It is common to speak of building trust within a project team.
We debate ways to build trust, how we break trust and to what extent this “trust notion” is important anyway.
I have written about trust building with regard to noticing the implicit promiseswe make each other, and how very “real” they are to us in terms of consequences even though we don’t know they exist.
I know some cynics who say that trust does not exist… but I also accept that is how a true cynic might see it, and I move on.
So in this post, I want to talk about the trust we build with our customers… something relevant to every technology leader. (Actually, the core reference for my post above had to do, in part, with a marketer’s perspective of software developers.)
Revisiting components of trust
I have introduced a distinction for trust as:
An assessment of sincerity, reliability and competence to hold our promises for long horizons of time
You might use a different distinction, but I offer this one as the basis for the rest of this post. It is a standard distinction produced and taught by The Aji Network, which you know if you follow me is an educational discourse of business professionals with whom I have learned and grown professionally.
Actually, when I say “long horizons of time”, it is more specific to say “as long as needed”. If you trust me with a promise not to tell about a surprise birthday party… I am off the hook for that promise after the event.
So what is our task?
Given that distinction for trust, we only build trust with our customers when they assess we are:
- Sincere – we mean what we say
- Reliable – we recurrently do what we say
- Competent – we’re not claiming a skill we don’t have
AND… we have to hold our promises [for as long as needed].
The thing is, if we don’t make any promises, we can’t build trust.
Now, I’ve heard some people adopt this as an intentional strategy – if we don’t make promises, they can’t distrust us. Actually, the opposite is true — if we don’t make promises, our customers WILL grow to trust us — to NOT take care of them.
We can’t hide demand by ignoring it exists (or saying “no” to everything), and we can’t build trust by saying “yes” and failing to deliver. So what is left for us to do?
The natural human planning cycle: 90 days
Here are two examples from domains outside software projects:
- There is an executive transition book published by Harvard Press called “The First 90 Days“
- There is also a great agile business operations book by Gino Wickman called “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business“
These books have at least one thing in common – they both refer to the human psychological implications of 90 days as a powerful window for planning.
Things change a lot in our business lives, and in the business lives of our customers. That is one reason we gravitate toward agile, or at least to short-cycle projects. Here we have two examples of other domains that suggest a familiar theme – give yourself space for feedback and time to adapt… and don’t pretend to know everything.
So let me offer this natural human planning cycle as consistent with a powerful move to build trust with our customers. Don’t delay a release unless something drastic has happened. Communicate clearly and confidently about what will be “in” the release, but don’t miss the ship date.
Over time, your capacity to recurrently hit ship dates (reliability), with solid features (competence) as you have said you would (sincerity), you create the opening to change the moods and attitudes of customers who might have great reasons not to trust due to historical patterns.
One strategic purpose for building trust with customers
There are many reasons to build trust with customers, but I will leave that to another post.
Today, I just want to link back to a past article I wrote about the role of project managers to hold customers to their end of the bargain– that they take receipt of our products. Not every team has this problem because they have their customers’ trust.
Some teams don’t have the problem because they have psychologically strong coaches who can force acceptance on their customers regardless of trust. (I haven’t directly observed this, but I leave open the possibility that it might exist.)
For the rest of us, not having your customer’s trust means they may become over-demanding, asking for more because they know they won’t get it all. They may get beaten down and stop asking for your help. Or I don’t know if this is worse, but they may take their budgets and look elsewhere for help.
They are not “wrong” in acting that way… but you can get ahead of them by investing in building their trust. Find promises you CAN make, if you can’t do everything. (Who can?)
…and deliver on those promises, consistently, competently, sincerely and recurrently… for as long as needed.