A shifty, duplicitous salesperson is unlikely to have a successful career. Business leaders want to buy from people they trust. Sell a few bad deals, and an unsavory reputation will begin to precede you.

However, the majority of salespeople don't fit the slimy "used car salesman" stereotype. In the beginning of a sales engagement, most get stuck in that precarious middle ground between trustworthy and downright dishonest. The buyer doesn't have reason to mistrust the rep ... but they don't exactly have faith in the salesperson either.

To become a "trusted advisor" -- as so many thought leaders advocate -- a rep must first gain their prospects' trust. While trust is an intangible and somewhat slippery metric, there are still some concrete actions salespeople can take to build rapport with buyers and win their faith faster. Here are nine psychology-inspired tips to help you build trust with buyers in a snap.

1) Offer social proof.

The bandwagon effect causes people to adopt trends and ideas because others are adopting them (think pet rocks, or more recently, yoga pants). When we see other people -- especially those we trust -- vouching for something by wearing it, using it, or talking it up, it colors our opinion of the object in question.

Harness the power of the bandwagon effect and social proof by soliciting LinkedIn recommendations from current or former customers. Did you help a client achieve incredible results, or earn a promotion? Ask them to write up a brief paragraph about your work together and share it for all to see on your profile page. Prospects coming to you cold might warm to you a bit after reading a few glowing endorsements (especially if they know or share common connections with your referrer). 

2) Establish your credibility. 

Humans naturally fear the unknown. This helped us from not getting eaten a range of scary, sharp-toothed animals when we were still hunters and gatherers. Is that bush rustling in a menacing way? Maybe we should approach it slowly instead of running up to it yelling loudly with a stick ...

Today, our chances of being devoured by a lion have greatly decreased, but our odds of being screwed over by a vendor have not. Hence, buyers are wary to trust salespeople whose credibility hasn't been proven. Providing hard data about results you've helped drive in your introductory call can do a lot to disarm the prospect, and inch closer to trust.

3) Look them in the eye.

When people lie, their eyes often dart back and forth, or focus on the floor. They look anywhere but at the person they're lying to. 

A lack of eye contact carries other negative connotations as well. "Ben Decker, CEO of Decker Communications ... says that people who avert their gaze too soon, or avoid eye contact altogether, are often seen as untrustworthy, unknowledgeable and nervous," according to a Wall Street Journal article

Your nonverbal communication is just as important as what you say when attempting to build trust. However, staring directly into your prospect's eyes for your entire meeting is bound to make them feel uncomfortable. Decker recommends maintaining eye contact for seven to 10 seconds to communicate trustworthiness and confidence.

4) Bring up bad experiences. 

Has your prospect been burned by another vendor in your space? Encourage them to talk about the experience, and how it's affected their ability to trust salespeople.

This might seem counterintuitive, but digging up your prospect's negative emotions could pave the way for trust with you. By probing into where specifically the previous rep failed them, you can make a completely informed promise to your buyer that you won't go down the same path. 

A Psychology Today article also points out that people are innately more or less trusting based on their relationship with their primary caregiver as a child. You don't need to (and shouldn't) butt into your buyer's childhood issues, but if you sense you're dealing with a naturally distrustful person, you might gently make them aware of this inclination. 

"Because our mental representations are automatic and not consciously perceived, we can combat their effect on how we interpret events and actions by bringing them into conscious awareness," the article states. In other words, by bringing mistrustful tendencies to the surface, you might help the buyer reevaluate how they perceive you and your company. 

5) Be consistent.

Unflinching, total trust isn't built in a day. It takes days, months, or even years of proving yourself to earn someone's faith. But what if you only have a two-minute long cold call?

Regardless of the length of time, consistency is a key factor in building trust. Over the long-term, you should deliver on the terms of your client's contract and follow up on any promises you made during the sales process. However, you can also establish credibility in the super short-term.

For example, many salespeople start their cold calls by saying "This will only take five minutes." And yet ... they talk on and on and on. Pretty soon a half hour has gone by. The call ends only when the prospect hangs up. 

This is inconsistent behavior. If you say you'd like to talk for just five minutes ... talk for just five minutes. When you time yourself and stop promptly at the five minute mark, the buyer knows that you mean what you say, and the seeds of trust have been planted. 

6) Put your faith in them. 

In a Business Insider article, Darlene Price, president of Well Said Inc., recommends the phrase "You decide -- I trust your judgment" as a way to build trust. Why? Because demonstrating your trust in your prospect will encourage them to trust you back.

The underlying psychological phenomenon here is known as the Pygmalion effect. This quirk holds that "people treat others in ways that are consistent with their expectations of them and therefore cause the person to behave in a way that confirms those expectations," Business Insider states. So if you think someone is trustworthy, you'll treat them as such. And because you treat them like they're trustworthy, they're more likely to reciprocate. 

7) Be competent.

This is a no-brainer. If you're not good at your job, prospects won't trust you -- and quite honestly, they shouldn't. 

So what does it mean to be a competent salesperson? Here's a brief list of skills you should master:

  • Pre-call research
  • Asking the right qualification questions
  • Listening to the buyer, and pivoting conversations according to what they care about
  • Crafting thoughtful answers to objections and having them at the ready
  • Presenting tailored demos
  • Knowing when to close, and doing so effectively

If you're weak in one of these areas, ask your manager for help or seek additional training.

8) Demonstrate genuine concern.

Trust often prompts people to share personal details about their lives, or divulge information not publicly known. And I doubt they would do this if they didn't think their listener would care, or at least empathize. 

According to an academic paper from Ohio State University, benevolence -- explained as "our assessment that the trusted individual is concerned enough about our welfare to either advance our interests, or at least not impede them" -- is a critical component of earning trust. And advancing people's welfare is what sales is all about.

If you don't care about your prospects and their problems, you're in the wrong profession. The best salespeople are concerned with helping their buyers above all else, and their genuine interest and empathy is repaid with the buyer's trust. 

9) Smile.

Trust is a serious topic, but that doesn't mean you have to look dead serious when you're trying to get people to trust you. In fact, an overly somber expression might have the opposite effect. In an experiment, a smile (in conjunction with knowledge of past performance) helped game players decide to trust their teammate. Another study found that a quick grin made people 10% more willing to trust.

Again, trust isn't built in a day -- but the foundation for trust can be. Employ these tips to get to trusted advisor status with your prospects faster (and increase your sales in the process).

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Originally published Jun 1, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


Trust in Sales