Skip to main content

Keller Center for Research

Download Article

By John Andy Wood, PhD, James S. Boles, PhD, Wesley Johnston, PhD, and Danny Bellenger, PhD

Building Blocks of Trust

Agents are often advised, encouraged, and even admonished to gain the trust of the seller, the buyer, or both. This advice is based on a wealth of research that shows salespeople who are trusted have more satisfied clients (Anselmi and Zemanek 1997) and that these clients are more committed to the salesperson (Geyskens, Steenkamp, and Kumar 1999). And while the advice to create trust in the buyer-seller relationship is well founded, it misses a critical point. No salesperson can force the client trust him/her.

What our research shows is that client trust in a salesperson develops out of a multi-step process. Clients will evaluate the credibility and compatibility of the sales agent to decide if she or he is trustworthy. The client combines that information with a judgment about the expertise of the salesperson. Positive assessment in all these areas will lead to trust of the salesperson. These findings are based on a statistical method that combines results of 32 previous studies and responses from over 3,000 clients and customers. These results span a variety of industries, ranging from automotive to industrial products and include residential real estate sales.

Trust and Trustworthiness

For trust to occur, a client must conclude the salesperson intentionally considers and acts in support of the client's interest. While this rule does not preclude a salesperson having interests different from the client's, it does mean that there must be some congruence in their interests. Both the salesperson and the client must want to the same outcome (sell the home at $XXX,XXX price). Trust cannot occur when the client concludes the salesperson has no deliberate interest in the client's interests.

This theory of trust is known as the encapsulated interest view of trust and it explicitly incorporates all the elements of trust formation (Hardin 2002). Trust formation begins with the client's perceptions and assessments about some specific traits of an agent. We call these traits salesperson trust-related characteristics. Clients will evaluate the agent on his or her credibility, compatibility or shared values, and expertise. Following these evaluations, the client uses a social categorization and comparison process (Elsbach 2004) to classify that salesperson as either a member of the 'in group' of trustworthy people or as an outsider and thus untrustworthy. As shown in Figure 1, these three salient traits form a foundation for client trust of an agent.

Clients use the first two factors (credibility and compatibility) to categorize a salesperson as trustworthy. A positive conclusion about the trustworthiness of the salesperson is necessary before a client will trust that agent. Assessment that the salesperson has expertise in the product being sold leads directly to trust. While each characteristic is separate, all three are needed for there to be trust. The process is similar to going to the airport and finding a good friend sitting in the pilot seat of the jet. You know your friend is honest and shares your values but unless you also know s/he has the ability to pilot a plane, you are not going to be a passenger on that jet. Similarly, while clients may have evidence of your expertise such as your real estate license, awards for performance or other indicators, unless there is also positive assessments of your credibility and that you have shared values, that client will not trust you.

Salesperson Credibility

The idea that salespeople must be credible in the client's mind is pervasive in the sales literature. Typically, credibility is defined as the salesperson's honesty, candor, and reliability. These individual traits are important because clients must feel as if they can rely on the salesperson's actions and words. But this research goes further and indicates that the credibility of the salesperson is part of the foundation of trustworthiness assessments. A trustworthy seller is not only truthful but does not withhold information. The client seeks transparency and consistency in all information that comes from the salesperson.

Our research suggests that given the advice of 'gain the clients trust,' agents can best do so by managing those actions and behaviors that are perceived by clients as indicative of credibility. When assessing the credibility of an agent, clients want to know that the agent keeps promises so only make assurances that can met (Kumar, Scheer and Steenkamp 1995). Clients do not want just any assurance or promise, they want the promise they can rely upon (Crosby, Evans and Cowles 1990). Speaking of reliability, the client wants agents who are reliable and dependable in their actions (Kennedy, Ferrell and LeClair 2001). Be on time, have what you say you will have, and call back when you say you will call. Finally, the agent is the primary source of information for the client. The client wants not only honesty but candid conversations with transparency.

Salesperson Compatibility

The other salesperson trait that helps form the foundation of trustworthiness assessments is compatibility. Clients must perceive that the salesperson has value systems and world views that are compatible with the client's values and views. Assessments of compatibility are client's judgments that the agent's motivations arise from a belief and value system that is common and compatible to the client's. Capturing this trait are measures of likeability/similarity (Plank, Reid and Pullins 1999) and reputation (Doney and Cannon 1997).

The assessment process of this trait begins with the client having a sufficient comfort level with the situation so the client will spend time getting to know the agent. Clients are unlikely to even make the first approach unless the reputation of the agent is good and the client concludes the agent is respectable (Plank, Reid and Pullins 1999). Then, clients must find the agent friendly and approachable (Ramsey and Sohi 1997). Additionally, agents should strive for the client to like them (Hawes, Mast and Swan 1989). For the client, these judgments are about finding common ground with the agent. If there is common ground, the client becomes comfortable with the thought that the salesperson is motivated by a value system shared by the client.

Salesperson Expertise

This research finds that salesperson expertise directly influences the client's trust of the salesperson. The salesperson may independently be judged as having characteristics such as credibility and compatibility but if that salesperson does not possess the ability (Swan et. al. 1988) and/or competence (Jap 2001) to fulfill the client's interests, he or she is not likely to be trusted. A determination of expertise develops out of the client's perceptions that the salesperson's industry- and product-specific-knowledge and capability to use that knowledge will advance both parties' interests. Therefore, in overall trust formation, perceived expertise does not directly influence trustworthiness but is a salesperson characteristic that directly influences a client's trust.

Establishing agent expertise is probably the trait that agents work the most upon. Our research indicates the following are the specific aspects clients use the most when assessing expertise. The client wants the agent to be qualified, that is, licensed to show expertise. Clients want specific evidence that agents know the market and the selling process. When visiting various neighborhoods, hearing the agent discuss proximity to schools and short-cuts to common destinations serves as one signal that the agent is familiar with that neighborhood. Clients are looking for salespeople who are capable and competent (Boles, Barksdale and Johnson 1996). When clients reach positive conclusions about an agent's expertise, this goes a long way towards trust.

Formation of Trust

Since agents are given the advice to gain the client's trust, our research suggests that agents can best do so by managing those actions and behaviors that improve perceptions of credibility, compatibility, and expertise, the traits that cue judgments of trustworthiness and trust. Gaining the client's trust seems to be indicated by positive decisions about broader characteristics of the salesperson. For instance, when categorizing an agent as trustworthy, our research shows clients are judging the salesperson as sincere (Crosby, Evans and Cowles 1990) and fair (Andaleeb 1996). These are characteristics that may be demonstrated by the agent's behavior but are really higher-order beliefs about the trustworthiness of the agent.

Trust in the agent is a judgment accompanied by an action. When trust is established, the client will take a risk and will put some valuable resource (the sale of the property) into the care of the agent. According to our research, when clients trust their agents, they have concluded three very important things about their sales professional. The client believes the sales agent place the client's interests first (Crosby, Evans and Cowles 1990), that the agent will continue to work toward positive outcomes in the future, (Kennedy, Ferrell and LeClair 2001), and that, in all dealings with the client, the sales agent uses his/her best judgment (Kumar, Scheer and Steenkamp 1995).


The need to gain the trust of the client is clearly understood. The point of this research is to demonstrate the process of trust formation. Agents should not only work on their expert knowledge, but intentionally make clients aware of their expertise. Clients are seeking indications the agent is honest, reliable, and does not withhold information. Provide demonstrations of these traits early on with the potential client. Finally, clients do want to understand the motivations of the agent. Clients are trying to identify shared values. The client does want to like you and find you friendly, but they also want to know others have found you reputable and respectable. So offering references of current and former clients should be part of your early engagement process.

Remember that the formation of client trust is a process. This research indicates the process needs positive judgment by the client about the credibility, compatibility, and expertise of the salesperson. Missing one foundational element will impede trust formation. It does not mean that a transaction cannot be concluded, it just may not be trust-based. This trust formation process can be managed but it must be sincere or else it will feel "manufactured."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Andaleeb, Syed Saad (1996), "An Experimental Investigation of Satisfaction & Commitment in Marketing Channels: The Role of Trust and Dependence," Journal of Retailing 72 (1): 77-94.

Anselmi, Kenneth, and James E. Zemanek Jr. (1997), "Relationship Selling: How Personal Characteristics of Salespeople Affect Buyer Satisfaction," Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 12 (2): 539-551.

Boles, James S., Hiram C. Barksdale, and Julie T. Johnson (1996), "What National Account Decision Makers would tell Salespeople about Building Relationships," Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing 11 (2): 6-18.

Crosby, Lawrence A., Kenneth R. Evans, and Deborah Cowles (1990), "Relationship Quality in Services Selling: An Interpersonal Influence Perspective," Journal of Marketing 54 (3): 68-82.

Doney, Patricia and Joseph P Cannon (1997), "An Examination of the Nature of Trust in Buyer-Seller Relationships," Journal of Marketing 61 (2): 35-51.

Elsbach, Kimberly (2004), "Managing Images of Trustworthiness in Organizations." In Trust and Distrust in Organizations: Dilemmas and Approaches. Eds. R. M. Kramer and K. S. Cook. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 275-292.

Geyskens, Inge, Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, and Nirmalya Kumar (1999), "A Meta-Analysis of Satisfaction in Marketing Channel," Journal of Marketing Research 36 (2): 223-234.

Hardin, Russell (2002), Trust and Trustworthiness. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hawes, Jon M., Kenneth W. Mast, and John E. Swan (1989), "Trust Earning Perceptions of Sellers and Buyers," Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 9: 1-8.

Jap, Sandy (2001), "Strategic Role of the Salesforce in Developing Customer Satisfaction across the Relationship Lifecycle," Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 21 (2): 95-108.

Kennedy, Susan M., Linda K. Ferrell, and Debbie T. LeClair (2001), "Consumers' Trust of Salesperson & Manufacturer: An Empirical Study," Journal of Business Research 51 (1).

Kumar, Nirmalya, Lisa Scheer, Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp (1995), "The Effects of Perceived Interdependence on Dealer Attitudes," Journal of Marketing Research 32 (3): 348-356.

Plank, Richard E., David A. Reid, and Ellen B. Pullins (1999), "Perceived Trust In B-to-B Sales: A New Measure," Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management 19 (3): 61-71.

Ramsey, Rosemary P. and Ravipreet S. Sohi (1997), "Listening to Your Customers: The Impact of Perceived Salesperson Listening," Academy of Marketing Science Journal 25 (2): 127-137.

Swan, John E., L. Fred Trawick Jr., David R. Rink, and Jenny J. Roberts (1988), "Measuring Dimensions of Purchaser Trust of Industrial Salespeople," Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 8 (May): 1-9.

The authors acknowledge the generous grant of the Direct Selling Education Foundation in support of this research.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

About The Authors

John Andy Wood, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing, West Virginia University

John Andy Wood, PhD (PhD Georgia State University) is an assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business and Economic at West Virginia University. His research focuses on personal selling and the issues related to trust-building, nonverbal communications, and rapport-building. He teaches courses in personal sales, business to business marketing, and global marketing. Prior to earning his doctorate, he spent over 17 years in the building material industry. He worked for various companies such as Owens Corning, Rinker Materials, and CSR America in capacities ranging from sales representative to director of sales and marketing.

James S. Boles, PhD
Research Director, Professional Selling and Sales Leadership Program, and Professor, Georgia State University

James S. Boles, PhD is Professor of Marketing at Georgia State University (GSU). He has been at GSU since receiving his PhD from Louisiana State University in 1991. At GSU, he has received recognition awards from the Robinson College of Business for research (1997; 2001) and teaching (1996). Prior to returning to Academia, Professor Boles worked in sales in the area of investment and real estate. He currently teaches in GSU's internationally recognized MBA, PMBA, and EMBA programs. He is also Editor of the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management. In addition to his work and academic experience, Professor Boles has conducted sales research and/or training for many organizations including: AT&T, NationsBank, Bank of America, Scientific Atlanta, Alfa-Laval, Honeywell, and the Atlanta Olympic Committee. In the sales and customer service area, he has presented seminars to strategic account managers from major corporations such as PPG, BP, Exxon, Bank of America, Honeywell, and DuPont. He has consulted with firms on marketing strategy, sales, and innovative/creative thinking. Internationally, he has conducted sales training programs for NCB Bank in Kingston, Jamaica as well as sales and marketing programs and negotiations seminars for managers in the Caribbean. In the Middle East, he has conducted customer service seminars for firms in the banking/financial sector. Professor Boles' primary consulting interests involve marketing strategy, sales force management and development, customer service, and helping firms enhance productivity by applying innovative thinking processes. He has published over 60 journal articles and has numerous other publications. His research has appeared in a variety of journals including: Journal of Marketing, Journal of Business Research, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, and the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Wesley J. Johnston, PhD
CBIM Roundtable Professor of Marketing, Georgia State University

Wesley J. Johnston, PhD (PhD University of Pittsburgh) is the director of the Center for Business and Industrial Marketing in the Robinson College of Business at the Georgia State University. He is also the CBIM RoundTable Professor of Marketing and teaches courses in sales management, business-to-business marketing and customer relationship management. Professor Johnston has served as a consultant and trainer in the areas of business-to-business marketing and strategic selling, key account and sales force management, and competitive strategies. Some of the firms he has worked on projects for include Alfa Laval, Arkema, AT&T, AccuRay, Beers Construction Company, Bushnell, Cargill, Carrier International, CBeyond, DuPont, Honeywell, Lanier WorldWide, Siemens, Southern Company, Thyssen Krupp, UPS, Unimation, Weyerhaeuser, and W.W. Williams. He developed a program on Key Account Management for the Institute for the Study of Business Markets and teaches in the program every year. In addition, he has extensive experience in executive education programs. He has taught in executive MBA programs at the University of Southern California, Georgia State University, the European School of Management and Technology and the Helsinki School of Economics. He has been much sought after internationally to conduct courses on sales management. He has taught in Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Chile, China, Columbia, Finland, Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and Saudi Arabia. Recently, he completed a trip to Europe where he spoke to groups of managers on business-to-business marketing and international sales force management. Before coming to Georgia State University, Professor Johnston served on the faculty of marketing at the University of Southern California and the Ohio State University where he was selected as the Marketing Professor of the Year.

Danny N. Bellenger, PhD
Professor and Research Fellow, Georgia State University

Danny Bellenger is Professor and Research Fellow of Marketing at Georgia State University. His work has appeared in such outlets as the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, California Management Review, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Retailing, Industrial Marketing Management, and Journal of Retailing. His Journal of Marketing article on sales force socialization was named one of the top ten articles in sales management of the century. Two of his articles in the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management have received the Jolson Award for best contribution of the year to selling and sales management practice.

Back to Issue

Border Title