How to Build a Communications Team That Earns Client Trust

I’ve been asked by the “powers that be” at Spin Sucks to address how to build a team “you can trust, clients can trust…that can do the same caliber of work as the agency owner/leader and provide the same work outcomes…and that clients are happy to work with and don’t see as lesser and being handed off.”


Client trust.

As we coaches say, that’s a lot to unpack right there.

So let’s unpack it!

Start By Building a Trusted Team

We know that everything, particularly energy, is reciprocal.

In simple terms, we get what we give.

If you want a team you can trust, and one that will engender client trust, you need to have all your team members trust you.

And you need to know, with certainty, this is the case.   

But it isn’t just about asking yourself, “Does my team trust me?”

It’s not just about wishin’ and hopin’ (and thinkin’ and prayin’), but knowing they trust you.

Getting candid, objective feedback on your performance as a trusted leader is critical to your success.

You must consistently act in a trustworthy manner.

Make sure all team members know you have their backs, even when they make a mistake.

You know, because they’re human.

Know that how you handle things when they make a mistake will have an enormous impact on their trust in you.

When that happens, are you careful to critique the work, not the person?

Do you share not only what was wrong with the work product (or their decision or action), but also what was right about it? 

Admittedly, you may need to look hard for these things.

But it’s worth it.

Direct, Diplomatic, Honest, and Kind

Are you sure you serve up the proper combination of direct + diplomatic + honest + kind?

Most of us are solid on the direct and honest but fall short when it comes to being diplomatic and kind.

Yes, you can give performance feedback that’s diplomatic and kind.

By doing so, you’ll keep your followers open and really listening to your feedback.

They’ll be less likely to repeat the error and more likely to do better the next time.

Here, as with all things leadership, consistency is everything.

Doing the work around being trusted and trusting your team is well worth it.

One critical benefit of trusting your team is knowing you can count on those team members to make the extra effort, and go above and beyond expectations.

Earning Client Trust

If you want a team that knows how to earn client trust, you may need to do training and mentoring, around how to accomplish that.

And you should build that around these five pillars:

  1. How much we value our clients and how important client relationships are to our success. It’s not about how much income we get from them, but the outcomes we get for them. (Thanks to Kyle Pertuis, my coach, for that insight!)
  2. Our agency’s ethical standards when it comes to the way we treat our clients. (And for that matter, our vendors, partner agencies, and one another.) Do we live by the PRSA Code of Ethics? A good source for discussions on this overall topic is Mark McLennan’s Ethical Voices.
  3. The critical importance of building relationships. If there’s no trust, we’re merely doing work for clients. That’s transactional, but not a real relationship. And if there’s no relationship, then how long will we be serving this client?
  4. Never assume the client trusts us just because they’ve selected our agency. OR because we’ve been assigned to lead the client. Trust must be earned. And this comes from always acting in a trustworthy manner. Always.
  5. Client trust is built over time but can be lost in a moment  Like when we don’t act in a trustworthy manner or don’t live up to our ethical standards. It can be earned back, but it takes time. And in the meantime, we’re trying to persuade a client who has lost trust in us to take our counsel, and yes, spend money with us. And that’s as difficult as it sounds. Maybe more.

Turn Down Your Ego—It’s Not All About You

Truly confident leaders (leaders must be confident to be effective, IMHO) are comfortable hiring next-tier leadership who are smarter than they are, or at least more proficient in key areas.

That’s the only way to grow an effective organization.

After all, the leader’s job isn’t to be great at PR, communications, social, content, or digital.

The leader’s job is to lead leaders, who excel at those things, and who, in turn, are leading talented managers or practitioners.

So when hiring or promoting next-tier leadership, look for those who are as close to proficient as the leaders in some critical areas (and yes dear leaders, they are out there), and who may be more proficient in other areas.

There are people out there who do certain things better than you.

Hire them!

Doing so means keeping one’s ego at bay.

This is one of the “sacrifices” true servant leaders are happy to do for the good of the organization.

Of Course, Hiring is Only Part One

If you truly want your second-tier leaders to step up and be stewards of the quality and standards you want your agency to be known for, then make it part of their evaluation/performance review discussion, and even their compensation.

As with all performance standards, you must be crystal clear about your expectations around desired outcomes, how they’ll be measured, and what the reward will be for meeting and surpassing those objectives.

In my experience, agency owner-leaders, especially agency founders, believe their clients want to work with them and only them.

But here’s the reality:

  • Most clients desire agencies who have a superior owner/founder/leader.
  • And most clients are also happy to work with talented and responsive tier-two leaders, managers, and even practitioners.

As long as those team members are creative, intelligent, innovative, and collaborative, and can supply  Five-Star Client Service.

Agency owners-leaders who are concerned about “sharing” clients would be well-served to ask:

  • Am I really the only person the client wants to work with?
  • If I believe that, is this reality? Or am I letting ego cloud my judgment?
  • If it’s not just ego and I’m the only one my clients will view as their counselor, have I  truly structured my agency properly to fulfill my obligation to my clients, to my team, and to myself?

Make sure you’re viewing your next-tier leaders as the leaders they are.

If you’re not, then why would they earn client trust? 

Have the Courage to Trust Your Team

Let’s assume your next-tier leaders are capable of doing the job.

Who holds the key to your client seeing them as such?

Surprise: It’s Y-O-U!  

The client needs to know you have full faith in that person’s abilities.

If they do some things better than you, have the humility and courage to tell them this.

It will have an enormous impact on your client’s openness to that team member’s wisdom and value.

Next, you need to communicate roles are changing by telling clients:

  • Here’s what the team member will own, and you know they’ll do a great job.
  • Here’s what your role will be on the account.

Most of all, outline the benefits the client will receive from this transition.

Let’s face it, most people are focused on WIIM (what’s in it for me?).

Clients will believe they’ll benefit from the change if you explain it to them.

Can You Let Go?

Your biggest challenge to letting go will be the first time the client calls and leaves a voicemail about the account.

They’re not doing this because they think only you can solve the problem or they’re unhappy with the account owner.

They’re doing it either out of habit or because their call hasn’t been immediately returned.

And this is where you must fight the urge to jump in.

Instead, reach out to the account owner and share what the client said.

Get an update on any account outages, and if necessary, co-create a solution to the problem.

Better yet, let them create the solution for your input.

Send the client an email thanking them for the call. Let them know you’ve spoken to “name, the account lead,” and said lead will call them back promptly with the solution.

And perhaps to soothe them further, suggest a date and time for a nice meal or drinks to catch up.

Then have the account lead call the client with the proposed solution, mentioning they’ve received your counsel.

This approach will reinforce that:

  • The other staffer “owns” the account.
  • You still “touch” the account—and you care.

When it Comes to Client Trust, Practice Makes Perfect

It may take some practice, but it will work.

And ultimately, the client will call the next-tier staffer, or at least be more patient before involving you.

Conversely, if you keep calling the client back every time they call, especially about things your next-tier is capable of owning, you’ll stay a practitioner, and not do the real job of agency owner. 

You’ll be limiting your next tier’s career path.

And ultimately risking that they’ll leave your firm.

Of course, losing key staff can erode client trust.

So make sure you’re using your best judgment.

If the tone in your client’s message indicates they’re feeling emotional, that something is seriously amiss, or the issue is the next-tier staffer, follow your gut.

If it tells you to pick up the phone, pick up the phone.

I hope this post helps you “unpack” some of the issues mentioned, and perhaps offers you some valuable counsel around them.

Please reach out if I can help you with these or related ones.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs, PCC, CPC, ELI-MP, a certified executive coach, is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. His company helps leaders, CEOs, agency owners, senior executives, and managers in the communications space achieve their organizational, career, and personal goals by becoming effective, inspired, and inspired leaders.

View all posts by Ken Jacobs