People in sales and business know instinctively that trust is key to selling.  LinkedIn’s annual State of Sales report reinforces this with its survey data, calling the need for building trust building skills “an enduring trend.” In the 2018 report 49% of sales professionals ranked trust as the number one factor, above ROI and price, in closing deals.  More important, 51% percent of business decision makers rank trust as the top factor they desire in a salesperson they engage as a potential vendor.

Sales and business professionals I speak to tend to view trust building as either deeply interpersonal or based on specific acts of goodwill. The deeply interpersonal approach focuses on engaging “people I know well” or “friends of people I know well.”  In this view, trust comes from having worked together in the past, having gone to school together, or having some other close connection that builds a deep relationship.

Trust that comes from specific acts of goodwill is also a way to build a buyer’s confidence for a couple of reasons.  Goodwill comes in many forms and the right act can be aligned very specifically to an individual situation.  Acts of goodwill can range from the proverbial box seats at a sporting event to a simple gift on someone’s birthday or just a compliment to someone in front of their boss.  Acts of goodwill work because reciprocal altruism is hardwired into our DNA, so when you give a gift or compliment it creates a sense of obligation to reciprocate in some way.

Both relationships and acts of goodwill are important to trust building, but also a bit idiosyncratic and difficult to repeat across new relationships. Because of this, I always encourage sales professionals and sales leaders to work on trust building as a behavior that can be brought into all buyer relationships.

I developed this approach to trust building as a result of my early successes in outreach to senior business leaders – not in a sales role but as a research scientist. I began my career as a Ph.D. social scientist at the RAND corporation, a premier non-profit think tank, doing research with corporations on training and workforce development.  Since I was raised in an academic family and spent the first ten years of my professional life doing academic-style research, I was acutely aware that business culture was very different from the academic culture I had grown up in.  So, in working to engage corporate partners for my research studies I consciously adopted a set of behaviors that I thought of as “corporate behaviors.”

These include behaviors like:

  • Being very specific about “what was in it for them” in my outreach for meeting requests
  • Using emails and call outreach in combination to bring attention to my interview requests
  • Setting specific follow up dates and then following up on those dates to build confidence
  • Sharing and referencing names of business colleagues or peer companies in my outreach
  • Leading my calls and interviews with active listening, questions, and recapping
  • Recapping key points from my interviews in a follow-up email and including any next steps
  • Picking up clues on personal interests and reconnecting to these interests at appropriate times


To the envy of my corporate friends, the approach worked well. I got meetings with top CEOs and business leaders and managed to engage them in my ongoing research projects.  What I learned early on in my “prospecting” for qualitative research interviews at RAND is how to make trust building repeatable in a sales context with a set of behaviors that build a buyer’s perception of a seller’s comprehension, competency, and compassion.


Trust Building as a Behavior

In a sales context, it is buyers’ perception of your comprehension of their specific goals and challenges,  competence to help advance their goals, and compassion in managing the relationship that matter most for building trust.  Trust around each of these buyer perceptions is created or not created based on the behaviors you model consistently in the sales process.  Perceptions of comprehension can be mostly strongly anchored with active listening skills and demonstrating role understanding.  Belief in your competence to solve a buyer’s problem will increase as you demonstrate follow through on commitments and lead with evidence over opinion.  Finally, you can model compassion and the ability to make adjustments in the relationship by engaging with your buyer’s personal interests and showing gratitude throughout the purchasing process.


Buyer Perception Key Behaviors
Comprehension Active Listening, Role Understanding
Competence Follow Through, Evidence Over Opinion
Compassion Personal Interests, Constant Gratitude



Demonstrating Comprehension

The very first thing that all of our buyers want to believe is that we have a good comprehension of their challenges and their organizational role.  Without demonstrating comprehension very early in a customer conversation we are unlikely to get permission for any follow on conversations.   

The single most important behavior toward showing comprehension is active listening.  Active listening skills are key to any successful relationship and sales is no different. A study conducted by the leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman and written up in the Harvard Business Review analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches.  The study found those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%) shared specific qualities in how they managed conversations.  They “listen to understand,” ask follow on clarifying questions, make suggestions, and engage in cooperative conversation.

Active listening also sets us up to show comprehension of a buyer’s problem in another way – by demonstrating role understanding and role empathy in linking your product or solution to their individual goals.  We do not sell to organizations, we sell to people. Every closed sale happens because a person in the buyer organization became motivated enough to take multiple actions to build readiness to purchase.  These acts by our champion likely include bringing their colleagues into the conversation, finding a source of funding, aligning to internal initiatives and timelines, and helping us troubleshoot questions and objections throughout the buying process.

A champion’s motivation is going to be directly related to how clearly they think you understand their specific goals.   You can develop habits and questions throughout any sales conversation to prompt your active listening and demonstrated understanding, but it is easiest in the Value Discovery phase.  Value Discovery presents several key opportunities to listen, recap and clarify, including:

  • Confirming Goals
    “I heard you say you…” or “My takeaway from the conversation is that your organization is prioritizing X, Y, and Z”.   “Did I hear that correctly?”
  • Role Goals
    “You mentioned X, Y, and Z goals.  Are any of those goals more important than others to you?” or “More likely to get your team’s, VP’s, or CEO’s attention?”
  • Gap-Capability Payoffs
    “I shared several key capabilities that could advance your top priorities.  Do any of those strike you as more helpful to you and your team?”


Demonstrating Competence

If a buyer believes you understand their goals and problems, they next want to be convinced that you are competent to solve their problems.  If they do not believe we are competent to solve their problems, it is a high reputational risk to introduce us to other decision-makers in their organization.  They first need to trust that we will be a reliable ally in helping them advance their goals.

There are two key ways that you build trust in your competence.  The first is to follow through on your commitments by doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.  As we discussed in another post, Give-Gets by Sales Stage are critical for building momentum in any deal.  They create a roadmap on both sides for what next actions are needed to successfully move a sales conversation forward.  “Give-Gets” make it possible to more accurately forecast which deals are going to close each quarter, so they are both a salesperson’s and a sales manager’s best friend.

Give-Gets have the added benefit of being a natural way to create trust by offering specific follow-ups on both sides after each conversation.  There are a number of ways you can structure your buyer interactions to explicitly link Give-Gets to follow through on your commitments.  Here are my three favorites: 

  • Prospecting voicemails
    In your prospecting emails or voicemails, tell the prospect the specific date and method for your next outreach and then follow through.
  • Recap next steps
    At the end of every prospect meeting, recap the items you plan to follow up on and provide  a specific timeframe, then complete those follow ups within the timeframe.
  • Make buyer asks
    At the end of every prospect meeting, ask what your buyer is willing to commit to in terms of talking with others, exploring budgets, timelines, etc. Then ask if there is a good timeline to follow up or check-in and politely follow up at the time they indicated.

The other part of competence is leading with evidence over opinion when you discuss your product and your product’s impact.   When you lead your product discussions with phrases like “that’s definitely a problem we can solve” or “we are the best solution for your problem” it does not actually build confidence.  What the buyer wants to hear is evidence of how you have moved others from a current state to a future state.

Evidence is best when it comes in the form of Success Stories about how you have worked with other similar companies or buyer roles. Buyers place the most trust in their own experiences, but the reference value of peer experience is a close second.   Success stories can build a buyer’s trust and confidence prior to gaining firsthand experience with a company and a company’s product.  A good success story communicates “we have already worked with people like you” and “we know and can reproduce the path to a successful outcome.”



Demonstrating Compassion

A final key to trust building is always treating a buyer from a posture of compassion. A buyer may believe you comprehend their problem and are competent to solve it, but all partnerships have ebbs and flows and they also want to know that you will be a good partner for the long term.  There are two key behaviors that help you build compassion or buyer empathy early into your relationship.

The first is finding personal connections to your potential customers.  We cannot manufacture a long-term relationship, but we can use each sales call to connect with people on things they care about, such as kids, hobbies, sport affiliations or special interests.  Sometimes sellers have a hard time understanding how to do this and why it matters in a business context.

I particularly remember coaching a young seller, let’s call him Jeremy, on this point and helping him see how demonstrating interest in your buyers as people could lead to much deeper conversations.  Deeper conversations do not necessarily mean we will always win the deal, but it does mean we can get a lot more candid and honest information from our buyers on what was really going, which increases our chances of finding an area we can work on together.

Jeremy was in his late 20s and, while new to selling, had a high aptitude for all the things we were teaching his team. He asked good value discovery questions, identified specific goal areas, mapped the value of the Credo platform back to the customer, and asked qualifying questions.  But, Jeremy’s conversations could at times feel clinical and overall focused on whether there was “a fit to move the conversation to the next step.”

I remember suggesting to Jeremy, “why don’t you try to draw your buyers out personally a bit more? Find out about their hobbies, ask them about their kids, ask them how they spent their weekend.  Find out what they are interested in and then see if you can bring them back to these interests in a next call.”

He said to me, “I am a decade or two or three younger than these people. I have nothing in common with them personally.  So how is that going to work?”  I said, “Well, what are you interested in? How do you spend your weekends? Who do you spend time with?  Lead with that and see what happens.”

It turned out that Jeremy was very close to his niece and nephew, enjoyed coaching their sports teams, and following the sports on TV that they liked on TV.  Jeremy started sharing more in his sales calls about the time he spent with his niece and nephew and suddenly things just clicked and became warmer.  In some of the calls, prospects would talk about their own kids, their families, their non-profit or volunteer work, or the sports they follow. This small shift made a big difference and Jeremy’s ability to build trust.

The second key behavior in showing compassion is constant gratitude.  Constant gratitude is different from sympathy because it is reciprocal.  It shows our buyers that we appreciate the time spent with us, and that we are also aware of the value of the time we are spending with them.  It helps both parties stay positively focused on the opportunity in front of us.  Sales conversations that are moving toward closing business can get stressful for a number of reasons.  We have already invested a bunch of time and want to see a return. We may have told our boss or leadership team about the deal and assigned it to the forecast of our sales goal achievement.  Or, we may be entering into a period of negotiations with Give-Gets and frustrations on both sides.

A focus on gratitude helps us maintain emotional composure even at these points of frustration so we don’t “blow the trust” we have cultivated through the process.  Most of the customer relationship is not about high stakes negotiations, but we can draw on tips about negotiation to maintain composure across the entire sales process.  Here are themes we teach about negotiation:

  • Differences without conflict
    Language matters and positive messages are much more likely to demonstrate buyer empathy.  “No” is a phrase you should try to remove from your vocabulary with buyers, unless it is responding to a question about a very specific capability of your product.  When you find yourself ready to say “no” to a buyer question, instead say “I hear you” or “I understand your question”  and then answer “Here is how we think about it…”  Two different points of view is different from two points of view in conflict.  Shifting from saying “Yes, but” to “Yes, and” is a second way you can show recognition of differences without representing it as conflict.
  • Talk it out
    On points of disagreement or tension, do not shortcut the discussion of different points of view.  Allowing each side to speak their mind helps the buyer to feel that they are being heard.  It will also surface specific objections that need to be addressed as well  as highlight easy adjustments or concessions that can show responsiveness and build goodwill.
  • Make appreciation specific
    Almost every sales conversation ends with the proverbial “Thanks so much for your time today.”   While polite, it is so routine it does not really show any empathy.  Specific appreciations are much more valuable. Instead, things like “Thanks for having <name> join the conversation” or “Thanks for going into so much detail about <topic>.”  Specific appreciations show we paid attention to the details of that individual conversation.


Assessing How You Help Seller’s Build Trust: A Simple Self-Diagnostic

Here are questions you can ask yourself as you think about how you are helping your sales team build the trust and rapport that can lead to strong buyer relationships:  

  • Is active listening, summarizing, and recapping a specific skill you have your team to develop?
  • Do you review call videos and emails to give feedback on these skills?
  • Do you link success stories to specific buyer personas and segments to build connection?
  • Have you made “give-gets” part of the way your team qualifies deals?
  • Do you encourage your team to identify specific dates to support follow through on both sides?
  • When you do joint calls or review call videos do you point out moments your sellers connected to a buyer’s personal interests to reinforce this behavior?  How about with expressions of gratitude?

Trust can definitely help your team win deals, but only if you support and encourage the simple behavioral strategies that build trust consistently.  Trust is not an either/or or something magically “earned” through goodwill, but a function of the behaviors we use to manage buyer engagement.