Understanding the Four Levels of Trust

The level of trust a client places in you may be the single most important factor in determining the structure, efficiency, and effectiveness of your working relationship. That is why it’s important to understand the real level of trust you have with each client in order to adjust your approach and process accordingly.

From personal experience as well as from the input of hundreds of top producers, we have identified four primary levels of trust that can exist between a recruiter and his or her client. Although they may appear to fall into a natural progression, where our business is concerned, the movement between levels is anything but natural and certainly not guaranteed. Therefore, understanding the nature of each level is imperative to developing a successful strategy to move from one to another.

Level One – Situational Trust

This is the first level of trust and must be established at the beginning of your relationship, at the point where your potential client is still a prospect. This level is achieved once you have established a directed business dialogue with your prospect; when your prospect willingly engages in a two-way discussion in which the focus is on how your services can best meet their needs.

Many practitioners new to our business struggle at this level if they are not properly trained in the skills necessary to accomplish the three following objectives during the first 30 seconds of the marketing call.

– Gain the prospect’s undivided attention.

– Eliminate or at least not create a reflex rejection on the part of the prospect.

– Change the call from a monologue (recruiter talks) to a directed business dialogue in which both parties willingly exchange pertinent infor-mation.

Once these skills have been mastered, recruiters will consistently be able to move from level one to level two with their clients.

Level Two – Transactional Trust

At this level the prospect becomes a client. Situational trust has earned the recruiter an opportunity to do business with the prospect. Basically, by agreeing to work with the recruiter on one of their open positions, the new client is essentially saying, “I trust you enough to see what you can do for me.”

If the recruiter is working smart, they will properly qualify the order/search (see TFL – 10/01 – “Eight Is Enough”) and not be tempted to work on “low-hanging fruit” just because the client offers it to them.


There is one thing worse than having no business on which to work. And that is working on poorly qualified business that ends up wasting your time while providing little or no return.

Most recruiters in our industry work at this level. Their clients periodically engage them to fill positions, generally on a non-exclusive basis. This is also the level where the greatest degree of commoditization occurs. Since this trust is based only on the inconsistency of successful transactions, any contingency firm that has a fill ratio greater than one in three will have a difficult time distinguishing themselves qualitatively from the competition. Therefore, in order for these firms to move to the next level, on a client-by-client basis, they must successfully fill the majority of orders/searches on which they work.

Level Three – Relationship Trust

Relationship trust is achieved through a series of successful transactions. The positive results that you and your client have achieved through working together enhances their trust level. The client places a greater expectation on your work. When they engage your services, they expect you to perform. Consequently, many of these working relationships become exclusive as well as inclusive.

Increasingly, you are included in the client’s operations and planning. They value your perspective and welcome your input, as you are now viewed as an organizational insider and no longer just an outside vendor.

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Most recruiters aspire to reach the “relationship trust” level with their clients. However, they often fall short of achieving it due to inconsistency of service, a willingness to be compromised in their processes, or a lack of patience and knowledge on how to develop a win-win approach with their clients. Conversely, one of the prominent characteristics of most top performers is their ability to consistently reach a level-three trust relationship with many of their clients.


Trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose. All it takes is one sin of omission or commission and trust can be lost, and once lost, it is almost impossible to reestablish.

Level Four – Loyalty

It is at this level that the client views you and your services as being absolutely indispensable to their long-term success. Achieving this level requires more than just filling positions for your client. Growing from relationship trust, achieving loyalty with your client means they will work with you at the exclusion of all other options. Not only do they rely on you to provide mission-critical employees, but they also are totally invested in your processes and utilize your guidance and expertise when making decisions. Many times these are not just hiring decisions but could include any decisions regarding staffing (conflict resolution, terminations, reassignments, re-alignments, etc.) as well as broader-based organizational decisions that may require your perspective and input as an astute business professional.

Loyalty necessitates a long-term perspective and is the strongest relational bond. Be-cause of this, most recruiters are not equipped to achieve it or have purposely chosen not to go beyond level three, and that’s fine. Although loyalty places the recruiter in a unique position of power, it also requires much in return, most importantly a willingness to shoulder a greater responsibility for the outcomes achieved by your client. Additionally, to be successful in achieving and maintaining loyalty, you must be more than a traditional recruiter; you must become the “go-to expert” on the organizational team.

Each relationship level has its own challenges and rewards. Obviously, achieving level one is most important, for without it, none of the other levels are achievable. However, you can only earn a living in this business if you are successful in achieving level two or higher. How much higher depends on you and what you are prepared to put into the development of each relationship.

Many recruiters remain at level two by choice. They prefer the flexibility and freedom that defines a transactional relationship. However, for others, level three is their goal. They understand that achieving relational trust with clients provides a certain sense of security, as mirrored commitments are the rule and not the exception.

Most important, you need to understand the level of trust you have achieved with each client and whether or not you wish to elevate that level. Choosing the right approach, strategy, and business model depends on it.

As always, your questions or comments are most welcome.

Recipient of the 2006 Harold B. Nelson Award, Terry Petra is one of our industry’s leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, and temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including “PETRA ON CALL,” visit his website at www.tpetra.com. Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or email him at Terry@tpetra.com.

Recipient of the Harold B. Nelson Award, Terry Petra is one of our industry's leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including PETRA ON CALL, and BUSINESS VALUATION, visit www.tpetra.com. Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or click to email him.