Trust seems to be in short supply these days, both in terms of institutions and individuals.

Recent Gallup polling reveals only 23% of Americans trust banks, and just 19% have trust in big business. And surveys by the National Opinion Research Center show that the number of Americans who believe other people can be trusted fell 10 points in past three decades.

Of course, trust is essential in any sales situation you face. In many cases it’s “the elephant in the room,” never directly addressed but always there.

So how do you do go about building trust in prospects and customers, in a world where trust is so hard to come by?

Elements of trust
First, consider what it means to be trustworthy. Though people may be less trusting than ever, the key elements of trust haven’t changed.

Social scientists identify four such elements. Buyers will trust you based on how well you fulfill each of them:

  • Credibility: Do prospects and customers believe what you tell them? You build credibility by demonstrating an understanding of the buyer’s business or situation, and by having the experience or credentials to back up what you say.
  • Reliability: Can buyers depend on you to behave consistently and as promised? Reliability is hard for buyers to judge before they do business with you (that’s what makes them nervous). So until you have a track record, they’ll judge you on how well you perform on the little things. Do you return phone calls promptly? Are you on time for meetings? Do you provide promised documentation?
  • Intimacy: Are prospects and customers willing to reveal information to you, confident that you’ll handle it properly? Intimacy, like reliability, builds over time. But look for opportunities to show that you treat sensitive information with respect. For example, if the buyer shares financials with you, reassure him or her these numbers will be held in confidence.
  • Customer focus: Are your attention and intentions focused on the buyer, or your own agenda? Of course you want a sale; but you must show that you expect to win it by serving your buyer.

Go first
Trust is created when someone takes a risk and the other party responds. Show you’re willing to trust your buyer before you ask him or her to trust you.

Take a close look at what you can offer in your unique situation that will demonstrate your trust in the prospect or customer. Can you set up a free trial of that piece of equipment or software? What about completing a small project gratis, to show what you can do for them? Spend time brainstorming this.

Yes, there is a risk involved. But don’t let that stop you. Becoming more trusting, as part of your sales strategy, has excellent odds of success, and the payoff is rapid.

Those who focus on the risk involved in trusting too much, or agonize about the downside, are forgetting the concept of reciprocity ingrained in human nature.

When you demonstrate that you trust someone by willingly taking a risk, the most likely reaction a prospect or customer will have is to return the trust, not take advantage of your well-intended gesture.

Be transparent
There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by holding back from your buyer.

Adopt transparency as your default position, except where it would be illegal, hurtful to others or contrary to your company’s policies.

And when you can’t share information, you can still be transparent. For example, you might tell your prospect something like this:

“Of course, I can’t share all of the details of what we’ve done for other customers, because some of that information is proprietary. But I’ll answer your questions as fully as I can.”

Transparency also means a willingness to reveal potentially negative information about yourself. Nobody’s asking you to bad-mouth your product or service. On the other hand, no product or service is perfect. Show the buyer you have nothing to hide.

For example:

“Overall, our products will save you money. However, you probably will spend more on consumables. Here’s why.”

“I believe this is the best solution for the situation you’ve described. But it will require some retraining for your people, and I want to be sure you understand what will be needed.”

Ask tough questions
Skeptical buyers will welcome tough questions from you. It means you’re not just trying to tell them what they want to hear.

So respectful, but probing, questions can go a long way toward building trust with your buyer.

For example:

“Ms. Buyer, you’ve said you want this program to be up and running in six months. Is that realistic, given the resources you have available to devote to the program?”

“Mr. Buyer, I got the sense that your boss wasn’t 100% on board with the proposal. Is that so?”

Adapted from an article by Charles H. Green. To learn more visit

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