The Road to Trust Begins with Intent


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In the 1980’s, I demonstrated my company’s accounting software to a prospective buyer, the CEO of a large lumber and plywood wholesaler in Virginia. A few minutes into our meeting, I showed him how a credit hold worked.

“If an account is delinquent,” I said, “our software lets you know at the point-of-sale, and the system prevents you from filling a new order until the credit hold . . .”

“Andy, I don’t need that,” he interrupted. “Before I accept a new customer, I look at him in the eye and ask, ‘are you going to pay me?’ It’s that simple. In 40 years, I’ve never had a bad debt.”

I offered no argument or rebuttal. Any attempt to hammer home the value of this feature would be pointless. Instead, I moved on to show him a different shiny software object. I had no doubt the CEO’s trust instincts served him well and protected his company. After all, he had built his business into one of the area’s largest lumber and plywood suppliers. You don’t do that by being gullible.

But today, his approach would spell trouble.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced buyers and sellers alike to re-assess intent and trust. Honest trust depends on honest intent – and no one controls our intentions except us. Although we’ve often heard people say, “Trust me on this one . . .” as a practical matter, we cannot demand that others trust us.

Instead, it’s important to remember that the extension of trust is a decision based on perceptions. Even though we might believe our intentions to be trustworthy, it’s up to others to decide.

The linkage between trust and intent is one of the most important concepts in business.  Actions are the vehicle for intentions of every type – whether they’re good or bad. Therefore, if ethical conduct is of paramount importance, it’s crucial to start with intentions that more likely to foster that outcome.

While positive intentions don’t always yield positive actions, nefarious or malignant intent will almost always result in actions that are harmful. Purdue Pharma made this connection clear when its myopic intention to grow revenue produced a litany of marketing actions that proved lethal to customers, including encouraging physicians to over-prescribe opioids.

Consider these intention scenarios in selling and buying:

Role 1: sales representative

Intentions: close the deal, make quota, earn commission

Likely actions based on intentions:

  • Exert pressure on prospects to order now, even when it’s not in their best interest
  • Upsell expensive, but unnecessary products, features, and upgrades
  • Conceal consequential quality problems that could delay purchase
  • Disparage a competitor’s offering

Role 2: buyer

Intentions: get the lowest price, earn performance bonus

Likely actions based on intentions:

  • Inflate projected procurement quantities
  • Withhold opportunities for vendor to meet. Instead, request “best and final” price quote only
  • Give vendor price targets that are artificially low

In both scenarios, misguided intention is evident to the other party, sacrificing trust.


Consider what happens when intentions are more considerate of trust:

Role 1: sales representative

Intentions: Create customer success, earn commission

Likely actions:

  • Recommend the best product for the prospect to buy, even if it costs less
  • Encourage customer to purchase the right amount for their need
  • Request feedback about how to improve future deliveries

Role 2: buyer

Intention: Cultivate valuable vendor partnerships, earn performance bonus

Likely actions:

  • Openness about future production and marketing plans
  • Collaborate on market forecasts and demand generation activities
  • Share information about quality improvement and product efficiencies

Better intentions cause better actions.

Bellwethers of trust that my prospect depended on flourished in the old economy – the firm handshake, direct eye contact, statements of unequivocal commitment. Now, they have gone the way of the diskette. Today we navigate spaces and situations where trust signals are less proximate. During Zoom meetings I often struggle to identify trustworthy vibes among the matrixed talking faces. “The person in Row 1, Column 2 appears earnest, and their surroundings seem normal . . .” But can I really read their intentions and know whether they can be trusted? This conundrum has spawned a new combination of trust-bearing signals:

  1. Benign intent. Both parties must feel that the other is entering the relationship, engagement, or transaction for positive reasons.

Questions for deciding whether to extend trust:

  • Are they considerate of my best interests?
  • Are they active in protecting them?
  • Are their motivations transparent?


  1. Competency: Buyers and sellers must perceive that they are working with a partner that has competency to provide or use the product or service.

Questions for deciding whether to extend trust:

  • Are the company’s products and services fundamentally good?
  • Beyond the performance of the product or service, is there evidence of deeper competencies? If so, what is it?
  • Are the competencies core to their business strategy – now, and in the future?


  1. Stakeholder investment. Today, having a good product and a strong brand reputation are table stakes. Companies are increasingly evaluated based on evidence of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), and their record for investing in the communities in which they operate.

Questions for deciding whether to extend trust:

  • Does the company demonstrate that it values all stakeholders? If so, how?
  • Are its stakeholder investments sustained and integral to its strategy?


  1. Authority and responsibility. Trustworthy companies recognize their fallibility and demonstrate they’re committed to addressing and fixing problems.

Questions for deciding whether to extend trust:

  • Does the company conform to its stated values?
  • Does the company demonstrate that it listens to its customers and suppliers?
  • Does the company consistently follow through in rectifying problems, including going above and beyond the minimal expected resolution?

Based on a recent customer post on a Facebook dog group, we can infer the intentions of pet supply retailer

“I just had $75.00 of prescription dog food delivered by CHEWY.COM just three days before my dog Lexie died.  I phoned on Sunday and told them that I just received an order of dog food and that my dog had died.  I told the girl that I completely understand if they cannot take the case of dog food back for a refund but that I thought that I would just call to find out.  I am sure that the girl from Chewy could tell that I was crying, and she said ma’am, I just credited your account and I want you to go donate Lexie’s food to someone who needs it.  (We are donating the food to Animal House tomorrow.) I just arrived home this evening to a dozen of roses in a vase from with the nicest sympathy card attached!  What a company!  It made me cry, but it also made me realize in a time where there is so much hate and turmoil in this country, that good caring people/companies still exist!  If you have never used please give them a try!  They have always been great to work with!”

If intended to maximize its profits, and nothing more, I doubt we’d see this trusting sentiment.

The road to building trust begins with good intentions. They come from within, and are always under your full control. Choose your intentions well. Good intentions don’t guarantee trust happens, but they make it much more likely.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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