Trust between client and supplier is precious and rare. From one point of view, the relationship is naturally adversarial – each party is seeking to take advantage from the other – so trust is rare because unnatural. From another point of view, the relationship is symbiotic – each requires the other; both have a common goal of enhancing the client’s operations through the supplier’s successful delivery of the agreed solution. Here, trust is also precious and rare because it takes time to recognize that both share the same goal. I take the latter perspective, and seek to cultivate trust with our clients.

I’m not bringing up this topic because of the decline in inter-country trust on the world stage, though as I set down to write, there is plenty of evidence to argue that global trust is on the wane. Rather, I’ve had an experience where a long term client with a trusted relationship has undergone a change in leadership. The new leadership eyes our relationship without the background of our history. Suddenly, assumptions about how we work together need to be re-examined, which has me sharply appreciating the value that our long-standing trust has provided.

For example, with this client, we not only develop their web applications, but also manage several other IT related activities, as largely un-billed services. But now we’ve lost the confidence that we can recover costs for these side services, which is an unfortunate dis-incentive from helping out. I do appreciate that it is natural for those who are used to an adversarial client / supplier relationship to lack trust. And given that trust is rare, it must be accepted that the relationship may no longer have the level of trust that was previously enjoyed.

On the other hand, trust is precious – it is much more enjoyable working with a trusted partner. It is hard to put a price tag on enjoyment, but the value is far from trivial. It is also more efficient to work with trust. The classic example is the cost of developing formal, binding contracts to begin work. There are significant cost savings to starting with a verbal agreement, and proceeding directly to create the mutually-beneficial specifications that lead to a successful project.

What can be done? In my example, as in new relationships, it seems the way forward is by inches, slowly establishing the history of trustworthy cause and effect behaviours that the foundation for confidence going forward. Also, and perhaps more important, I feel I need to extend trust myself, take some judicious risks to trust the client with our well-intentioned efforts. By this, I mean I should resist the urge to retreat fully to refusing to do any unapproved work on our own initiative, in case the client refuses to pay. It is possible that we’ll lose some money, but hopefully, the client will eventually see that we have their best interests at heart, and trust will begin to be restored. Its a risk worth taking.