How To Prove You’re Reliable

Trust takes time. It’s one of those things we say without examination. Turns out it’s largely a myth.

Credibility. Reliability. Intimacy. Self-orientation. These are the four factors in the Trust Equation. Of these, we usually say that only Reliability takes time. Reliability lives in the realm of action, and because of that, repeated, consistent, predictable actions over the passage of time are required to show reliability.

But even that, on closer examination, isn’t always true.

On a recent trip I had a chance to see that Reliability can be demonstrated in a moment or two and needn’t always take time to prove. It was a taxi driver (why is it always taxi drivers who teach us so much?) who brought this point home.

A colleague and I were in Washington delivering a workshop and staying at a hotel “just across the parking lot” from the corporate center where the training was being held. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, the parking lot was several football fields across and there were half a dozen different buildings to choose from. We knocked on the window of a waiting cab and asked if the driver would take us such a short distance, got an affirmative yes, and jumped in. And given the address, he knew exactly which building was our destination.

During the few minutes it took to get to the other building, the driver had a (hands-free) cell conversation with someone who had clearly ridden with him often and was booking an airport trip for the following day. When we got out and offered to pay, he wouldn’t take any fare but gave us his business card instead and suggested that we call him for our return trips out of Washington.

When we walked in the door, it turned out we had to go to yet another nearby address; this time an employee gave us a lift. To top it off, getting home had gotten a little more complicated: one of us was going to the airport, another to Union Station, both at different times and we weren’t 100% sure just where we needed to be picked up.

But when we were ready to organize our trips home, of course we called this driver. He’d already demonstrated his reliability. How?

It didn’t hurt that we were predisposed to like thim when he volunteered to run us across the football fields. It proved he wasn’t hungry for money or trying to take advantage of a couple of people who would have paid plenty to stay dry.

We heard him talking to someone who was clearly a long-time client. Must be reliable if a frequent traveler from the Washington area counted on him to help her make her flights on time. A big "R" there.

Finally, the business card. It suggested that he was serious about his work and made it easy for us to find him when we were ready to go.

Indeed, he found us at the new building at the right time, took my colleague to the airport and made it back in plenty of time to pick me up and get me to my train. 

All of which reminded me: even Reliability doesn’t always take time.

Becoming trusted is less about logging more hours—and more about the quality of our relationships.

Trust on the Toll Road

A good friend of mine, Bob, recently lost his mother.  Following the funeral, disheveled and still in mourning he took to the road to return to Boston.  Approaching the tolls at the New York Thruway, he tried to slow down and discovered he had no brakes. 

In the split second Bob had to choose what to do, he examined his options.  Hit the cement barrier and risk getting hit from behind or go through the toll and hope the car in front of him was moving away thereby minimizing the risk of injuring someone.  He decided to put the car in park–which only slowed the car a little–and go through the toll. 

Unfortunately the car in front didn’t move away.  Luckily no one was hurt. 

When the police officer showed up, he too had a choice.  He had to determine whether it was, in fact, an accident and that Bob was telling the truth about his brakes failing, or if he was simply telling a tale to get out of a ticket by swaying responsibility. 

The officer chose a third option–he assumed Bob was trying to avoid the $1.25 toll.  What made this officer ignore the more likely choices and go for dishonesty of the third kind?  Was it Bob’s disheveled look?  Did he sound drunk? 

I can understand if the officer thought Bob was lying to avoid a ticket. He’s probably seen many people run through tolls.  What baffles me is why he would think Bob would run a toll when there was a car at the toll booth.   What made him select the most improbable scenario?

The implications for trust are profound.   We can influence our own trustworthiness by reducing our self-orientation, and increasing our credibility, reliability and intimacy. 

Yet those factors don’t operate in a rational vacuum when we consider whether to trust others.   Our upbringing, general experience, specific experiences, psychological makeup and even job responsibilities go into the mix. 

Put yourself in the shoes of the police officer.  Perhaps something similar happened in the past.  Maybe he’s heard so many excuses, that everything sounds like a variation on the theme.  Maybe he was just having a difficult day. 

Maybe he trusted someone’s story that turned out to be a lie once too often.  We want to be trusted, and we would like ourselves and others to be trusting.  We have to recognize when our own issues get in the way of trusting others.  And hope that our own hard work to be trustworthy will be enough for others to trust us. 

What happened to Bob?  The tow truck driver confirmed that the brakes failed.  

And the officer made my friend pay the toll, just in case.

Old Faithful and Reliability

Old Faithful is a geyser located in Yellowstone National Park, USA. It gets its name because it regularly shoots steam and water to great heights. In fact, with a margin of error of 10 minutes, Old Faithful will erupt either every 65 or every 91 minutes, depending on the length of the previous eruption. It’s been doing this since 1870.

While most of us who endeavor to be Trusted Advisors would probably prefer not to be associated with a “geyser” (myself included), there’s something we can all learn from this phenomenon of nature.

Reliability: The Good News/Bad News

Of the 12,000+ people who have completed our online Trust Quotient™ survey to date, Reliability comes out 16 percentage points higher than any of the other three elements of the Trust Equation. This isn’t really surprising, given that Reliability is the easiest to grasp and execute. Reliability is logical, concrete, and action-oriented.

The bad news is we’re not as good as we think.

Case in point: I’m always interested to see how participants in our programs handle the pre-work assignment we send via email a couple of weeks before the program begins. Responses are due to be emailed back within a week. It takes 10 – 20 minutes to complete the work. People generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Turn it in late with no acknowledgement (slightly more than half)
  • Never turn it in (some)
  • Turn it in on time (very few)

So while Reliability seems like a “slam dunk” in the world of trustworthiness, there’s room for us all to improve. (And by the way, I am no exception, witness how I’ve been doing lately on my goal of writing one blog post per week.)

The Road to Being More Reliably Reliable

Generally, people experience you as reliable when:

  •  You feel familiar to them. They’re at ease with you. They have a good sense of who you are and feel they know you. You use their terminology and templates. You establish routines in your relationships (regular meetings, emails, etc.). You dress appropriately.
  • You are consistent and predictable. People know what to expect from you, and they get it. You set expectations up front and report on them regularly. You are rigorous about using good business practices, such as meeting agenda and notes. You make lots of small promises and consistently follow through. They can count on you to be the same person at all times, and the same to all people.
  • You work to make sure there are no surprises when you’re around. You use others’ vocabulary and respect and reflect their norms and environment. You make sure that their expectations of you are consistent. You produce documentation of consistent quality and create deliverables with a consistent look and feel.
  • You do what you say you will do. You keep and deliver on your promises, and see keeping your word as a matter of personal integrity. When you are unable to fulfill on a promise, you immediately get in communication to acknowledge the impact and reset expectations.

Reliability is Reliability is Reliability

Here’s the rub: Consistency matters. If you apply these best practices more with your clients and less with, say, your Trusted Advisor instructor … then your reliability score suffers.

Perfection is not the goal here; impeccability is (See Impeccability vs. Perfection: Who’s Got Your Back?). There’s always room for error and for our humanity. When it comes to trust, what matters is being rigorously self-aware, transparent about our strengths and weaknesses, and willing to hold ourselves to higher and higher standards of execution.

Writing this post was one action I chose to boost my own Reliability today. What’s yours?

Making a Referral By Transferring Trust

I provide a lot of referrals to clients and colleagues and have built my own business development and executive coaching business through referrals from others to me. What makes those referrals so powerful?

Here’s an example of a referral I made. A few years ago, in my in-house legal role, I had a working relationship with a lawyer I liked and trusted. I introduced that lawyer to a colleague in another company who I thought could benefit from working with this lawyer as well. As a result of my introduction, the colleague retained the lawyer, and that relationship is still going strong after several years.

The Trust Transfer Process

Referring someone we know to another person we know happens all the time. On the personal side, think blind dates or babysitters or doctors. It’s part of the networking process. What makes it work? Something I call “Transferred Trust.” The Trust Equation gives us the formula to enhance our own trustworthiness. But what happens when we make or receive a referral? How do we transfer that trust to another, and if we’re on the receiving end, for what do we look or listen?

Here are the steps from my example, simplified:

  1. I trust a lawyer.
  2. I have a colleague who trusts me.
  3. My colleague needs a lawyer.
  4. I describe the lawyer I trust to my colleague, and shared why I trusted him and made the referral.
  5. My colleague trusts the lawyer I trust, enough to engage him based on my introduction.

Trust Transfer and the Trust Equation

Let’s dissect this referral in terms of the Trust Equation (from The Trusted Advisor by Charles H. Green, David H. Maister, and Robert M. Galford, Free Press, 2000):

Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy

The quality and degree of trust transferred will directly depend on:

  • The depth of the referrer’s trustworthiness
  • The trustworthiness factors shared with the person receiving the referral

If I shared that the lawyer always got back to me quickly, I transferred reliability. If I gave an example of how the lawyer showed that he cared more about doing the right thing for me as his client than getting more work for himself, I transferred that he had low self orientation. If I described something the lawyer did that helped my company save money and time, I transferred credibility.

And while it’s up to the referrer to transfer trustworthiness, it’s up to the person referred to retain that trustworthiness through his/her own interactions.

How Transparency Works with Referrals

Be careful. You put your own trustworthiness on the line when you transfer trust. How often do we get referrals with transferred trust and are disappointed? If you think there is a good match, but you don’t know much about the person you are referring, be sure to be transparent. It’s ok to say “I know this person to be honest and forthright, and she’s really smart but I’ve never worked with her, so you’ll probably want to talk to her yourself.”

This models transparency, together with low self-orientation, while transferring some intimacy (safety) and some general credibility.

Try this out yourself in a business or social setting. Think of how you refer doctors or contractors, business colleagues and professionals. Pay attention to both referrals shared with you, and to those you give. And practice transferring trust.

An Easy Way to Increase Your Trust Quotient

ChainiStock_000002955050Small.jpgI was on the plane yesterday from New York to Seattle.  It’s a breakfast flight.  The menu has three options: French toast, omelette, or cereal with banana.

The woman next to me—healthy, casually but not inexpensively dressed, a bag full of intellectual reading material—I peg as a clear cereal-banana candidate. She does not disappoint.

When they bring her plate, it’s sugar-covered cereal—with two sample-sized boxes of raisins. No banana. Her disappointment is palpable, though not enough to make her rude.

“What happened to the banana?” she plaintively asked. The flight attendant shrugged her shoulders with that tilted-head fake smile, and said, “Sorry, that’s all they send, so that’s all we can give.”

I told her I felt her pain. “It’s not the banana per se,” she mused. “Though I do think they’re far better than raisins on cereal.  It’s just that they promised—it said so right on the menu, that I’d get a banana. And I didn’t.  If they’d said raisins, I’d still have chosen the cereal. But they promised bananas. And then didn’t deliver.”

The Trust Equation

Trust doesn’t just happen. It is the result of one party trusting, and the other being trustworthy. You can get better at trusting, and you can get better at being trustworthy. The second is less risky, and generally easier (though in the end you need to do both to increase trust).

So let’s talk trustworthiness: and let’s talk The Trust Equation.

You can break down trustworthiness into four components: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy, and Self-orientation. I’ve talked elsewhere about the components—how they work, which is the most powerful, frequent, etc.

For this post, let’s just stick with which is easiest.

The Easiest Ways to Improve Your Trust Quotient

Improving credibility can take a long time; gaining credentials, earning degrees, publishing, getting references, learning presentations and speaking.

Lowering your self-orientation is a life’s work—it’s hugely powerful to be able to focus on others in times of stress, but easy? Not that one.

Intimacy can actually be gained quickly: for example, learning to comment on another’s evident feelings at a moment in time. But most people find that feels risky. So, easy? Well, maybe not.

Arguably the easiest trust equation component to improve is reliability. Say what you’re going to do—and then do it. Just do it.

If you print that you’ll serve bananas—then have them to serve. If you might ever have to say yes we have no bananas, then never say it in the first place. Nobody, but nobody, wants to hear your excuses for no bananas. We just want the bananas. You promised.

Low reliability is a form of lying; lying made worse because it’s a lie of action, not just of words.

The great news is, it’s not all that hard to fix. It doesn’t take years to develop a track record. No shrinks required. And it doesn’t require all that much in the way of emotional risk.

Just say what you’ll do, and do what you say. How hard can that be, eh?


Note: You can take your own Trust Quotient, or TQ, by going to the TrustQuotient page.  And, starting Friday, having hit 10,000 takers of the test, we’re adding a new feature.  The core trust quotient part of the assessment test will remain free, but we’re introducing a new Trust Styles option: there are 6 distinct trust styles, each with differing characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.  We’ll charge extra for that option.  Check back with us in a day or two to explore this exciting new option.

Hard Solutions to Soft Trust Problems

I write a lot about how trust is a soft solution to hard problems—like profits, revenue, loyalty, and retention.

Trust itself has some ‘soft’ and some ‘hard’ components. In the Trust Equation,  we usually think of Credibility and Reliability as the “hard” aspects of trustworthiness. And we think of Intimacy and Self-Orientation as being the “soft” aspects.

But it’s messier than that. For example, a firm handshake and look in the eye go to enhanced credibility, yet they have nothing to do with credentials or expertise.

And then there’s a really big one.   Sometimes, very ‘hard’ actions can dramatically affect the ‘soft’ emotions of our clients, customers, employees.

Take my friend R.

How Weak Business Processes Hurt Trust

He shared with me an email exchange with the customer service folks at American Express. He has an Amex-CostCo card that offers rebates for various categories of expenses.
As he puts it, “I trust Amex to get the rebate classifications right.”

Until, that is, he checked and noted a number of vendors who had not been picked up in the rebate program.  They included such obscure names as Southwest Air, Exxon, Red Lobster, and Marriott.

R. wrote Amex a nasty-gram, and heard back (quickly) with a number of reclassifications. However, Amex also said they didn’t know of Red Lobster or Java City, and would R. please give them more information.

This had the unfortunate effect of upsetting R. more, not just because they didn’t know Red Lobster, but because they didn’t try to look it up. As R. put it, “this made me doubt your past statements.”

Sure enough, he went back and found numerous previous missed classifications. He asked Amex to make these changes and further investigate prior months and years on their own. 

In response to this email, he received an apology and a $50 rebate.

Which, again, didn’t mollify him, but had the effect of getting him even more upset.

And it’s not hard to see why. When you’re talking about money, and when you have as good a reputation for customer service as Amex does, customers come to expect, if not perfection, then something not far off. A series of ‘close enough’ efforts, capped by a weak attempt to buy peace, is ineffective—even brand destroying.

The customer just wants things to work the way they should. You buy a BMW, you expect it to work—and well. You go into McDonald’s, you expect the experience to be predictable, on-time and flawless. You enter into a program with Amex, you expect them to get it right. Not close; right.

The effort to get things right is not rocket science. It is just very solid blocking and tackling; making sure your systems and procedures and processes are as airtight and foolproof as you can get them. It’s the “hard” stuff—there is nothing squishy about nailing down business processes.

But look at the result. R. may or may not have been as ticked off as you would be. But your response, like his, would surely be an emotional one.

What Starts as Bad Execution Gets Interpreted as Bad Intentions

The truth is, we impute emotional intentions to hard actions. We see ‘hard’ behaviors, and we impute ‘soft’ motives—resulting in very intense ‘soft’ feelings.  You don’t just engender ‘hard’ trust by doing ‘hard’ things. You can create ‘soft’ feelings by ‘hard’ actions, just as you can create ‘hard’ results through ‘soft’ actions.

Perhaps ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aren’t really all that useful. It’s all part of a package. If we are trusted, and if we trust—legitimately—everything gets a lot better. It’s all part of a package.