Gaining trust inside a business relationship

When I started designing and building websites I was around thirteen years old. Back then designing and developing websites was merely a hobby than a job I could earn money with. First I only built websites for myself. It was pure fun and the internet was a wonderland, full of awesomeness. Because we had a horrible slow connection at home, I sometimes waited around 15 minutes for some flash websites to load, only because they were so nicely designed and quite entertaining. When I turned sixteen I was first asked to design and develop a website for some money in return. That felt great. I knew something others didn’t and I could get money from it!

I registered my first little company when I turned eighteen – I was still in school during that time. From that point on, I openly communicated that I could design and build websites for money and more and more small projects came through my door. Because I started so very early doing this, talking to clients was a thing I had to do as well. I had to convince them of my design decisions, I had to explain how the CMS would work and how they could add content themselves. I even negotiated little retainers that would ensure constant updates for their site and that included a bit of webspace to host the site. As a side note – one of the strongest advantages of doing this so early was that I quickly learned how diverse characters could be and that it is pure luxury being able to decide with whom you want to work with.

It is pure luxury being able to decide with whom you want to work with.

Convincing clients was like a tricky game. You just didn’t know sometimes which action would trigger a desired response. And because I had very little life and professional experience back then, I simply had to try what would work and what would not. I quickly realized two things.

  1. There are people who like being told what to do. They simply refuse to involve themselves in the matter and they have no idea about what they want. That was easy for me, because I only had to convince them of a budget and the rest was on me.
  2. But then there are people who like to involve themselves in the simplest task. They want status updates all the time, it even feels as if they mistrust you. They want to micro-manage everything. These people could be a real nightmare.

I had to run extra miles to get the project through the door. I had to update them, I needed to ask their opinion on things and I had to meet with them more often than I wanted. I had to properly manage their expectations, which is a concept an 18-year-old doesn’t necessarily know about.

Client communications is the bread and butter of your business.

Obviously I preferred the people who would just take what I built them and gave me the money. I lacked the communication skills back then to competently manage the people who wanted to be involved, who were eagerly looking for advice and who at least – to give them credit – gave a shit about their project. Another side note – if you want to start out as a freelancer, never underestimate client communications! It’s the bread and butter of your business and if you’re easily intimidated by confrontations or heated discussions, you might want to reconsider becoming a freelancer. Or you should definitely invest in conversation training.

Building trust

A client’s trust has to be gained. You can make a good first impression by having a good education and a nice CV. That can be one reason a clients talks to you, because they assume, when you studied some stuff they didn’t, you probably know what you’re talking about. But this is not something that ensures a fruitful business relationship to say the least.

A client’s trust has to be gained.

You need to spend more time with the client. The client needs a chance to get to know how you tick. And this cannot be achieved by having two meetings together. The time it needs to build up a proper business relationship varies because of individual personalities.
I am a very quiet lad in the first meeting. I need all the information first to express assumptions about the direction the project should go. My brain needs time to figure out how my interview partners roll, how I need to talk to them and how I can find common ground to start a productive discussion. I am simply unable to demonstrate my repertoire in a first session. And if you know that of yourself it can help to have a side-kick in first meetings who is exactly the opposite.

Manage expectations

Try to be one step ahead at all times because if you are, your level of trust is rising constantly.

I mentioned it earlier – managing expectations is absolutely mandatory to continuously keep the client’s trust. If the client doesn’t know about the status of her project, she will ask you. If she need’s to ask you, she doesn’t feel well informed. If she doesn’t feel well informed – you know, where this is going. Making sure the client always knows what’s going on is important and the client should know without having to ask you. Try to be one step ahead at all times because if you are, your level of trust is rising constantly. Apart from informing the client regularly about the status of the project, explain thoroughly what you do and why you do it. Only if the client can truly understand what’s going on, the client’s mind can be at ease. Achieve this by doing regular stand-ups or by having regular calls. Do what fits within your project schedule but whatever you do, always ensure to also have meetings in person. You cannot properly express yourself during a phone call and some topics need personal attention. Especially when you need to inform the client that something is not going as planned, try to arrange a personal meeting to have the chance of properly explaining what happened and what your the solution to the problem would be.

Make your client become your partner

I know, I probably wrote “client” a hundred times in this article but I actually prefer not to call the client a client. I rather like to call clients partners. When you start a project together that takes a few months or even longer, it is important to overcome the distance that lies in the words client and agency. I hate it when clients see us only as suppliers, because we are more than that. We spend a lot of time together, we share knowledge, we both want the success of the project. We often also work like an enhancement for a client’s team. I am convinced that in order to do the best work possible you need to be seen as one entity, even if it’s just for a short amount of time. Partners go hand in hand. Some clients prefer to keep a distance as a protection but if you’re not telling me everything I need to know to do my job properly, it makes no sense to do business together.

To summarize

Don’t let clients guess.

This is obviously some advice extracted out of personal experience and that works for my personality. If you know of yourself that you’re quite an extrovert, some concepts might not apply to you. In general gaining trust is also a matter of trial and error. But it can come in handy to follow some simple steps.

  1. Trust doesn’t come naturally. It has to be gained through your actions. Being open, transparent and clear helps as a start.
  2. Manage expectations. Don’t let clients guess. Keep the client well informed and try to always be one step ahead. Share important news in person. That demonstrates respect and underlines your transparency.
  3. See clients as partners. Your client is not against you, even if they disagree with something you propose or are emotional at times. Your client just wants what’s best for their business. Acknowledge that and be understanding and respectful. Ask if you don’t understand a client’s explanation in order to get the full picture. Be empathetic and try to find a solution together with your client.