Pete Salmon

Build Client Trust through Authenticity

By: Pete Salmon | November 9, 2016 | 
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Build Client Trust through AuthenticityI am slightly off.

And I can’t pinpoint how.

I am similar to a bowl of ethnic soup that delivers an unexpected, pungent aftertaste.

You can’t quite identify the spice responsible.

You aren’t sure if you even like the soup.

But you finish the bowl, nonetheless.

How am I slightly off?

Am I graceless? Mulish? Ungainly?

I gave up trying to isolate the source of my “foreignness,” I started to embrace it, and I stopped concealing aspects of myself.

In essence, I became more authentic.

Once I did so, a funny thing happened.

My connection with clients deepened. It flourished. I was able to build client trust swiftly.

A No-win Situation

Numerous years ago, I presented to a group of Vietnam Veterans. These vets also happened to be hardcore bikers.

My objective was simple: Tell them something that was going to enrage them.

I was tasked to inform these gentlemen that the Vietnam memorial, the one they hold sacred (the very memorial that stood 50 feet from the room I was presenting in), was about to be transferred from private ownership to state ownership.

Once they processed this fact (hopefully without trashing the conference room), I was to pivot and convince them why this ownership change was beneficial to them.

Doc Westphall built the memorial after his son died in Vietnam.

Doc had become a mentor to thousands upon thousands of Vietnam veterans (including the veterans I was presenting to).

He was revered.

His memorial was sacred; the grounds were sacred.

The veterans have a saying about the memorial, “Our names may be in D.C., but our hearts are in Angel Fire, New Mexico.”

And now the New Mexico Park system was going to purchase the memorial.

(I had images of rotund American tourists starting campfires close to the memorial to prepare a couple of Jiffy Pops.)

The Morning I Arrived at the Memorial We Had Nothing in Common

I had a new yellow Oxford shirt on for the meeting.

The only leather I donned was my belt.

To me, the most controversial thing Jane Fonda ever did was sport her workout leg warmers.

I never earned patches; he was adopted from the Anti-Cruelty Society.

I was scared of motorcycles.

The veterans were scary and hairy.

Am I in physical danger?

How was I to connect with them?

Build client trust?

How to Build Client Trust through Authenticity 

I was out of place.

I was out of any type of comfort zone.

Had there been university safe spaces back then, I would have fled to one.

When the park supervisor introduced me at the start of the meeting, she forgot I was from Illinois.

She introduced me as Pete from one of the I-states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa).

I didn’t even have a home state. I had my name and, um, a tri-state region?

Naked to the world, I had no idea how I was going to pull this meeting off.

I was forced to be myself, warts and all.

And my true self kicked in: I happen to be a curious, caring fellow.

Before the meeting, as each veteran walked in, I asked him about his bike, his vest, his experiences at the memorial.

I thanked each for his service.

My discomfort was noticeable.

I said some dumb things, some awkward things.

And I knocked over a guy’s coffee.

I was a tri-state fool. I was slightly off.

It seemed I was blowing any potential to build client trust.

And I was embarrassed as I started the meeting.

And Then…

For some reason, they immediately accepted me wholeheartedly.

I was not a hotshot.

I was someone who showed genuine interest in them.

Maybe they had always been misunderstood.

Perhaps their gruff appearance prevented others from engaging with them.

And they were pleased by my curiosity and genuine compassion.

I stumbled upon a way to build client trust.

In a way, I was forced to be authentic.

And I later attributed my authenticity to the capacity to quickly build client trust.

I realized I spent too much time in my life trying to be someone I wasn’t.

Today, I allow myself to be a bit more authentic, much to the dismay of my family and, occasionally, a co-worker or two.

The Obvious Limitation of Authenticity 

Michael Schrage points out a perceived weakness of authenticity in When Authenticity Does More Harm Than Good.

He states:

Authenticity—defined as the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures—seems less a managerial necessity than a narcissistic tendency.

Mr. Schrage continues by equating authenticity and beauty.

Both are in the eyes of the beholder.

What one person considers authentic, another person considers it arrogance.

I see his point. I cannot show up in sweatpants and curse because that is “my authentic self.”

So, to temper and define what I mean by authenticity, I see it as how consumers define it in Cohn & Wolfe’s New “Authentic 100.”

Consumers define authenticity as having three key drivers: Reliable, respectful, and real.

I Am a Bit Off

Perhaps James Hollis comes closest to providing me a great call to authenticity:

We are not here to fit in, be well balanced, or provide exempla for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.

I actually do know why I am a bit off: I am clunky and a bit strange.

And when I expose my clunky self, it expedites my facility to build client trust.

I always leave the sweats at home, to the relief of the big boss.

About Pete Salmon


Pete Salmon is an owned media manager at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He also is a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

  • Elise Perkins

    Great post, Pete. Nice example of how true authenticity shines through when we stop working so hard to create it!

    • Pete Salmon

      I knew from an early age that if I couldn’t be handsome, I had to be handy. If I couldn’t be either, I had to be authentic.

      Thank you for your kind words, Elise.

  • You are one of a kind, my friend. And that’s what makes you great.

    • Pete Salmon

      “Terminally unique” is what my group of therapists refer to it as. Thank you for starting your sentences with “You” and ending with “great.”

  • Sue Duris

    Nice post. Authenticity is the key to building client trust and community.

    • Pete Salmon

      It just doesn’t seem to extend to public servants 🙁

  • Thanks you for this, Pete. This is a great reminder to loosen up. We can get so wrapped up in creating a persona and using that as a protective shield. But, this shield doesn’t protect, it blocks out the possibility of building trust.

    It is clear to the audience when a presenter is being a contrived version of themselves. It is not fun to watch and it comes off as pompous. I’m much more likely to trust what the speaker is saying if they let me see their personality and even admit to some shortcomings – heck, we all have them!

    • Pete Salmon

      To this day, I don’t know a damn thing. But I will die trying to find it out for the client.

  • Pete Salmon

    Hanna:
    Much of what we do is exciting. Much of what we do informs and educates. I sometimes I go into meetings where it feels as if everyone’s cat died the night before. That’s when the dancing Pete comes out.

  • paulakiger

    I just love “Reliable, respectful, and real.” Finding our authentic selves and also interacting well with people on behalf of our businesses is definitely a bit of a balancing act. I just saw the movie “Joy,” and there is a scene where they doll her up in makeup, hair, and heels. She asks for a minute, goes behind a door, and comes out exactly as she had started: prepared to mop a floor instead of walk a catwalk. I loved the courage in that scene. Thanks for this post, Pete.

    • Pete Salmon

      I saw that movie. It is almost as if she was saying, “I will be true to myself until the end, even if the ship goes down.” The difference being of course is I am representing a product and service for which I did not create.

  • LOVE this, Pete!

    When you’re brave enough to be your authentic self, the people you interact with are also put at ease. When no one is trying to maintain a facade, it’s so much easier to connect and have real communication.

    • Amen to that, Erika!

    • Pete Salmon

      Thanks Erika. I wouldn’t call it bravery, I would call it a last ditch effort that could look brave to onlookers. Most people know most times when someone is feeding them a line or feeding them some type of personality.

  • I went on a Poker Run once with hundreds of bikers who raise money for MS research. It was incredible, and I stuck out like a sore thumb with my brown bomber jacket and work boots from my mural painting job. But I met real people and have a fun story to tell still. Those key drivers you mention nail it, whether we’re dealing with clients or simply engaging with people outside our usual comfort zone. Great post!

    • Pete Salmon

      Thank you, Amanda. My comfort zone is essentially as large as a couch, so I am out of the zone often. I will never forget those bikers. They changed me for the better depending on who you ask.

  • As Oscar Wilde said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

    Great post, Pete.

    • Pete Salmon

      Although it is not verified, when Wilde came to America for the first time the customs agent asked him if he had anything to declare. According to legend, he replied, ” I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

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