Trust is the most important element of any relationship. It’s the firm belief that the other party can and will do the things they’ve said; everything else flows from there.

According to research we carried out recently among a group of senior marketers who manage more than 150 agency relationships between them, most clients start from a position of trust in their agencies. As one interviewee put it, you wouldn’t appoint an agency if you didn’t trust them. That means the challenge, once the appointment has been made, is for both agency and client to maintain that trust in order to keep the relationship productive and successful for as long as possible.

But in the real world circumstances change, new demands emerge, mistakes are made. Does this mean that trust inevitably ebbs away or, worse still, never recovers from a crisis? The good news, according to our research, is that it doesn’t have to.

TRUST MANAGEMENT

In fact, we discovered a number of techniques of what you might call “trust management”, ways of making sure trust is retained or rebuilt in the face of real-world challenges.

The first thing is to be honest. Our interviewees told us their trust in an agency isn’t broken by someone making a genuine mistake, but the agency has to own up to it, and ideally present a solution at the same time. Trust will definitely be damaged if the client discovers their agency trying to hide a screw-up, irrespective of its size.

It also means the agency being honest with itself. It has to acknowledge that a mistake slipping through probably means there’s a flaw in its processes, so it needs to find that flaw and fix it. And presenting the client with evidence of taking those steps will help restore any loss of trust in a way that an apology alone simply won’t.

WARNING SIGNS

We also discovered that there are a number of warning signs for clients, changes in the way their agency behaves that makes them nervous and eats away at their trust. These include simple things like calls not being returned and people not turning up at meetings, right through to costs going up and key staff being replaced.

Trust is questioned when there are changes to senior client or agency leads, but we often find that agencies don’t understand how much it bothers clients when the most important people on their account vanish with little explanation or warning, or without an agreed plan.

But our interviewees also told us that they’re prepared to tolerate a bit of organisational sloppiness, particularly from creative agencies, if the work is strong.

There’s a difference, though, between the agency being a bit sloppy while coming up with brilliant ideas, and them taking their eye off the ball. That’s when the work starts to suffer, which is the biggest warning sign of all.

BE BRAVE

The second thing is to be brave. Our research showed the most important step is to address any warning signs immediately, rather than ignoring them in the hope that the problems will blow over.

The best client/agency relationships work on a regular dialogue, with wash-ups and mutual reviews, which means issues can often be anticipated before they become too serious. Even if there isn’t a regular review schedule in place, both client and agency should have the courage to pick up the phone when they realise a problem has arisen or, better still, when they think one might be about to arise. That way they can work through the issues together and agree the immediate solution, before addressing root causes.

It’s always difficult to alert the other party in a relationship to a problem – or potential problem – with that relationship. The challenge for us all – client or agency – is to face that difficulty and pro-actively manage and maintain trust, rather than just trying to rebuild it after a crisis has occurred.