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John Reid
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The following is adapted from Moving from Models to Mindsets.

In business, trust is everything. Customers assess your behavior one way if they trust you, and another way if they don’t. If you talk about your products and services with a customer who doesn’t trust you, they will likely think you’re trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do. But if they trust you, they’re likely to see you as helpful; someone they should listen to. In fact, in the world of sales, achieving the position of “trusted advisor” is the highest honor and the ultimate aspiration.

It’s common for customers to be somewhat wary of salespeople and feel a sense of distrust. Why is this? Well, building trust is hard, but the biggest challenge may be that most salespeople believe they are inherentlytrustworthy – and therefore don’t see this an area for development. While they may intend to be trustworthy, the reality is that they haven’t reflected deeply on their behaviors and the impact they can have on the customer.

The Trust Stool

Think of trust as a three-legged stool. The first leg is caring. Caring can be exemplified by building rapport and understanding customers’ underlying personal and professional needs. The second leg is consistency, or being reliable. Here, you do what you say you’re going to do and follow through on your commitments. The third leg is competence. This means you know your stuff and bring value and insight because you not only know your products and services, but also the industry, market, and trends that affect your customers. Competent salespeople create—not simply communicate—value.

Customers see these legs of trustworthiness as interdependent—just as all three legs are necessary for a stable stool. Here’s where the problems can creep up. Your customers may see that you care because you get back to them right away, but if they don’t experience you bringing insight and challenging their thinking, they may not trust you. On the other hand, maybe you know your stuff and you do what you say you’re going to do, but you just haven’t established an emotional connection that they can trust. Or, lastly, you might have the relationship, bring value, and demonstrate competence, but if you’re inconsistent and unreliable, the customer may decide you are untrustworthy.

In our work, we ask participants to force rank the three legs of the trust stool. They must pick the one leg of the stool they are trying to “win” on, with the understanding that all are important. We create an imaginary stool in the room and ask participants to stand up and move to the leg they have chosen. The majority of participants move to the consistency leg. A minority choose competency. Even fewer choose care.

Then, we ask them to move to the leg they believecustomers care about most.The majority move to competency. Our experience suggests that at some level, people know the way to win over customers is by bringing insight, but they take the arguably easier and less risky path by banking on being consistent and responsive.

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We ask the participants to describe what the idea of consistency looks like in their world. Participants say that a consistent person gets back to customers right away and that they’re always available. They commit and deliver on those commitments. But, when we ask how other departments in their company would describe what consistency and responsiveness looks like, they sheepishly admit “customer service.” It’s at this moment they recognize how they confuse being a good salesperson with excelling at customer service.

While all the legs are important, the competency leg is where you can really differentiate as a salesperson. You have to bring insight and advice to customers with a greater focus on demonstrating competence. People pay for insight. Insight is the result of diving into the competent leg of the trust stool and is the ultimate source of differentiation. Sources of potential insight are numerous, including everything that can be discovered in considering the market, the account, and the individual. 

[1]Nicholas Toman, Brent Adamson, and Cristina Gomez, “The New Sales Imperative,” Harvard Business Review, March–April 2017, accessed June 22, 2018,https://hbr.org/2017/03/the-new-sales-imperative.

John Reid is the author of Moving from Models to Mindsetsand is Founder and President of JMReid Group, whose clients have included Ernst & Young, ProAmpac, Global Healthcare Exchange, Ryerson, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In 2015, JMReid Group’s work was featured in Training magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame Outstanding Training Initiatives.

For more advice on sales, you can find Moving from Models to Mindsetson Amazon.