How consultants can build more trust in their client relationships

  • Fergus Navaratnam-Blair

Clients buying consulting work have a lot of different factors to weigh up when choosing a service provider to work with. Some of those factors—the cost, the number of resources the firm can provide, the timeframe they say they can deliver in—are relatively straightforward to measure and weigh against each other. But then, at the heart of those purchasing decisions, there’s a factor that’s far more nebulous and harder to quantify: trust.

The concept of trust has always played an important role in clients’ buying decisions for consulting services when compared with other B2B product and service categories. Partly, that’s because there’s so much uncertainty involved in the delivery of consulting projects. Even with the best planning and foresight in the world, it’s impossible to know at the outset of a project all the potential challenges and obstacles that may arise on the road to its completion. A high level of trust—in both directions—is vital if those challenges are going to be successfully dealt with as they arise.

Since the onset of the pandemic, however, trust has only become more important within the context of the consulting sector. In our recent report, Building a Trusted Brand, we found that 87% of clients felt that trust had become a more important part of their purchasing decisions as a result of COVID. When clients don’t have as many opportunities to interact face-to-face with their consultants and provide personal oversight, it’s even more critical that they choose a provider they can trust to deliver value for them.

So, what can consulting firms do if they want to embed a deeper level of trust into their client relationships? As part of our research for the aforementioned report, we interviewed a number of clients with personal experience of buying consulting services and working with consultants—and we asked them to recall specific moments in which a consultant made a decision or took an action that made it easier for them to invest that consultant’s firm with their trust. Perhaps surprisingly, the most common response we heard didn’t have anything to do with project delivery; instead, clients told us that it was the moments when consultants turned down the opportunity to bid for a piece of work that did the most to establish themselves as trustworthy service providers.

It seems that some of the most powerful and memorable moments in the lifecycle of a client/consultant relationship are those when the consultant says “Actually, I don’t think our firm has the capabilities you’re going to need for this project”, or “I don’t think you should be spending money with a consulting firm for this sort of work.” Those are the moments, according to clients, that can elevate a consulting relationship, transforming it from a purely transactional one into a genuine partnership rooted in a strong sense of trust.

Ultimately, the foundation of trust has to be a mutuality of interests; clients need to believe that your firm cares more about creating value for their organisation than it does about extracting revenue from it. And by turning down the opportunity to bid for a piece of work, you send a clear signal about where your true priorities lie. That’s why learning when to say “no” is one of the most effective things a consulting firm can do when it comes to building trust with clients—and why firms that care about trust need to be honest and transparent with prospective buyers about the limitations of their capabilities.