Why building trust is key to sustainable long-term sales relationships

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Building trust is key to sustainable long-term sales relationships. This is surprisingly true even for very large B2B sales, despite the availability of hard facts on the buying company’s reliability, cashflow and payment morale. Trust is still key to long-term relationships that don’t require controlling and compliance functions all the time.

Creating and earning trust is, therefore, a skill salespeople have to master, and indeed, a lot of sales training and the respective literature focuses on this soft skill as part of a well-functioning set of sales capabilities.

However, as with many interpersonal traits, the culture of trust (or lack thereof) within the selling organisation has a strong impact on its salespeople. How much of a trusting and trustworthy environment do they work in themselves? How much does lack of trust in their abilities and activities damage their own capacity to create trusting relationships with their customers?

Over the years, I have observed how much these two factors seem to correlate across industries. On one hand, the trust salespeople are able to establish with clients, and on the other hand, the level of trust they experience internally, from their superiors, colleagues, other departments, and even HR to start with. I have yet to meet a salesperson who, while working in an environment of distrust, jealousy and misguided internal competition, succeeds in building and maintaining open, transparent, client-focused relationships. Even if they could, the probability of those relationships being jeopardised by other areas of the business (delivery, customer service, accounting or management) seems inevitable.

There is also plenty of research and literature on the impact of trust on employee loyalty, staff retention and engagement. But above that, I’ve noticed that, finally, more and more companies have started putting two and two together. Smart companies realise the immediate impact an internal culture of trust has on the external relationships with customers. So before hiring salespeople with an ‘air of trustworthiness’ or investing in soft-skills training, they first work on creating an environment that sets the scene for success in both directions, creating trust within and earning it with other business partners.

There are a number of factors contributing to mutual trust. Some are based on the way people in an organisation deal with each other: culture, values and attitudes, the consistency and reliability of the resulting behaviours and cooperation. Others are based on more concrete aspects of the work: resources, support, career pathways, and opportunities to strive and succeed.

Mindset of the leadership team

Trust is critical for the shift from a control-based management culture to a supportive leadership approach that truly leverages the potential of ongoing sales training and coaching, enabling salespeople and creating a learning sales organisation.

There is always role ambiguity with a superior who on one day claims to be a team member’s coach, while on the next day reviews the same person’s performance. Trust is key to navigate this situation, and it has to start on the leadership side. Only if leaders can live and role-model what trusted relationships entail, are salespeople able to establish similar relationships with their clients without compromise.

Therefore, a mindset that embraces the idea of trust, loyalty and empowerment, not just as buzzwords, but as something to live by every day, is key to enabling salespeople to convey such a culture in their sales approach. The line between ongoing leadership support and micromanagement is thin, reward and incentive programmes need to encourage the right behaviour, not just the desired results.

If in doubt, leaders should always take an initial neutral perspective before judging any actions or outcomes. Building trust does not mean to be on the side of the salesperson all the time, but to be reliably unbiased when facing challenges and issues.

The role of learning and development

What came first: the huge average turnover rate of salespeople or the lack of training within an organisation? Can your salespeople trust you to provide them with training, resources and the necessary support to be successful at their work? Can you trust your salespeople to hang around long enough to create a return on training investment?

The solution to this issue may be easier than generally expected. All organisations have to do is abandon a learning and development concept that focuses on short, compact training events and embrace long-term, ongoing learning and training, for example, through a blend of online training programmes, coaching support through sales leaders, peer-to-peer learning and behaviour and quality based KPIs, paired with career pathways linked to the individual’s learning journey.

Successful businesses create a learning culture where employees don’t have to fight every year for a training budget or development opportunities. They can be trusted to provide learning and development support where and when it is actually needed.

The other important role of learning and development in such organisations is to ensure the underlying framework and culture is aligned, functional, trustworthy, and providing the resources needed beyond the actual training. This includes supporting sales and CRM tools, and a commitment to consistency across the organisation’s value chain, so the business can deliver on the promises their salespeople make at any stage.

Trust and organisational complexity

The ongoing trend in learning and development is still the shift from isolated learning events and other training measures to creating a perpetual, integrated learning environment and culture. However, as organisations are more and more capable of incorporating a holistic systems approach that acknowledges complexity beyond the learning and development functions and roles, they are now moving further into building the foundations of their sales operations with permanent links into all other parts of the organisations, horizontally and vertically.

In this sense, learning and development will no longer be the obvious first step in developing sales teams. It will only successfully come into play once the underlying fabric that gives sales a solid and even foundation is in place. It will then have the opportunity to contextualise the learning content.

This trend will push learning and development further away from generic sales training, and bring classroom-based training to yet another level of interactivity, practicality and relevance to participants. Workshops will turn into sales labs, where salespeople can truly work on real cases, simulate the sales process and prepare for all sorts of potential scenarios in their upcoming client meetings.

In short, organisations are picking up on the opportunity to create a safe environment for their salespeople to work on their skills and complex tasks, with their leaders and peers trusting each other, in order to achieve positive and sustainable results for the whole team and organisation. For them, trust is no longer just a desirable social virtue, but a hard economic driver for their business.

This will enable salespeople to go out to meet their clients and prospects without the fear of being caught between two possible alternatives. It enables them to give their clients that same trust they receive, and build the relationships they need to become successful beyond short term objectives.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

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Bill Fotsch
Bill Fotsch
3 years ago

I agree, building trust is a huge driver of personal and company success. As an example, take one client of mine, Southwest Airlines.
They empower their employees to think and act like owners, so they are economically engaged. Mike Van de Ven led this effort, which they called “Plane Smart Business”, classic SWA humor. He is now the COO. They provide employees with challenges to improve the economics, not perks. Their legendary performance / customer satisfaction flows from this.
These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background: https://hbr.org/2018/01/more-than-a-paycheck http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2016/05/31/engage-your-employees-in-making-money/

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