Trust is the currency of client relationships

Photo by  Muzammil Soorma  on  Unsplash
Trusting you is my decision. Proving me right is your choice.

If I'm your client, trusting you requires me to believe you will do what you say you'll do. Critically, I want you to demonstrate you care about me and my business. Show me that my interests are as important to you as your own, and that you're not just trying to maximise your short-term benefits from our interactions.


Trustworthiness can be thought of in terms of words, actions, emotions, and motives. The following equation is a simple framework for considering the make-up of trust rather than a scientific conclusion. 

T = ( C + R + I ) / S


T is Trustworthiness.

C is Credibility. This is the bit about words: I can trust what she says about...

R is Reliability. This is about actions: I can trust her to...

I is Intimacy. This is the emotions: I feel comfortable discussing this...

S is Self-orientation. This is about motives: I know that she cares about...

For example, I might trust your expertise but distrust your motives. Or I might trust your brilliance but dislike the way you deal with me. Winning someone's trust requires us to do well on all four dimensions in their eyes.


Credibility is the aspect of trust most commonly achieved given the focus that most people place on their expertise. Credibility is typically created through repeated positive experiences or from compelling analysis and advice, however, it's not just about expertise. It's expertise plus bearing, i.e. how you look, act, react, and talk about your subject matter. The concept of credibility includes notions of both accuracy and honesty. Accuracy is mostly rational and is about believability. We can examine someone’s logic or facts, or check their claims against the direct experience of others to assess whether they're accurate. Honesty, on the other hand, is assessed more emotionally and takes longer to establish.

Most people sell themselves on the basis of their competence and buy on the basis of emotion. Consultants tend to focus on their reputation for expertise and their credentials. For me that's not enough. I look for people who also sell themselves on their honesty and ethics.


Reliability is about whether people think you’re dependable and behave in a consistent way. It’s the one aspect of trust that’s explicitly oriented toward action. It links words and deeds. In a rational sense our reliability might be judged by the quality of our work and delivering by the due dates. On an emotional level, someone's opinion of our reliability is formed subconsciously by the extent to which we seem to anticipate their expectations and preferences.


People trust those with whom they’re willing to talk about difficult things, and with those who demonstrate they care. The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy, however, clumsy attempts to establish intimacy too soon can backfire.


People who appear to be more interested in themselves than being of service aren’t easily trusted. Client relationships can be much more than supplier relationships or partnerships. I believe in nurturing friendships. Demonstrate empathy and concern for their well-being. Be friendly, helpful and always respectful.

Economics of trust

The trust equation provides a useful view on the economics of a relationship. Contrast the relationship with a new client with that of an existing client.

Consider a new client. On first impressions, credibility might be scored 5 out of 10 as it is based mostly on reputation and very early perceptions. Reliability might be rated 3 as the consultant is largely untested from the client’s perspective. Similarly, intimacy is rated 2. Self-orientation gets an 8 reflecting the new client's natural assumption that the consultant is primarily interested in looking after his own interests.

With an existing client, the consultant has previously demonstrated their credibility and reliability and has shown genuine care for the client and the client's business. In doing so the consultant has carefully earned a degree of intimacy and trust.

Credibility Reliability Intimacy Self-orientation Trustworthiness
Ratio 4:1

High-retention relationships like those with existing clients are often high-trust relationships. And a strategy based on trust is typically a profitable strategy because the cost of developing new client business is 4 to 7 times higher than the cost of developing the same amount of business from an existing client.