Why clients don’t trust your junior team… and what to do next

Written by: Karl Sakas

Seeking to build client trust, an agency leader asked:

“I manage a young but talented team. We’ve struggled to establish authority & credibility in front of clients. I have no doubt that my junior team is capable of doing amazing things and I stand by their advice. What can we do, especially when clients are skeptical about their age?”

If a client doesn’t trust someone on your team, start by looking at why the client doesn’t trust them.

Today, we’ll review my 10 key factors, so you can troubleshoot the issue(s) at your agency. For simplicity, I’ll call your client-facing team member an “Account Manager” (AM); I recognize their specific title might be Project Manager (PM), Strategist, or something else.

Why clients don’t trust your junior team

In my experience, clients don’t trust a junior contact due to one (or more) of these 10 factors:

  1. Functional expertise. Does the Account Manager (AM) understand the marketing (or design or technology or…) advice they’re delivering? At a minimum, they need to know more than then client does (or technically, more than the client thinks the client knows.)
  2. Industry expertise. Does the AM understand the client’s industry? If they’re not an expert, are they committed to constantly improving their expertise.
  3. Business expertise. Does the AM understand the basics of how business works? Are they doing their best to learn more?
  4. Client dedication. Does the AM seem to have the client’s interests at heart? That doesn’t require responding to client texts at 2am, but it does mean the client should perceive partnership rather than clock-punching.
  5. Managerial trust. Does the AM’s boss seem to trust them, or is their boss always jumping in to “save” the AM? Conversely, is the boss QA’ing the work sufficiently, or foolishly letting an inexperienced team member flail?
  6. Advice track record. How well has the AM’s advice (to the client) worked previously? Has the AM demonstrated a dedication to continuous improvement?
  7. Client service track record. In terms of client experience (CX), how has the AM treated the client previously? This includes a strong client onboarding process, including both pre-kickoff and kickoff. Also, if the AM replaced a previous AM, is the new person up to speed on the account’s history? Is the AM an active listener, or do they talk over the client?
  8. Polish. Does the AM come across as a competent businessperson? This includes confidence about what they do know, and alternatives when they don’t know something.
  9. Inherent bias. Does the client have an inherent bias against something about the AM? Some clients are just terrible people—stop working with them!
  10. Something else. Who knows? People are weird.

In your clients’ defense—they may be entirely merited in not [fully] trusting your team. Just because you believe your team’s capable… doesn’t mean they’re capable in front of clients.

Client Perception = Client Reality

Most of those factors are a mix of perception vs. reality. For instance, if the AM has expertise but the client thinks they don’t, it’s the [mis-]perception that counts.

Some are also beyond your control—for instance, if a client is sexist, racist, or ageist, you likely can’t “fix” that. And beyond that, some clients may never trust your inexperienced team.

When agencies use an hourly pricing model, this is a downside to having variable rates (e.g., they differ by skillset). Why? Because the client knows you’re assigning a less-skilled person. Then again, a single blended rate doesn’t help, either, if you acquiesce to clients’ “only experienced people” staffing demands.

Case Study from My Background

I’ve navigated this very situation myself, as a teenager. After learning HTML at age 15, I started a marketing and technology consulting business in high school.

My consulting clients were typically 20-50 years older than I was… and some were 70 years older. Yet I never experienced a situation where a client questioned my credibility. Why? Because I had specialized expertise—and I was good at delivering that expertise to meet their needs.

Working part-time, I offered web design, computer training, and computer troubleshooting services to businesses and individuals in the D.C. area. Primarily via word of mouth, I ultimately grew to ~20 clients.

Over the years, I successfully raised my freelance rates from $12/hour to $75/hour. (After inflation, that’s ~$105/hour today!) I closed the company at age 22, when I took a full-time job in New York after college.

Why didn’t I run into age-gap problems? Because I avoided—or outperformed—on most of the 10 factors above.

  • First, I knew my stuff… and knew how to find answers if I wasn’t sure. (And I think clients also assumed that being young meant I was inherently tech-savvy.)
  • Second, my client service skills were outstanding—I was courteous, reliable, and discreet. And my track record was strong; I worked with many clients for years.
  • Third, I showed my clients that I had their best interests at heart—whether it was recommending a “downsell” or (one time) removing a live mouse from a freaked-out client’s living room.

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I recently came across my college-era consulting website, circa 2002. Check out the testimonials page—not what you’d expect about most college students.

How to Build Trust at Your Agency

Once you isolate the client trust factor(s) at play in your specific situation, what’s next?

Consider my core solution: Borrowing authority. It’s where you tell the client: “I trust so-and-so; I think you should trust them, too.” (It can be scary to make this promise… which is why you want to be careful about the people you hire.)

Indeed, if you’re going to hire junior employees, you need to invest in providing training and managerial oversight. Employees are rarely magically great.

Beyond the general, your specific solutions will depend on the clients’ specific concerns. Two books can help on both theory and mechanics: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, and The Art of Client Service by Robert Solomon.

For more ideas, see my advice on how to build client trust. And I’m glad to help you dig deeper, if you get stuck.

Question: How have you built client trust at your agency?

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