33 ways professional firms can build trust online

Do you find that prospects sometimes question your ability or willingness to help them? In his book, How to Acquire Clients, Alan Weiss says this is because you have not yet built the trust necessary to sustain a business relationship.

Much of the published advice on online trust building teaches how to build trust in the website itself, such as to get the consumer to trust an ecommerce site enough to make an online purchase. Examples of the research are the Stanford Web Credibility Project and Jakob Nielsen’s original 1999 web trustworthiness research that was replicated in 2016.

Here we look at how a website can build trust in the people behind it. For example, to get a prospect to reach out to you for professional advice. Here is a point-by-point checklist to see how well your website confers trust upon you. 

A prospect has just found your website. How can your website help turn that prospect into a client? Before that can happen, you must:

  • Show credibility 
  • Show empathy
  • Show that you will put client interests first.   

Show credibility

Credibility is more than credentials. Credentials are assumed. Prospects evaluate credibility on a website by many more factors.  

1. The intended audience is clear.

It is clear who the website is for and who it is not for? Not every client is an ideal client. Not every client is the easiest to work with or most profitable. Make it clear what your ideal client looks like. Who will benefit from your service and who will not?

2. It is clear what outcome you provide to them.

Why should your prospect care about what you provide?  Sure you understand the value in it, but don’t assume they do. People buy the outcome you provide, not the thing you sell, so spell it out. Tell them what’s in it for them. 

3. It is clear what you want them to do.

What does your audience need to do to take the next step in your process?  Do you leave your visitors wondering what to do next? Show them. A Call To Action is a prominent button that is clearly labelled with a benefit the visitor can get by clicking it. The highest performing websites have one on every page. The exception is high-trust sales, discussed later.

4. It is clear why they should choose you over alternatives.

This is an opportunity to show your empathy with the specific problem your visitor came to your site to solve. Remember that people make purchasing decisions emotionally, then justify them with logic. Are you a specialist in the visitor’s industry or problem? Even better. 

5. The blog is up to date.

People wonder if you’re still in business if your blog hasn’t been updated in ages. This can be ironic if you’ve just been too busy serving clients to update the blog. Nonetheless, perceptions matter. An out-dated blog is probably doing you more harm than good. It’s better to remove the blog if you don’t have time to keep it current. 

6. The blog is about the problems of the audience.

Too many blogs showcase the author’s knowledge of their own field. Knowledge of your own field is expected. You don’t need to repeatedly demonstrate it. Your blog is an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of your visitor’s problems. It’s also an opportunity to help your clients become better clients. Remember that your dentist shows you how to brush and floss your teeth, not how to drill your teeth. 

7. Blog headlines lead with outcome statements

Just like your blog articles, your blog headlines need to show the reader why they should care about what you are writing. Continuing the dentist example, a headline like, “How to have a healthy, pain-free mouth” would be better than, “Why you should brush and floss your teeth”. The former talks about benefit, the latter talks about effort. 

8. Blog category headings are based on outcome statements

Similarly, your blog categories need to be a list of the outcomes your visitors desire, not a list of your business or industry categories. Such industry categories are likely to be jargon, which might be meaningless to your audience. 

9. The layout is simple.

Studies show that simple, easy to navigate websites are more trusted.

10. Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

People are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by novelty. This was a realization of industrial designer Raymond Loewy. He coined the term Most Advanced Yet Acceptable to describe a design novel enough to pique interest, but familiar enough to not to alienate. A Google study showed that company’s website must resemble those of their industry enough for public acceptance, yet be distinctive enough to arouse interest.

11. The site navigation is clear.

People visit websites to find information. They get frustrated if they can’t find what they’re looking for. Few things are more frustrating than websites that don’t follow web navigation conventions. Even worse are sites where the navigation is different on each page. Frustrated visitors will give up quickly. 

12. The visual hierarchy is clear.

A website’s design must draw the visitors eye to a single focus, then to secondary and tertiary foci. A website is disorienting if many things have equal emphasis. This visitor doesn’t know what to look at first, and can’t follow your narrative.

13. The text is legible.

Text legibility should be self-evident. Unfortunately, text on websites is often too small or too low-contrast against the background. Why make it hard on your visitor?

14. The text is scannable.

Make liberal use of subheadings to break up blocks of text.  People don’t read websites the way they read books. On websites, people scan down a page to find what they’re looking for as quickly as possible. Paragraph after paragraph of dense text makes this difficult. 

15. The site is mobile responsive.

At least 50% of website traffic comes from mobile devices. If your site doesn’t display well on mobile devices, you can say goodbye to those visitors.

16. No home page slider

Sliders or carousels are those muli-image rotating banners you see at the top of many websites. Marketers consider them ineffective, though slider makers dispute this. Replace sliders with a single image and headline.

17. No social media exit buttons

No doubt you have seen those social media logo buttons at the top of a website linking to the site’s social media accounts. These will take a visitor off your website to a social media platform, where you are now competing for attention against cat videos. The cats will win. If you must have the buttons, put them at the bottom of your site.

18. Tell a story.

Stories make the audience want to follow the narrative and learn the outcome. These are great for personal anecdotes and case studies. If you want to hold someone’s interest, tell a story.

19. Privacy policy

Site visitors increasingly expect that if you are collecting any information on them in a contact form, that you will tell them how that information will be used. This is what your site’s privacy policy does. In some cases, a privacy policy is required by law.

Show empathy

20. Validate your prospect’s pain points.

Respond to buyer anxiety with your empathy. Your prospect must feel that you understand their situation. Validate their pain points. E.G. “You deserve better. You shouldn’t have to tolerate…”

21. Explain why, not how.

Professional websites seem to love to explain all the gory details of the professional’s process. Your prospect isn’t visiting your website to learn how you do what you do. They want to solve a problem. Explain why your methods are the solution to their problem, but skip the details. 

22. Use ingroup bias

Can you show that you share something in common with your prospect? These are strong trust signals. Even trivial similarities have been shown to work in the laboratory. Affinity based on ideas can be especially powerful. Apple built a cult following by appealing to non-conformists. Simon Sinek goes into this in detail in his book, Start With Why. Franc Carreras made this similar observation about social media followers, “People don’t follow you because of who you are, but because of who they are“.

23. Use case studies and testimonials

If the prospect is an organization, they might practice defensive decision making, whereby they choose what they perceive to be the politically safe option to deflect blame in the event of failure. As Shane Parrish points out, this is a completely rational act, given the asymmetric outcome possibilities. There is a small benefit for success, but a huge potential cost for failure. You might be seen as the safe option if you can show that major players in the same industry have chosen you.

Nothing convinces a skeptical prospect that you can help them more than seeing how you have already helped others just like them. That’s why case studies are such a powerful persuasion tool. Make sure all case studies and examples showcase the ideal type of client.

Not as powerful as case studies, but testimonials can have a similar effect. The most effective ones are verifiable, with full names and contact info.

24. Reframe the prospect’s view of their situation.

You can gain a lot of trust by leading your prospect to an epiphany that gets them to think about their problem in a new way. This is the theme of The Challenge Sale. In that book, author Matthew Dixon calls such an epiphany a “reframe”.  This requires deep knowledge of the prospect’s industry, because you are showing them something about their own business that they didn’t know. An easier version of this is to bust common myths and stereotypes they might have about your industry. 

Similarly, Mike Shultz and John Doerr of The RAIN Group found that the number one difference between professional services firms that won business and those that didn’t was to educate the prospect with new ideas and perspectives.

Show that you put the client first

25. Make content client focused, not self focused.

In the book The Trusted Advisor, authors Maister, Green, and Galford assert that trust is harmed by a perception of self interest.  People are reluctant to deal with you if they think you’re acting in your best interest rather than theirs. 

26. Set expectations.

Engaging a professional firm is a risk. It is the risk of the unknown. The unknown is one of the greatest unspoken human fears. You can allay this fear by turning the unknown into the known. Tell people what to expect.  How long does it take? What might go wrong? In addition to building trust, setting clear expectations up front will pay dividends down the road in better client relationships. 

27. Answer prospect questions.

The more prospects know about you, the more they can trust you. That’s where articles that answer their questions come in. This is an excellent place to highlight the pros and cons of doing business with you. Yes, that’s right, the cons. People appreciate your forthrightness of disclosing any risk or downside of doing business with you. In his book, Originals, psychologist Adam Grant demonstrated the effectiveness of this technique, which he calls the Sarick Effect.

The known risk is always more pallatible than the unknown risk.  Professionalism means helping the prospect make the best choice for them, even if that choice is not you. When he was a swimming pool contractor, Markus Sheridan saved his business during a recession by devoting his website to answering prospect questions.

28. Set an expected price range.

Let prospects know the expected price range of your services. There is no point in someone contacting you if they can’t afford you. Be sure to compare your price against the cost of the problem your prospect faces. Any price can be a bargain if you solve expensive problems. 

Get rid of trust-killing self-interest signals  (for high-trust sales).

There are certain services that require an extra-high level of trust. These are so-called credence goods, where the customer is not able to directly evaluate quality. Examples are areas that require specialized expertise, such as law or medicine. In such cases, trust can be killed by anything that indicates the service provider is acting out of self-interest rather than client interest. 

Some purchases, such as auto repair or law, are so-called grudge purchases. People buy because they have to, not because they want to. Add to that the above-mentioned credence goods, where they can’t evaluate service quality, and you have a perfect storm of buyer anxiety.

29. Pop-ups

Web pop-ups are annoying at the best of times. It’s like getting a digital pie in the face. It’s the most obnoxious way of saying, “Buy now!”  Prospects wonder if you are really trying to help them solve their problem, or if you are just out for their money. 

30. Calls-To-Action

Calls-To-Action (CTAs) are one of the most recommended website features (even right in this article). However, too many CTAs can erode trust by being too pushy. 

31. Email capture / gated content

Email newsletters have to be used judiciously in high-trust sales. They must contain articles of genuine value to the readers, or those readers will view such newsletters as hucksterism. 

32. Artificial urgency / scarcity

By now you should be getting the idea that strongarm manipulation tricks destroy trust. “Only 3 left” and “Only until the end of the month” are right out. 

33. Price incentives

Resist temptations to offer discounts. High price signals high quality. That’s why wine tastes better when it’s more expensive.  When you offer discounts, you’re saying, “Well, we’re really not worth what we said we were.” There’s a trust killer right there. 

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Drew Mathers

I've been developing websites since 1996, first in HTML, then Drupal, now WordPress.