At a time when the level of public trust in the UK's elected politicians has never been lower, it's an opportunity to reflect on the critical role of trust in sales, which is what I chose to focus on in this article from the latest edition of the International Journal of Sales Transformation...
Trust is an essential foundational element in any sales environment - and it can (and must) take many forms. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation lies in the relationship between the salesperson (and the vendor they represent) and the customer’s decision-making group (and the organisation they represent).
But trust must also be established in the relationships that exist within the vendor’s organisation, between the vendor and their commercial partners and between the vendor and all the other influential members of the ecosystem - such as the press, analysts, consultants and all the other observers, commentators, and participants.
In my experience, this network of trust cannot be established unless the sales organisation itself works on the basis of internal trustworthiness, honest communications and mutual respect. Where these elements are lacking internally, they make it hard to establish a culture that is capable of developing trusted relationships with prospects, customers and the people and organisations that influence them...
The foundations of trust must be built internally
Management has a critical role to play in establishing this culture of trust - and I believe that the foundation must be built upon candid and honest conversations. I’ve observed far too many examples of organisations where salespeople, under the encouragement of management, have developed the habit of telling management what they think management wants to hear, rather than what management needs to know.
This is most commonly seen in pipeline management and forecasting. Salespeople are often pressured to be overly optimistic in their forecasting of close dates and probabilities, even when the realities of the opportunity (assuming those are actually understood) would indicate that there is no credible chance of closing the deal in the current period.
Self-awareness, self-honesty and candid conversation are the essential foundations of a trustworthy internal sales culture - and without a trustworthy internal sales culture, it’s going to be hard for salespeople to establish a trustworthy relationship with their prospects and customers. If members of the organisation are willing to fool each other, they are probably going to be willing to try and fool the customer - and that never ends well.
Trust has never been more important
Trust was always a critical element of the vendor-customer relationship. But the exponential growth in as-a-service (as opposed to outright purchase) commercial models has made delivering on promises and establishing and maintaining trustworthy relationships even more important. It’s no longer enough for the salesperson to be seen as a trusted adviser. The commitments the salesperson makes during the sales process must actually be delivered by their colleagues in service, support and customer success throughout the lifetime of the customer relationship.
This requires that commitments (whether explicit or implied) are thoughtfully made, with due regard for the consequences, and that these commitments are understood by the wider organisation. This in turn requires that commitments are made with the collective knowledge and acceptance of the functions responsible for delivering them. Needless to say, any salesperson that makes commitments they know (or ought to know) cannot be honoured must be terminated.
How can salespeople establish trust?
I’ve already identified self-awareness, self-honesty and the commitment to candid conversation as some of the key foundations of trustworthiness. It should be obvious that in the absence of personal integrity, there can be no basis for trust. And I’m pleased to say that these are qualities I see in the vast majority of sales professionals (even if there is sometimes scope for further development).
Assuming salespeople have what let’s call a “trustworthy mindset” as a foundation, let’s now explore how salespeople can establish themselves as trusted advisors in their relationship with existing and potential customers. Here are a few of the behaviours I’ve observed in effective sales professionals:
They demonstrate empathy
Effective salespeople put themselves in their customer’s shoes. They seek to understand how the world looks from their prospect’s perspective. They empathise with the prospect’s situation. They share relevant experiences. They communicate at a human level and avoid jargon or cliché. They realise that most decisions are made emotionally, and justified rationally.
They develop capabilities that are valuable to their customers
And no, I don’t mean that they are experts in the products or services they are hoping to sell. That seems to me to be a necessary but far from sufficient condition.
If they are to establish trust, salespeople need to become experts in the issues their prospective customers are trying to fix, avoid or achieve, and how the organisation they represent has helped other similar people in similar customer organisations to deal with them. They need to be able to share compelling stories and experiences that their prospective customers can relate to. At all times, they need to describe the capabilities of their “solution” in the context of what the customer is seeking to accomplish.
They demonstrate genuine thought leadership
“Thought leadership” must be one of the most overused and misapplied terms in the sales and marketing vocabulary. All too often, it is no more than a mildly warmed-over rehashing of facts or opinions that the prospect - if they chose to listen - could hear from dozens or hundreds of other sources.
Genuine thought leadership causes the prospective customer to think differently - to see things from a fresh and unexpected perspective. It reflects a distinctive point of view that is unique and valuable, and because of that it is far more likely to be appreciated and trusted by the prospect.
Trust-building thought leadership addresses issues, implications, and consequences the prospect may have been previously unaware of or had undervalued. It offers a point of view. It makes the customer feel smarter as a result of having participated in the conversation. And it makes it far more likely that they will want to learn more.
They behave at all times in an ethical way
Effective salespeople do the right thing at all times. They demonstrate through their actions that they have the best interests of the customer at heart in every decision they make. This may mean turning away business, suggesting better alternative solutions or challenging a customer’s misconceptions rather than brushing them under the carpet. They act for the long-term, rather than the short-term. And they follow up on their commitments.
Establishing a trustworthy sales culture
Trustworthy sales cultures cannot be developed overnight. Publishing a “code of conduct” isn’t enough. It requires principled focus over an extended period of time. And if the foundations are fragile, they can be destroyed overnight by a single inconsistent action on the part of the organisation’s leadership.
Managers need to walk the talk. It’s my experience that deeds are far more important than words in this regard - and that the culture of trust needs to start at the very top and be echoed at every level of management. Organisations, even if they are sympathetic to other forms of weaknesses, cannot afford to tolerate untrustworthy behaviour at any level.
If we expect our customers to trust us, we need to develop both an internal and an external culture of trust. We need to set high expectations and coach our people to achieve them. We need to treat everyone with honesty and respect. We need to expect the same from our partners and customers.
And on the (hopefully) very rare occasions when our trust is not reciprocated by a prospect or customer, we surely need to very carefully consider whether we ought to be doing business with them.
We should, of course, apply the same considerations to our elected politicians.
This article was first published in September 2021 in the International Journal of Sales Transformation.