Cultivate Stronger Customer Relationships with the Trustworthiness Equation

U.Group Goes to Harvard: Part Two

The word “consultant” can sometimes have a bad rap. It can mean many things to many different people—and yet nothing substantial at the same time. I’ve heard consultants referred to as outsiders, big-talkers, sets of hands, or expensive mercenaries—but also experts, educators, collaborators, and change-makers.  

The duality of consultants’ reputations belies the general public’s lack of understanding of and trust in the work we do—which is difficult to grapple with as someone in the industry. This issue was at the forefront of my mind as McRae Lenahan LentGarrett Hoppin, and I walked into the “Consultant’s Toolkit” workshop we were attending at Harvard University.  

There, my colleagues and I learned a multitude of different theories, tools, and strategies we can use to better advance the missions of our customers, including the Ishikawa diagram, scenario planning—and the one that spoke loudest to me, the trustworthiness equation. In this article, learn about why the trustworthiness equation is so important—and how you can harness it to build better relationships with your customers, too. 

Defining “Consultant” and the Value Consultants Add 

As I looked around the room, I saw folks from all walks of life, with wildly different professional backgrounds from each other—yet we were all sitting in the same room, attending the same course on how to be a better consultant. 

I realized that while each person may have a different idea of what consultancy entails, we could all agree on certain universal values consultants provide regardless of industry. We can add capacity to a team, add a special set of skills, create change, spark a fire, provide political cover, or deliver new ideas and fresh perspectives as an outside party. 

As a Senior Digital Strategist at U.Group, the word consultant was never a term that I used to refer to myself or my team. After considering the values we agreed upon together at the workshop, however, I saw the word in a new light. It became clear to me that we are all consultants, as we support customers—and we have value to add!  

However, I also realized that another term more accurately encompasses the work we do: strategic partner. This term is more fitting when you consider that we become so embedded with our customer that we become an extension of their own team. We co-create with them to further their strategic goals.  

Establishing a Strategic Partnership Through Trust 

To be a strategic partner is to work together towards a common vision. While we are outsiders, we do our best to discover customer dynamics, problems, and needs. It’s more than just completing a task and leaving—we are there to learn, educate, diagnose, collaborate, challenge, and solve.  

In my experience, the only way to truly immerse yourself in another team is to establish trust. That’s where the trustworthiness equation comes in: 

To define each item in the equation: 

  • Credibility: Do you boast the right credentials? Are you believable? 
  • Reliability: How dependable do you appear? Can your customer count on you?
  • Intimacy: How safe or secure do you make others feel? 
  • Self-Orientation: How self-serving are you? 

One of the most valuable aspects of this equation is that trust can be conceived in many ways. Simply put, scoring a high numerator of credibility, reliability, and intimacy will create trust. The easiest items to check off are credibility and reliability. This is no surprise, as most consultants strive to be credible and reliable.  

Establishing intimacy is much harder. It takes a great deal of effort to create chemistry, build relationships, and establish a safe environment to share feelings, instincts, and feedback. These elements are crucial to a budding strategic partnership. 

While a high numerator will certainly create trust, a high level of self-orientation will do the opposite. This idea really put my work into perspective. We should not try to push our own theories or hypotheses or fulfill our self-interests. We must listen, problem solve, and take on their problems as our own. We only succeed if they succeed.   

We are constantly balancing this equation when we are out in the field. I’m sure every consultant and strategic partner will have their own specific best practices under their belt, but for those of you looking to try something new or establish a relationship with new partners, I recommend putting the following into action to achieve the ultimate trust: 

  • Set clear expectations 
  • Keep any promises you make 
  • Spend time with the customer and create a rapport 
  • Be open to direction and new ideas 
  • Take on the customer’s problem as your own 

As someone who leads with their heart—even professionally—the trustworthiness equation is a concept that brings me a sense of hope. We are skilled people working to find solutions for our partners—an endeavor that takes stamina, commitment, and just the right amount of ego. 

Stay tuned for Garrett’s breakdown of the importance of scenario planning. Can’t get enough strategy insights in the meantime? Register for our newsletter for monthly updates.

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