Don’t Underestimate the Establishment of Meaningful Trust.
By Thomas J. Roach
The key to all successful communication is rapport. Rarely do we engage in conversations that are based on scientific evidence or rigorous logical premises and conclusions. Most human communication involves uncertainties, contingencies, speculations and competing perspectives. Therefore, a speaker’s trustworthiness is more important than his or her arguments.
When polling is done on trusted professions, salespeople regularly come out near the bottom. This means that every time a contact is made, a salesperson is at an immediate disadvantage.
The reason sales and advertising professionals are deemed less trustworthy than physicians or professors isn’t necessarily because the public believes they are dishonest. Everyone understands that interactions with salespeople are contests.
People intuitively put their guard up. If the customer or client has had uncomfortable or even offensive interactions with salespeople this can be an extreme obstacle, but even under the best circumstances the role of salesperson is itself an impediment.
Much of our communicative interactions are familiar routines. The sales encounter constitutes a routine that is a game that is won by analyzing and resisting persuasive arguments. For many people, it may actually contribute to their self-esteem every time they fend off a sales proposal.
The most effective endorsement of a product or service comes from a peer speaking from experience. The peer appears to have nothing to gain from making or not making a recommendation. Messages from trusted peers come through without barriers.
Trust is established over time. Preferably, a salesperson develops a relationship with a client by having several encounters that avoid sales issues. Ideally, when the sales interview finally takes place, the client initiates it. While this may not be a practical way to approach all customers, it is always a useful objective when developing customer relationships. The closer one gets to this model the better. The sales contest routine is suppressed, and the peer relationship is cultivated creating a hybrid routine that allows trust to develop.
For this to work, salespeople need to have the best interests of their clients in mind. Research shows that one of the best ways to establish trust is to take a position against your own best interests. Telling a client “you don’t need that,” or “our competition has a better deal for you right now” can be a powerful rapport builder. Arguments like this sacrifice short-term gains in order to set up a competitive advantage that can produce ongoing benefits.
Trust is not cultivated with scripted conversations and insincere gestures of good will. Most people are good judges of character, so salespeople should have genuine respect and concern for clients.
Companies that want to cultivate real trust need to look for relationship-building qualities when they are hiring salespeople and reinforce these qualities with training and reward and recognition. Clumsy and deceptive gestures of goodwill are seen as gambits in a game scenario and will make a client more defensive if not even resentful.
Time pressures may work against trust-based relationships. Sales quotas that incentivize abrupt contact and aggressive arguments can be counterproductive in the long run. A company that wants to develop rapport between sales staff and customers may benefit from evaluating sales employees and overall success on a yearly rather than a monthly basis.
What is proposed here is not a common practice, and is in some ways extremely contrary to traditional sales management models. However, whatever model a sales staff follows, an emphasis on establishing meaningful trust will be useful.