How To Build Trust In Your Client & Business Relationships

Source: TheDigitalProjectManager

Author: Mike Clayton

What is the most valuable asset any project manager can have? Trust. In this episode, I talk with Mike Clayton, author of 14 print books on project management, about the components of trust—credibility, reliability, intimacy—and how to earn the trust of your colleagues and clients. 

How To Build Trust In Your Client & Business Relationships

A Familiar Example?

Here’s an example. You have a great kick-off meeting with your new client. You get good vibes that they trust you and, back at their office, that’s exactly how they feel.

Your new client believes you have the skills to produce exactly the functionality they need. And they are happy that your team will go out of its way to deliver in time for their new product launch. So much so, in fact, that they were happy to share some of their concerns about the shortcomings of other agencies they met.

Two months later, your team is working well and making good progress. But you have a couple of missed calls from your client and it’s clear that something is wrong. From the things they say and, more so from the way they say it, they no longer seem to trust that you’ll deliver on time.

What’s gone wrong?

Trust Greases The Axles Of Commerce

I don’t think I need to spell the reason why trust is so important in business. It is vital at all levels:

  • Personal level – between you and your colleagues;
  • Contractual level – between you and your employer;
  • Professional level – between you and other professionals;
  • Agency level – between you and your clients;
  • Industry level – between you and other organizations.

But just what creates trust, and how can you go about building it?

The Trust Equation

You’ll find by far the best insight into trust in the professional context in the book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’ (US|UK). This was written by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford.

This book (as are all of Maister’s) is full of nuggets for anyone who wants to build a career in professional services. But the principle contribution that this book makes is to introduce us to the Trust Equation.

The Trust Equation presents trust as a simple formula. The terms describe the components of trust and combine it in a common-sense way. I wouldn’t expect anyone to use it in a precise quantitative way. But the authors do use it to show how weaknesses in one aspect or another contribute to an erosion of trust.

So, here is the Trust Equation, first in words:

Trust is equal to the sum of your Credibility (C) plus your Reliability (R), plus your Intimacy with the other person (I), all divided by your Self-orientation (S)

In Symbols:

T = [C + R + I] / S

So, let’s understand each of the components of the Trust Equation.


Credibility marks the extent to which someone believes you have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to deliver the services they need. You build credibility through experience, professional development, and learning. And you demonstrate it through the quality of the work you do and your contributions to discussions.


Your ability to deliver good work is separate in your clients mind from the question of whether you will deliver that work, as you say you will, when you promise, to the budget you’ve agreed. This is all about reliability: do they feel they can safely depend upon you?

In our mini case study, we saw a classic example of an agency that is, objectively, reliable: ‘your team is working well and making good progress’. But your client didn’t know that, because no-one had made the effort to keep them up-to-date.

So, in the client’s mind, your reliability was in question, so their trust in you fell away sharply. Ooops!


Three are three levels of intimacy with a client, stakeholder, or another professional contact:

  1. Professional intimacy
    – where your contact feels safe sharing professional concerns and confidences
  2. Personal intimacy
    – when they also feel confident to tell you a little about themselves and their career aspirations
  3. Private intimacy
    – this is the deepest level and here your contact will feel able to share their private insecurities

Intimacy is a core part of trust because of the risks it involves. You could misuse the information they share, like the example of your client sharing their concerns about other agencies.


The final component of Trust works against others. It poisons trust and so the authors show it in the denominator of their equation. Self-orientation is the extent to which your clients, colleagues, or stakeholder perceive you are acting out of self-interest.

We all do, of course. Very few of us work entirely for philanthropic reasons. But the agency, or professional, that willingly re-works a part of a client brief at no cost, to delight their customer will score well here. Compare this with the commercial manager that imposes variation costs every time the client picks up the phone.

Calculating Trust

The first thing to say about calculating trust is that any answers you get are purely indicative. And the second is that you can only do it from the point of view of one stakeholder at a time. How they perceive your reliability will depend on their unique experience of how you work. It will certainly not depend on how reliable you think you are.

The authors suggest you estimate how a client perceives you on each of the four dimensions, and score it out of 10. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking they perceive you as having zero self-orientation! If you avoid that trap, you’ll also avoid nasty ‘division by zero’ problems.

What you’ll usually find, if you are scrupulously honest, is that one or two factors are undermining the big picture. This will tell you where you need to put in the effort, to further build trust.

How To Build Trust

So, how do you go about building trust? Happily, Maister, Green, and Galford offer you a five-stage approach for systematically building trust. Interpreting it for digital project managers, the five steps are:

  1. Engage with the client or stakeholder whose trust you want to build. This means picking up the phone or, better still, arranging a meeting.
  2. Listen to what they have to say. This is far more important than them hearing you. Paradoxically, listening is better at building credibility than speaking. And it certainly helps with intimacy and perceptions of self-orientation. And it should be easier too; if you can only keep your mouth shut!
  3. Frame their concerns in a way that shows how well you understand what they see as the core of their issue. This demonstrates we-placed intimacy, alongside credibility and an orientation towards them and their concerns, rather than your own.
  4. Envision what you and they can accomplish if you work together. This is where your credibility and low self-orientation shine. It’s also a simple fact that people are attracted to optimism and positivity.
  5. Commit to playing your part in what you need to do together. Set up the reporting and communications structures, and management checkpoints that will allow you to demonstrate your reliability.

How Worthy Are You Of Their Trust?

Building trust is important. But integrity means truly deserving that trust. Each of the main professional bodies has its own code of ethics. And I think it’s important for an organization or agency to adopt a set of values that it fully expects of its staff.

What Do You Think?

For project managers, our lifeblood is getting things done. And our pride is in managing time, materials, and people to do just that. But sometimes it’s easy to get your head down and into the task, and forget the stakeholders and clients at the other end of the process. It isn’t enough to do right; we must earn our trust. And, if you don’t, you’ll find that being technically good is not enough. So, pick up the phone, and engage with a client today.

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