When I was 9 years old, I had a crush on our swim coach. He was tall, blond, tan, and wore Foster Grant aviator glasses. I was secretly smitten. I entrusted him with my life as I braved the deep end of the pool and learned crucial safety techniques.
One morning, Coach Tall Blond Guy coaxed us to jump from the high diving board. I climbed the steps precariously as my knees shook. As I stood on the edge of the board for what seemed hours, I froze. That's when Coach TBG made a fatal mistake.
He pushed me off the board.
From that moment on, I could not trust him. It took me just a split second to lose trust in Tall Blond Guy.
In business, a lack of trust and rapport with our colleagues and clients can just as quickly destroy best-laid marketing plans, initiatives, and alliances. Here are some habits that erode trust, particularly between professional services firms and their clients:
1. Over-dependency on social media and electronic communication: I recently reached out to a financial publishing firm with a new idea to help them reach more subscribers and prospects. We have worked together for three years. The founder refused to return my call. He kept sending me emails, asking whether I could provide more details. The email banter wasted more time than if he had made a five-minute courtesy phone call.
2. Lack of a moral compass or community: I seldom trust people who live one-dimensional lives, avoid most social settings, and dedicate their time to a single activity. When I recently spoke with Andrew Sobel, author of bestsellers such as Clients for Life and Power Questions, we discussed whether people are fundamentally good, or whether they need some moral guardrails. "We need to be reined in by external structures and values—e.g., government, family, faith, etc. Why do billionaires commit crimes? Some consultants—like everyone—try and get away with what they can!"
3. Old societal stereotypes: I have advised B2B clients for nearly 18 years. Although I have met some inspiring consultants with thriving practices, I have also met consultants who must defend themselves from prospects who have a negative impression of their profession. Many companies believe that consultants are only interested in billing as many hours as possible and seeking out new assignments.
4. Lack of decorum: It pains me to attend a social gathering and watch people with advanced degrees eat and drink like toddlers. The most egregious violations include licking their fingers while dining, weak handshakes, and using their phones at the dining table. Unless your wife is about to give birth, why would you possibly need a mobile device ringing and vibrating at the table? How will a client entrust their leadership team or multi-million dollar legacy programs to a social cretin?
5. Turning self-interest into opportunism: Greg Dawson, assistant professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business, defines opportunism as "self-interest seeking with guile." He continues by saying "some opportunism is blatant (lying) and some is passive (such as withholding information that someone knows would be germane to someone.)" The latter, according to Dawson, is far more insidious. This happens when any consultant or advisor pursues new business primarily to line their pockets, not because it is what the client needs.
During his confidential interviews, one public sector CIO told him that only 4 out of 20 firms were ethical. In fact, out of the 20 firms, she categorized 10 as "always dishonest."
Sadly, the CIO's hands are tied because the four highly trustworthy firms cannot fulfill all of her IT project and talent needs.
What can leaders who hire advisors do to optimize their relationship and minimize trust issues?
•If you have hired an outside firm to help you launch a major initiative, hire an advisor to help you with project oversight.
•Know what you don't know, and what you do know. Some senior executives let their ego get in the way and will not admit they don't know something. This chips away at the peer relationship between both parties and discourages honesty.
•Tap into your informal network and community—ask them what they think of that consultant. LinkedIn can also help you research their background and review recommendations.
•Design oversight and checkpoints into every engagement agreement. The best way to ensure success and build trust, according to Sobel, "is regular, frequent, open communications. Often clients fail in this area. They give an assignment to a consultant, pay little attention afterwards, and watch expectations get further apart. A communications and feedback plan should include type and frequency of communications. An explicit discussion like this—call it 'relationship co-creation' if you want—is a key strategy for avoiding disappointments."
Finally, if you are an advisor, start with two steps. First, remind yourself why you originally got into this business: to improve your client's condition and to make a difference. Your clients can intuitively separate the opportunists from the caring advisors.
Second, invest in an etiquette course. Your parents and family will thank you for it. So will your work colleagues.
These strategies will ensure you make it through the first qualifying round of rapport and trust building.
Has anyone ever pushed you off the business diving board? Let us know in the comments.
[Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]