Eric Karjaluoto

How Trust Happens

A lot of designers ask their clients to trust them. What they’re really doing, at such moments, is asserting themselves as professionals. And, it bugs them to have their capabilities second guessed.

I’ve been there, and it’s a weird spot. On one level you feel emasculated. On another, you wonder why this person hired you in the first place. Still, the designer who responds, “just trust me,” is failing in his/her role. This designer also misunderstands how trust works.

The moment you ask your client to trust you, you’ve already lost—because you’re not really asking for their trust. You’re asking for faith. They don’t trust you, and now you’re making a plea for their charity. If they give it to you, they deny their feelings. This creates a tenuous set-up. They pretend to trust you, but they’re actually biting their tongues, out of courtesy.

You won’t get trust by asking for it, but you can earn it.

Probability is that your client likes you enough, but isn’t sure about what you’re presenting. Maybe your client is scared—and rightly so. If your strategy fizzles, you still have a pretty piece in your portfolio. However, your client might pay for your mis-step for years to come. So, cut them a little slack.

Besides, your job as a designer isn’t just to make something nice—or even something effective. Your job is to lead the process. You’re here to provide guidance—because your client probably doesn’t do this sort of work every day. So, you need to forget any sense of entitlement, and do your job.

Listen to their concerns. Ask more questions. Find out where the problem lies. Then suggest plans for moving forward. It’s not about you, or about how you feel. This role involves being a professional, and guiding your client to a solution they feel good about.

Once you’ve done that, you won’t need to ask them to trust you. They just will.

Trust isn’t only formed when you’re working with a client. You establish this through your history, your actions, and your consistency. Trust is something you work to build long before you’ve even met your clients.

Last week, my wife and I zipped by the credit union to put money into an RRSP. The young banker we met presented a few options. One was to make a slightly riskier investment, with a marginally higher rate of return. I had no interest in this, as rates are weak. Besides, I already have lots of risk as a result of our startup. This investment was simply a way to wipe out our tax bill—and keeping our money secure.

His body language was clear. He was disappointed. He wanted me to trust him. Maybe I should have. Perhaps we’d earn a few extra dollars over the year, as a result of doing so. I didn’t, though—because I don’t trust people I’ve only known for two minutes. Here’s a kid in a suit, with a slick hair cut. Is that enough to warrant my trust?

He doesn’t know me, or my wife, or our financial state. He doesn’t know what other investments we have, or what we’re looking to achieve. He might want me to trust him, but he’s done nothing to earn that trust. I sit politely, as he repeats the same pitch he’s told countless others. To me, though this is just a formality. His opinion is essentially worthless.

Now, if David Chilton were to walk in that room and tell me what to do, I’d probably do it. Even though I’ve never met him, his books earn my trust. I don’t know Paul Graham, either. But, if he told me our startup should go a different way, I’d pay attention—because I’ve read enough of his essays to trust him. Similarly, when Gordon Ramsay explains how to cook eggs, I follow his instructions—because… well, you get the drill.

Every post you write, every talk you give, every time you stand for something, you build trust. Maybe not with everyone, but likely with some. Sure, you can lose this trust—by abusing it, or by being inconsistent in your actions. For most, though, this isn’t an issue.

The takeaway from this, is that trust is valuable. Once you’ve earned it, you gain privileges others don’t. There aren’t any shortcuts, though. You can’t ask someone for their trust, any more than you can ask someone to love you. Instead, you need to do the work, and become someone who deserves their trust.

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