Build Client Trust By Managing Through These Five IssuesWhile client relationship difficulties might present themselves in a variety of ways, almost all of them stem from one underlying issue: lack of client trust.

Without client trust, you won’t be successful.

You can try to work through it, around it, and over it, but it will be like a maze you can’t escape.

And, even if you can “manage” the issue for a short amount of time, your results will be limited, and you’ll spin your wheels in mutual frustration.

Then one day the client will fire you over another issue, and the relationship will end.

Your Success Depends on Client Trust

Very rarely will a client fire you because they don’t trust you.

They’ll fire you because of an issue that results from the fact that they don’t trust you.

Client trust is the foundation of success. For you and for them.

Today we are going to look at the five main reasons your client doesn’t trust you (and what you can do about it).

They are:

  1. Poor onboarding.
  2. Unmeasurable and ambiguous deliverables and goals.
  3. Not setting clear expectations.
  4. Not explaining what you do.
  5. Being a “yes-man” or a “no-man.”

You Have One Chance to Make the Right First Impression

There is a reason why everyone from career experts to relationship gurus remind us constantly of the importance of first impressions.

They are important. Very important.

For agency or freelance communicators, that “first impression” comes in the form of your client onboarding process.

For in-house communicators, it’s the first few weeks you are on the job. The team is different, but much of the process remains the same.

Client onboarding is one of our most important jobs.

A successful client onboarding process will make or break your future relationship.

We detail how to create the right process —> HERE.

(And because it is one of our most requested tools, our PR Dream Team members will receive a workbook and checklist to help them create and refine their own process in this month’s email.)

Make sure you take time to create, refine, and prioritize client onboarding. If a client loses trust in your on day one, it can be next to impossible to earn it back.

Can You Show ROI?

At the end of each month, how do you show PR value for your client?

Can you clearly show them how your work DIRECTLY grows their business?

Can you show them what they pay you is worth what they receive?

Or as Kimberly Crossland says, can you “back-up your deliverable with data?”

If not, or if you measure success based on items that don’t directly affect their business goals and bottom line, then you will constantly walk a shaky ledge of client trust.

Learn what to measure in this post —> PR metrics (that will gain you respect).

Set Expectations or Bust

Lack of clear expectations through every phase of the client relationship is one of the quickest ways to destroy client trust. And it’s one of the easiest to prevent.

Set expectations for everything from:

  • When, how, and how quickly you communicate.
  • The timeline you will operate on and what they can expect when.
  • How you measure success and how often you’ll review that data with them.
  • Who they will communicate with and for what reasons.
  • What they can expect at each phase of your work together.
  • What happens when something goes wrong, or something isn’t working as planned.
  • How quickly they should expect results.
  • On what scale should expect results. (As Kate Eidam so aptly said, a surefire way to erode client trust is “when the agency promises the world and only delivers a continent).

Discuss these things in person. Have them in writing. And consistently prove them through your actions.

Be Consistent with Your Expectations and Actions

The last one is where seemingly well-meaning communications pros often go wrong.

Here’s a classic example:

At the beginning of the relationship, you let the client know that unless it’s an emergency, you’ll respond same day to emails or phone calls Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

But then one evening you are catching up on work and a client sends an email and you respond. You don’t think much of it, you have an answer, and it’s no problem to just send a quick response and get it off your list.

Maybe you do the same another evening or on a Saturday.

No biggie, you were on your computer anyway, right?


You’ve just removed the expectation you set through your action.

Now when one day the client emails you after hours and you don’t respond, they’ll think something is wrong. They’ll get antsy and anxious.

Why are you ignoring them?

They’ll figure you think their business isn’t important anymore.

Of course, none of this is true, but the reasonable expectation that you respond during business hours has been removed through your actions.

It’s normal for the client to feel neglected and lose a sense of trust when suddenly that doesn’t happen.

You meant well, but you destroyed client trust by not consistently reinforcing the expectation you set.

Take the Voodoo Out of Communications

Let’s say your client (or the head of the organization you work for) is at a party.

They are talking about their business with a fellow business owner (or leader), and the other person asks them questions about their communications efforts.

Would your client be able to explain what you are doing and the results well enough that the other business owner would ask for your number, rush home, and call you?

Or would they walk away feeling really uncertain about what you were doing and the results?

If it’s the later, you are missing an important part of client service and communication — education.

It’s not just your job to effectively run your client’s or organization’s account and execute the communications strategy. It’s also your job to help them understand they what, why, and how of your activities.

Alicia Lawrence says,

I make it a priority to always explain what I’m doing for the client. One of the biggest reasons I hear from clients on why they left previous agencies was because they were paying them and didn’t even know what they were doing! When I do tasks like link building, meta descriptions etc, I explain what that entails and how it’s going to help the client.

They don’t need to be experts, but they do need to understand how it all fits together and drives their business goals.

The party scenario is a good one to test yourself with. Could your client proudly explain what you are doing, why, and with what result at a party.

Do You Practice Solution-Based Client Service?

You can’t be a “yes-man” or a “no-man” if you want to earn client trust.

Dee Donavanik explains this balance best:

If you always say “yes” to a request from them, even when you know it’s not realistic, you’ll end up setting yourself (and the client) up for failure. Alternatively, if you’re always telling them “no” without enough explanation for why something isn’t the right strategy/tactic, they’ll question your value. We try to adopt a “yes AND” mentality when communicating with clients, always providing alternative solutions if something doesn’t work.


When you go to a client with a problem, you need to accompany it with a solution.

You must identify problems and support solutions.

The solution might not be totally in your control. Or you might not yet have enough information to offer a full solution. But you need to support the process of resolution.

To do this, you ask the right questions and lead a productive discussion around the issue.

You also are responsible to bring problems to clients.

Tell them when they are doing something that’s hurting their goals.

Tell them no.

But always do so in a solution-minded way.

But Wait…There’s More

There are three more biggies that affect client trust. All three are bigger topics which deserve their own posts. And so that is what they receive.

In the next several weeks we will discuss:

  • What I like to call “ex-boyfriend syndrome.” When they were so burned by a former firm or communications pro they are skeptical from day one.
  • Not listening, which is a major problem for many communicators.
  • Not fully understanding the client’s business.

Client trust is a crucial part of everything we do.

Self-awareness as to why our clients might not fully trust us will help drive more results, create longer and more quality client engagements, and grow our business and career.

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino