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Fostering trust in client relationships

by
01 August 2016, at 1:00am

The Mercury column, in which a columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

SOME YEARS AGO, DURING AN OUTBREAK OF SARS (do you remember that?) I was walking across the concourse at Heathrow’s terminal 3 when a diminutive, Oriental gentleman sneezed three times, loudly and in rapid succession. 

In what was almost a cartoon animation, the entire concourse had cleared within a nanosecond, leaving the sneezing gentleman in the centre of his own circle of isolation with the nearest person something like 20 feet away. Is it the fear of contagion that drives panic or panic which drives contagion?

Some students of history may view the name Metternich as the architect of the unrest which spread like wild re across Europe in the mid-19th century leading to the Year of Revolution in 1848 but, today, more than a century after his death, the Austrian diplomat Prince Klemens von Metternich remains a controversial figure.

Many late 19th century Europeans loathed him as an obstructionist who tried to prevent the uni cation of the powerful nations of Germany and Italy and this earned him the reputation of being the arch enemy of freedom.

Yet Europeans in the late 20th century, recovering from the disasters of two world wars, tend to see him as a perceptive visionary whose diplomatic ideas maintained peace in Europe between 1815 and 1914 during which period Europe collectively became the dominant economic and military power in the world.

It seems that there are a number of parallels between the Europe of today and that of 1848 when a surge of population had led to a rapid and very significant rise in the number of people living in key cities, an upward pressure on prices and fierce competition for a static number of jobs together with a very real sense of disengagement from the politicians who were supposed to represent them.

This all took place against a backdrop of increased information which had led more people to hold a burgeoning desire to become more involved in that interface between government and the daily conduct of people’s lives. Does that sound familiar?

Metternich may be most famous for his statement that “When Paris sneezes, Europe catches cold” but, in today’s more complex and instantaneous world, one wonders whether the contagion of mounting dissent might travel further than just a continent.

Shunning ‘big’ government

All over the world, we see voters seeking to shun “big” government on a surf of populist propaganda designed to effect major change in the name of democracy. This powerful wave of desire for change has already stretched most of the way around the world – from Turkey to the Philippines, through Malaysia to the US – but the underlying fabric of this desire for a different style of representation is based on trust – or the perceived lack of it.

Metternich never had to deal with the voracious appetite of a 24/7 news feed or the need to sensationalise news to secure and retain TV audiences as do present day politicians, but the need for trust remains as absolute now as it was then.

In the absence of trust, people will move away from any form of engagement. They may go quietly or they may stamp their feet and march loudly, but the end result is that the dissolution of trust permanently removes the opportunity to engage and with it the chance to take remedial action. This is as true for national politics as it is for small businesses.

We all know how easy it is to lose a client and very often we have no idea which factors contributed to their departure from our business relationship, but recent history reinforces what we already know, which is that once the horse has bolted there’s little point in seeking a rational discussion as one’s view of the departing horse says it all.

However we dress it up, business is all about human relationships and, if the buyer is to come back again for another go at it, there needs to be trust on both sides. All too often I nd myself expecting people to t in with my model of how I like to conduct business but 21st century trade is based on more complex interaction.

From simple to social

It used to be quite simple when there was just the spoken word and the Royal Mail but in today’s world, people form their judgements both close-up-and- personal as well as distant and remote. The founding principle behind social media is the sharing of experience, views and likes and dislikes among communities of like-minded people.

If we conclude that our practice needs to be within a certain community, both literally and metaphorically, we cannot but recognise that we need to be as skilled as the next man or woman if we are to create a relationship that may only see physical interaction between them and us twice a year and relies on the goodwill of our good name to carry us through the interval. For that entire lengthy sentence, you could simply substitute the word “trust”.

Maybe the clue lies in the phrase “them and us”. For this to work in the long term, we need to think of our businesses as communities in their own right and to fashion a way of communicating meaningfully with our client base throughout the year in ways that they value and appreciate.

For most of us, that means sending out messages in a push-pull mechanic that maintains our continuing existence in front of our clients when we’re no longer top-of- mind.

Whether that needs to be a mechanic which revolves around miscellaneous but timely advice about the dos and don’ts of pet ownership is another question and I’m waiting to see the first practice which finds a successful means of communicating to a community on a far broader platform than animal- related topics.

This is a tool which is successfully deployed in other business environments and it may have a value in our business world too.

After all, who better to understand the value of gentle persuasion around the front end of a horse than a vet? Waving goodbye to the back end offers little reward to anyone.