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Build Trust by Telling the Truth

People buy from people, but they buy more from people they trust

I can’t remember who actually said it first, but the phrase, “I’m not smart enough to lie. So, I just tell the truth,” was often said amongst several of us on the sales team.

On the surface, it may seem to you like a “no-brainer." Everyone’s moral compass should point toward not lying, especially salespeople trying to build trust with customers. And you would be correct.

We obviously know as an ethical person; we shouldn’t make things up and tell lies. We should tell the truth. In sales, however, we are often challenged by how much of the truth we should tell. Does a customer have the right to answers for all their questions? Do we reveal everything we know? Maybe and maybe not. The great part is you get to decide, often on a daily basis.

Salespeople often try to paint the most positive picture to their customers. Not a bad plan, except not everything turns out as positive as planned. Your company’s performance sometimes doesn’t always match that positive picture you are painting. This often occurred with product complaints. When there is a problem in production, it’s spread over any customer buying that product. You are going to have those times when one product keeps popping up with problems. What and how much you tell your customers is up to you.

My approach was to err on the telling more than needed side. My initial reason was that it was quicker, easier and I didn’t know any better. When broken down, I would simply tell them what was going on. The added benefit was trust building with my customers. I noticed after telling customers the full story as to what was broke and how we were fixing it, they trusted me more and more. They would open up about breakdowns at their other suppliers. Frequently, they struggled with these suppliers as their salesperson tried to sugar coat the truth to keep the customer happy. This tended to actually have the opposite effect. The customer was not only upset about the breakdown and lack of product shipping, but now they were less trustful of that salesperson.

Here’s a few additional examples where you can decide how you might handle the truth.

Walking across the parking lot from the production facility to the office, I struck up a conversation with Mark, our loading dock employee. We were going through daily problems in our production facility and customers were very unhappy with us. Kevin, our new production manager was struggling to get his feet on the ground and our facility had a series of recent mechanical breakdowns. As a sales manager, I dug in to find out how we could help Kevin get us back to our normal customer service level.

“Mark, how’s it going on the loading dock today?” I asked.

“Not so good. And I’m getting tired of making up stories,” Mark blurted out.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Well, we have so many problems that Kevin doesn’t want us telling the customers what is actually going on in the plant.”

At first, I was stunned as I didn’t really believe what I was hearing. I dug a little deeper. “So, you make up stories?”


Needless to say, Kevin’s office was now my next destination as we discussed how truly wrong his guidance to the production crew was. While this is an easy example of right and wrong, it begs the question, “What do you tell customers when the truth may cost you a sale?” And the follow up question, “How much of the truth do you reveal?”

Companies that have continuous problems and don’t learn from their mistakes lose business. So, telling a customer that you had a conveyor belt breakdown for the fourth time this month is not a pleasant experience.

Holding your ethical standards is not only good for business, but helps employee engagement. Steve, our dairy feed salesperson called to tell me one of his customers had a sudden milk production drop right after receiving his latest load of feed from us.

Looking into it with the formulation and production teams, we realized we failed to add a significant amount of calcium and phosphorous in the diet. Steve said the customer was not blaming us but wanted us to double check. We now had a choice. We could not say anything and allow the customer to believe it was something else on his farm causing his milk production to drop. That would be much cheaper than paying a claim for milk loss.

Or, we could fess up and fix the problem. My boss made it really easy with one question. “If your decision was printed on the front page of the newspaper, which choice would you make?”

We admitted our mistake, replaced the feed, paid a small claim on lost milk yield and established a lot of trust with this customer.

The bigger lesson in all of this, however, was the trust and respect me and Steve had for our manager and our company. We now understood that mistakes happen and we can recover from them. We can own them and establish trust with customers and our fellow employees. We didn’t get into the weeds of telling this customer how it happened. We just fixed it as fast as we could, which is all the customer really wants to know.

As salespeople, we don’t have to tell customers everything we know, but what we do tell them needs to be the truth.

The next time you find yourself in this situation, remember that your customer is an adult and understands how business works. Vendors have problems. All vendors. Customers can handle the truth. Trust them with the truth and they will trust you with their business.

For more information on Ag sales training, coaching or business development, contact Greg Martinelli at

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