A former boss of mine once said to me, “Bill, never forget that we are in the relationship business, and what we are able to create with our clients is a direct by-product of trust.”
This boss was Frank Palmer, legendary CEO of DDB Canada, and he lobbed this pearl into the middle of a tense discussion about a new client who was starting to doubt his decision to hire our office. As I was in charge of the office, Frank summoned me to discuss the situation. “He doesn’t trust us yet,” Frank observed. “Quit selling and build some trust; the rest will fall into place.“ His point made, he then capped this critical conversation by inserting a brand new set of Bubba Teeth into his mouth. Sage executive one minute, puerile jokester the next; that’s how Frank rolls.
I regularly think back on this advice and share it with others, often within the context of relationship building, for people and for brands. The cold hard fact is that most people won’t engage with you unless they first trust you. We are, by nature, a rather jaded lot. We protectively approach new situations with trepidation and new people with skepticism. So when we’re trying to connect with a group – employees, consumers, clients, conference attendees – our first goal should be to break through their hardened shells of skepticism and build trust. Trust establishes a connection, a relationship pipeline through which vision, ideas and meaning can flow.
Storytelling is one of the best ways a person or a brand can establish trust. When we tell stories, we reveal and share a part of ourselves that might not otherwise be apparent, making ourselves vulnerable; and people can’t help but respond positively to that. In turn, when we give others an opportunity to share their stories, they appreciate the gesture and reward it with their trust. Storytelling unclogs things, frees up the pipeline for more meaningful communications, collaboration and creation. It’s like Drano for relationships.
The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) did an amazing job using storytelling to build trust among Canadians and compel them to travel within their own country instead of abroad. Through their award-winning “Locals Know” campaign, they not only shared hundreds of stories with Canadians on undiscovered places to explore, but also invited thousands of Canadians to tell their own stories about secret places they wanted others to discover. The results were phenomenal, and CTC was named Marketer of the Year for their efforts.
And what became of the unhappy client referenced above? We had a relationship, but it was just a working one, and nothing meaningful was flowing through it. So heeding Frank’s advice, we expanded our focus, broadening it beyond the mountain of creative work we needed to produce to include the formation of a trusting relationship through which that work could more easily flow. We shared stories with each other and started creating new ones, together. What was remarkable was that, as the relationship got better, so did the work, and vice versa. We cleared the pipe, so to speak…and then we turned on the tap.
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