BL&T No. 034: Building Client Trust With Honesty

Ways of Working

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals consider it a positive virtue to maintain an emotional distance from their clients. They work hard at being "aloof." We believe that they do so not only at their own risk but also their clients'.”

From The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Robert M. Galford, Charles H. Green [Book]


Landing a new client never gets old. The client had plenty of options, and they chose us. It feels good. While we may have our client's confidence, we have not yet earned their trust. Like the start of any new relationship, we are eager to impress.

As the expert, it is our duty to deliver for our client. We align on objectives and put a plan in place. It is all fine and well until it is not. Hiccups happen. In these moments, our desire to save face is natural. We try to explain what went wrong and why. We may even make excuses. We promise to get the project back on track. Again, it is all fine and well until it is not. If the new plan does not work out, what then?

Navigating a New Relationship

Earlier this year, we signed a new client engagement that involved several different workstreams. Not only was it an exciting brand to work with, but the opportunity to provide services across nearly every discipline of our team was energizing.

The engagement got off to a good start. So good that, a few months ago, the client asked us to help with a higher-level strategy. We scheduled a meeting to align on the new needs then got to work. About a week later, we presented our approach. It was not well-received.

It quickly became clear that the ask was getting lost in translation. In the days that followed, we re-aligned with the client on one of those 30-minute calls that lasted an hour. We left feeling better, then provided a new approach over email. Despite a more favorable response, we still did not have the approval to move forward. Not ideal.

Feeling Uneasy

With the feedback, we had enough information to progress toward a refined approach, but I could not shake this sense of uneasiness. We wanted this to work and were doing our best to deliver. From our standpoint, the project objective was ever-changing. I wondered if the client could see that. Were we missing something?

During a chat with our lead on the account, I sensed their same uneasiness. I thought, why are we marching on if we do not feel good about where we are going? With all of our efforts to get the new initiative right, we had not considered what might be contributing to the recent miscommunications. Our account lead and I debriefed before I requested a call with a client stakeholder.

Opening Up

At the top of our call, the client shared a positive sentiment about our team. They commented on our responsiveness and apologized for how they had been managing us as a partner. Hearing this was a pleasant surprise. We then dove into feedback. I expressed how enthusiastic we were about the relationship and what we thought might be holding us back. The client agreed with our concerns and provided helpful context about the highs and lows of the internal team's past initiatives.

Our call could not have gone better. It was liberating to speak freely about the relationship and align on the desired future. Up until then, I had not realized how much our uneasiness was impacting the work.

It has been just over a week since the call. I will admit, the journey has not entirely smoothed out, but we have momentum, and it feels like our two teams are in it together. In many ways, I think the last few weeks have brought us closer.

Lesson? Honesty is not a privilege that comes with earning trust. Honesty is a critical part of the process of building trust with our clients. If we are feeling uneasy, chances are we are not alone. Hiding this to maintain our image will not take us very far. We will eventually become entrenched in playing a part and lose focus on the client. In the end, we risk losing the very relationship we hoped to strengthen.

Thought Starter

Where is my fear of telling the truth influencing my efforts to improve a client relationship? What might happen if I was honest?

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