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How to Build Trust With Clients & Staff Remotely

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Being the head of your firm shouldn't just involve deciding what your company culture will be or successfully going after that new account: It also involves personal development. As a leader, you need to trust both your employees and your clients to feel safe, think coherently, and do your job properly. Leadership coach Rebecca Tillemans discussed building trust in a hybrid world in a recent talk at AICPA Engage.

Jun 9th 2022
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As the leader of your firm, you can probably relate: When it comes to issues at your practice, two of the biggest challenges are interpersonal tangles and navigating the human relationship dynamic. These are made more complicated by the “new normal” of both clients and staff members working with you remotely.

During her “Building Trust in a Hybrid World” session at AICPA Engage this week, Rebecca Tillemans, a leadership coach at pLink Leadership, asked the participants what some of their biggest problems were when it comes to this area. The respondents quickly came up with answers: Lots of younger employees who only want to work remotely, leaders’ distrust of the hours people are actually working when they’re at home, and wanting remote workers to trust you and the development path you have for them. It’s unlikely the demand for remote work is going to go away anytime soon, so learning how to overcome these issues and develop yourself as a leader are both crucial.

Rebecca compared it to learning how to swing a golf club: Perhaps you know how to swing a baseball bat, but as much as you’d like to swing the golf club the same way, you have to “deconstruct it to intentionally think about what to do in this space.” You build trust in this hybrid working environment the same way.

There are three elements of trust that are helpful to think about as you start on this journey of personal and professional development. These are benevolence, competence and integrity.

Benevolence

Although one of the components is being kind, “kindness is not sweetness,” Rebecca noted. In fact, “saccharine sweetness actually erodes trust.” Instead, kindness involves being understanding. “You don’t know what people are going through.” It also means showing both your employees and your clients respect. Think about whether there are situations you look down on people for. As an example, Rebecca brought up her issue with respecting “victim stories.” Rather than hoping the person changes, work on this. “The switch of respect is available to us if we decide to pick it up,” Rebecca said. Showing respect is an easy way to build trust and can be done whether the person is physically in the room with you or if you’re interacting with them via Zoom or another video conferencing application. Finally, benevolence involves making generous assumptions. Remember: You don’t know what another person is going through. Maybe they’ve been distracted lately at work, or the results of their projects haven’t been the best. Assume they’re doing the best they can right now, and have a conversation with them and offer support rather than chiding them. Once they realize they can have an honest conversation with you without worrying about negative consequences, they’ll feel like they’re able to trust you. And, vice versa, by setting the stage for honesty, you’ll develop trust in the people you work with.

Competence

“Leaders often think of this as the only component of trust,” says Rebecca. “They say, ‘I demonstrate the knowledge and skills [to do my job]. Why don’t they trust me? I’m so good at this.’” When you worked in an office and had employees at their desks five days a week and had clients make appointments for regular in-person meetings with you, demonstrating your ability to do your job probably wasn’t something you thought about too much. However, the traditional ways of doing things need to be changed. You may find there are different challenges in a virtual world to demonstrating your competence. And competence goes beyond simply showing you excel at accounting and finance. It also means owning up to your mistakes. “Not being able to say, ‘This is on me. That was my fault’ is a quick way to erode trust,” Rebecca cautions. As a leader, you need to learn to own up to your mistakes, and more than that, you need to make sure you apologize for them. This doesn’t have to be a big thing where you call the person in or send them a long email. “Find something to streamline communication. At pLink, we use Slack. Don’t just use it for kudos; it can also serve as a way to apologize. Say, ‘I totally talked over you in that last meeting! My bad,’” Rebecca says.

Integrity

Rebecca defines integrity as follows: “You choose the hard right. When people see you doing something that isn’t easy to do, it calls attention to the kind of person you are.” Make sure you know your values, and respect that others’ might be different from yours. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, Rebecca notes. If you’re not sure exactly what it is you value, she suggests taking a quick and easy survey at www.character.org. Review the results and then behave in accordance with them. Additionally, remember you need to set clear boundaries for clients and employees alike that are in line with your values. This way, people will know what matters to you and what’s okay and what isn’t at your firm. 

Start building trust and positive interpersonal relationships by having conversations with employees and clients alike. When you start working with them, ask them questions that don’t just have to do with accounting and finance. What do they like? What is their family like? Make sure you connect during the initial conversations, and don’t just choose staff members for their skills or clients for the profits. Instead, ask yourself: Do you like their personality? Finally, ensure you keep up this element of the personal relationship during your time working with them. Find out when important dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries, are, and send them cards. Have chats with them that don’t have anything to do with work. By following these tips, you’ll overcome the challenges of getting into interpersonal tangles and build relationships that are based on trust and make both you and the other person know they can rely on each other.

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