• How has the coronavirus outbreak changed the dynamics of trust building forever?
  • What is a swift trust theory?
  • Do the role-based interaction lead to more rapid development of trust than person-based interaction?
How to build trust when selling virtually

Traditionally, sales professionals developed trust with buyers over an extended length of time, as they engaged with customers, set expectations, fulfilled promises, and delivered value. However, the sharp increase in remote selling through virtual collaboration platforms, driven by the necessities of the COVID-19 outbreak, have changed the dynamics of trust building forever. According to a McKinsey study1, almost 90 percent of sales have moved to web-based videoconferencing communications since the start of the pandemic. As a result, salespeople must now develop trust and credibility rapidly, under circumstances that do not allow for long timelines or in-person meetings.

A team of social psychologists at Stanford University evaluated how people develop trust over virtual media. In doing so, they developed an idea called swift trust theory, based on their discovery that fast-forming groups can quickly develop the trust that many originally believed was only possible among those with long, shared histories.2 However, the Stanford researchers explain that this is “a form of trust that has some unusual properties”.

The swift trust model is not simply an accelerated version of conventional trust building. Sales professionals must adapt their behavior to align with three key principles of swift trust to sell in a virtual setting. With a clear understanding of these principles, sales professionals can embrace the new challenge of creating trust over a short period and a long distance.

Prepare with a role-based focus

The Stanford researchers cite that “role-based interaction leads to more rapid development of trust than does person-based interaction”. In other words, trust is more likely to emerge when there is a clear understanding of the roles within the group. This finding has implications for sales professionals who must engage with various stakeholders in a buying team. By understanding the role of each decision maker, the sales professional will be better equipped to speak to individualized concerns.

The Stanford researchers note that placing a focus on each person’s role will sharpen the contrast between stakeholders, so that everyone is clear on what is expected of the others. For example, a sales professional will need to address a procurement professional differently from a quality control manager. The procurement professional is tuned to factors like cost and ROI. In contrast, the quality control manager will need to see the sustainability of the solution. By clearly defining the differences between each stakeholder, the sales professional will be in a better position to address each one. The key is to remember that the “blurring of roles will lead to a slower build of trust”, according to the researchers.

This blurring occurs when the sales professional has not taken the necessary steps to prepare for the virtual meeting. In a virtual setting, it is easy to resort to a cursory review of the stakeholders prior to a call. This tendency is common because a virtual setting provides a “safe distance” that appears to lack the intensity of in-person interactions. Trust building requires sales professionals to be aware of this inherent tendency and overcome it with more thorough preparation. Doing so means taking the time to understand the different roles and their responsibilities. This approach allows the sales professional to both adjust the messaging to each stakeholder and use valuable call time to ask the deeper questions that cannot be answered with pre-call research.

Stakeholder attendance is not stakeholder attention

Additional research published in the article The Role of Trust in Global Virtual Teams3 found data to “support the critical link between communication early in the life of a virtual team and early trust”. This finding illustrates the importance of communicating with every decision maker when selling over a virtual medium. Often, it is easy to confuse a stakeholder’s attendance with their attention. The two are not the same. The inclusion of a stakeholder in the call does not signal their buy-in or interest. In fact, a decision maker facing numerous other responsibilities, many with high priority, may choose to log in and tune out. It is the sales professional’s job to recognize that just because a customer is on the call does not mean they understand and agree with the value proposition of the solution.

Overcoming the challenge of selling virtually means that the sales professional must engage each stakeholder. Doing so means asking questions directed at individual decision makers rather than to the group because “members’ frequent communication in the team provides reassurance that others are attending to the task”, according to the researchers.

Questions presented to the group may serve a purpose occasionally; however, they often give way to the psychological phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility”. In such a setting, each individual believes that another will take action. As a result, no one takes action. Research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience4 describes this well-documented social norm by explaining that “the presence of other agents can lead to reduced outcome monitoring and a reduction in individual sense of agency”.

This environment can result in numerous problems including social loafing, in which a group expends less effort than the sum of their individual efforts. To avoid this, sales professionals should ask questions of specific stakeholders in virtual meetings. Moreover, those questions should ­acknowledge the unique needs of the individual based on their responsibilities within the company. This approach keeps each stakeholder engaged throughout the buyer’s journey.

Structure value propositions around interdependent goals

The Stanford researchers determined that “swift trust is more likely at moderate levels of interdependence”. Simply, swift trust will emerge in a setting in which the individuals in the group depend on one another for success. Sales professionals should apply this finding by underscoring how the solution not only addresses individual needs but also the larger, overarching needs of the organization.

Trust building will accelerate when stakeholders in a buying team define success clearly, and each understands their role in achieving that success. It is the sales professional’s job to identify that shared definition and speak to it early and often. Additionally, the sales professional must be aware of the increased difficulty of doing so in a virtual setting. Often, the conversation can become one-dimensional, as extroverted stakeholders vocalize their thoughts while those who are more reserved remain silent. In this environment, the psychological concept of groupthink becomes common.

Groupthink occurs when counterproductive decisions emerge from a group that is more focused on conformity than rationality. This could be thought of as “going along to get along”. In such a setting, the most effusive decision makers may have a disproportionately large influence over the challenges and goals articulated in the virtual meeting. As a result, the sales professional may fall into the trap of positioning the solution in a way that only resonates with these more vocal members of the buying team. Therefore, the sales professional must be aware of groupthink and become proactive in drawing out the opinions and needs of each member of the group.

Here, the researchers’ findings about interdependence are especially salient. That is, sales professionals must develop the ability to differentiate between independent needs and interdependent needs. Parsing out the two is particularly difficult in a virtual setting, as it is more challenging to connect personally, distractions loom large, and some stakeholders may be uncomfortable on camera and therefore less descriptive about their needs.

2020 has marked the start of a decade that brought change that was further sweeping and faster than anyone expected. In this new era, most selling organizations have responded by making the leap to selling virtually. However, selling virtually in an effective way means much more than simply replicating existing selling skills in front of a camera. Sales leaders must acknowledge how the nature of the interaction has changed and how they can change with it. Those that recognize the behavior changes required to sell virtually shall reap rewards quickly, while those who do not shall continue to struggle.

Footnotes / Bibliography / Legal basis


  1. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/the-b2b-digital-inflection-point-how-sales-have-changed-during-covid-19
  2. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=t6glCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA166&dq=swift+trust+and+temporary+groups,+Meyerson+%26+Kramer+1996&ots=1a-KoZW_dLg&sig=hK3fdYjE71osjpWfT2vo13Hf2F8#v=onepage&q&f=false
  3. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/263f/cb9158a449815660ecf4637ec069b880b59a.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390744/

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