Trusted partner - abused terminology?

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago with a new customer. We're in the very early stages of our relationship, with some small bits of work coming in a controlled fashion. Several times during the meeting, members of their staff commented: "We're looking for a trusted partner." You can understand where they are coming from. They have a business critical ERP system that their factory depends upon and they’re not going to let someone loose on it based on claims made during initial meetings and in proposal documents. All in all, 100% understandable.

However, it got me thinking about the term "Trusted Partner" and its cohort "Trusted Advisor". Are these strong, powerful business terms or, like most business terminology, overused to the extent that they now carry little weight? You can’t self-appoint and just label yourself as ‘trusted’ – it’s a value that has to be earned through your actions. And even when a client says "we trust that you'll take care of this", that's not you being trusted, it's a polite warning that means "we really hope you aren't going to screw this up".

So what's my opinion?

First of all, it takes time to gain trust. It's probably, at the very minimum, three to four years into a full-time working relationship. Over that period you'll have delivered a good, solid, reliable service - giving exactly what you sold. But, that's just the foundation and what your client expects. So when does the trust kick in?

Well, maybe at times you gave your customer something beyond that expectation. Maybe you didn't bail when the going got tough and it wasn't your fault. Maybe you took one of their problems that was blocking your progress and just sorted it so you could get on with your own part of the project. Maybe you offered advice based on something you’d noticed that the customer hadn’t - something they didn't expect, but you wanted to show you'd got their back. And maybe you just did something spectacular to save their ass or achieved something that wasn't considered achievable. Even then, you still can't self-appoint – but you’ve certainly begun to build a reputation as a ‘Trusted Partner’ through your behaviour.

And my experiences?

The MD of a client company (who we’d been working with for about five years) going away for a few weeks, where he would be difficult to contact, saying: "Look, if you need to buy stuff when I'm away, even if it's something as big as a server, don't hang about trying to get hold of me for approval. You've been around here long enough to know what we need and I know that you won't just buy stuff unless we need it." I don't recall him using the word ‘trust’ but I do think he was basically saying: "I know I can trust you to keep my company operating in my absence without needing someone to validate your decisions."

The CEO of a client company (a relatively new one, with a lot of staff) saying: "If you need to get something done and you can't get anyone to take ownership, just be the internal IT department and inform, then do it. Deal with any fall-out later. You don't need to run everything by me for approval, because I know that you now understand what I need to be kept in the loop about and what's just an unnecessary distraction." In other words: "I trust you to tell me about the things I need to know and deliver the service we need. Be one of us."

For me, being ‘trusted’ is about being granted permissions on a very large network that is critical to the company's ability to operate (across the globe) and knowing that you are trusted to be doing the right things. And if things go wrong (we’re all humans after all) that you’ll be part of a collaborative exercise with the internal staff to resolve the problems, regardless of its source, because there is no us/them, only a team.

Posted by Gordon Coulter on Friday, January 8, 2016

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