[IMGCAP(1)]How do you gain the trust of your current and prospective clients, as well as colleagues, subordinates and others with whom you do business or want to do business?

One of the best ways to build trust is to always deliver on your promises and commitments. When you commit to follow up on an issue, take ownership and do just that. A common mistake and “trust-buster” is failing to regularly communicate your status and not keeping the involved parties adequately informed. You know how frustrating it is when you are waiting for information that is vital to your business, so avoid becoming the cause of frustration for your clients, prospects or colleagues by applying great follow-up skills.

Another way to build trust is to establish ongoing relationships by keeping your clients and prospects top of mind all the time and demonstrating that you are thinking about them and their business concerns. For example, if you read a newspaper story, online article or blog that may be of interest to a client, prospect or coworker, forward the link or copy and send the article. Include a short personal note about how the information may interest or affect them, whether positively or negatively. Your short note or interpretation is a value add, which is particularly effective in demonstrating that you are keeping them in mind. An enhanced opportunity to demonstrate your sincere interest exists when you encounter an article or some information that enables you to leverage a third party’s perspective to support an idea, product or service you may have already under discussion with them.

By maintaining regular contact, clients and prospects learn to trust your motives and intentions and will be more receptive to considering your advice or proposal. To establish a trust-based relationship with a prospect, do your homework and learn as much as you can about their business and about the person with whom you plan to meet. When meeting for the first time, do not begin the meeting by selling your firm’s services, but instead take the time to learn about the prospect’s business, and look for ways to help them.

Skillful and tactful questioning will get your prospects and clients to open up and share information and insights to help you understand their needs. Ask well formulated, open-ended questions to open up a dialogue that allows you to learn about their business and the challenges they are facing.

Another great way to begin building trust is to stop and listen to the answers to your questions. Use the popular 80/20 rule and create a dialog where you are listening to the client 80 percent of the time and speaking only 20 percent. You may find this approach difficult initially, but with practice you will uncover important information, learn more about their needs, and signal to the client that you value and place great importance on what they have to say.

When building trust, it is essential to provide flexibility and room for collaboration. Provide possible scenarios and options when offering ideas and advice to clients and prospects to actively engage them in the process. Clients who are actively engaged often allow a deeper level of interaction and provide more perspective into preferred or alternative outcomes. By offering alternatives and providing options, you empower the client to think about how each offering impacts their business. Take the time to thoroughly review and discuss each option from top to bottom. Full disclosure will help formulate a positive impression about you and your firm.

Include and highlight both advantages and disadvantages, demonstrating that you, as their advocate, want them to see all sides before making a decision. Knowing the client’s desired outcome enables you to make better decisions and develop a proper plan to achieve success.

To be considered in good faith your ideas must be perceived by clients to have their best interest in mind. Providing options that are not in the client’s absolute best interest are usually quickly discovered, if not by the client, then most certainly by your competitors. If the client perceives, or worse, determines that you have placed your own interests before theirs, the trust you have worked so hard to build will quickly be lost. The best client solution may not always yield the most profit or best scenario for you and your firm, but helping a client with the best solution for them opens the door to future opportunities.

Our firm recently delivered an on-site business development program for a large firm that focused on the value of building trust-based relationships.

We highlighted results from a survey conducted by Miller Heiman that singled out lack of trust as the No. 1 reason prospects do not buy from a certain provider. In fact, lack of trust was cited by over 50 percent of respondents as the single most important reason buyers turned down a service provider.

In contrast, and by a vast margin, the second reason given for not selecting a firm, no need for the services, accounted for only 13 percent of the responses. Extrapolating from these two responses we learn that even if a client or potential client has a need, they will not engage you if they do not trust you.

A few years ago, our firm was engaged with a client on a critical business project. After considering several project approaches, we decided to provide two options but strongly recommended one over the other. The project we recommended was the least expensive option for the client. The client accepted our recommendation, engaged our firm, and we delivered as promised. Our client was appreciative of the selfless nature of our recommendation. Later, when another opportunity arose, the client again engaged our firm.

It was our strong recommendation, made without regard to our own self-interests, which cemented the client’s trust in our firm. This well-placed trust was the foundation for our client referring our firm to others. As our relationship has grown, we have continued to receive additional project engagements, often without the requirement for a competitive bidding process.

Despite every effort, even the best CPA may not always be able to obtain the exact outcome their client had anticipated. Should this situation arise, a meeting or call needs to be made to the client without delay to deliver the news and discuss alternatives. Your status as a trusted advisor is invaluable in these situations and will enable you to work through the difficulties as partners and not adversaries.

Less than ideal news is better received when delivered from a trusted source. Your role and status as a trusted advisor often facilitates a more rapid transition to discussing alternatives. While the current outcome may not have been the desired result, CPAs who cultivate strong and trusted client relationships are in a much better position to retain the client’s business than those without a similar relationship.

During difficult economic times, CPAs who have built trust-based client relationships may reap other financial benefits, such as easier contract negotiations and potentially having their statements paid in a more timely fashion.

The single most important reason why prospects do not engage is lack of trust. Building trust is an investment whose ROI is often slow to materialize and hard to quantify. By putting your client’s needs first and always remembering “the relationship value is greater than the engagement value,” you will build trust more quickly and help secure clients for the long term. As your client’s trust builds, your reputation will grow, your referrals will increase, and your practice will expand, allowing your firm to flourish.

Bill Taylor is president of Corporate Ladders, a business development consulting and coaching firm, specializing in helping CPAs and other professional services firms grow top-line revenues. He can be reached at (201) 825-8296 or wbtaylor@corporateladders.com.

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