by engaging the right approach, a company can build it.