Building TrustArticle

Newman, Claire and Brian C. Briggeman, “Farmers’ Perceptions of Building Trust.” International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 19(2016): 57-76.


Dr. Brian Briggeman, Kansas State University


Trust is an integral part of maintaining any successful business relationship, especially within agriculture. Yet, there is minimal research on how to best build and enhance a trusted relationship. To identify how sales representatives can deepen trusted relationships with farmers, a novel, best-worst survey approach is used. Results show that sales representatives should focus on their own personal development to build more trusted relationships as opposed to things largely outside of their control. Farmers did not care as much about age, years working, or even the reputation of the sales rep’s employer. In short, our research shows that agricultural sales representatives can build more trusted relationships with farmers.

What this means for food and agricultural businesses

Trust is an integral part of maintaining any successful business relationship. Without trust, a business transaction would likely not occur. Trust is the primary component holding relationships together in support of common business goals. Having assurance that the parties will honorably uphold their ends of a contract under any unforeseen circumstances, generates value for both parties. In agriculture, farmers likely find value in working with sales representatives they trust, reducing uncertainty in business transactions.

With that said, there is little research on what farmers actually think about trust. And more importantly, how can agricultural sales representatives build deeper and more meaningful trusted relationships with their farmer customers? To address this important question, we, the authors of “Farmers’ Perceptions of Building Trust,” surveyed Kansas farmers and ranchers and identified their trust preferences and perceptions of agricultural sales relationships. Through a unique data collection and analysis approach, we did in fact identify some of the best ways to establish and build more trusted relationships.

Before collecting the data, we emphasized that a clear and easily communicable definition of trust is necessary. If trust is too broadly defined, then the survey results will be difficult to interpret, and if trust is too narrow, then the results are not actionable or useful. Given that business relationships tend to be complex and multi-faceted, trust is decomposed it into four key components as defined in Maister, Green, and Galford (2000). Based on our research of the literature, trust is decomposed into (1) credibility, (2) reliability, (3) intimacy or how well one knows the customer and his or her goals, and (4) self-orientation or showing one has the customer’s best interest at heart. Each of these components is straightforward and together provide a clear and complete way to define trust for farmers.

According to Maister, Green, and Galford, credibility is one’s credentials and the words used to describe the field of work. In other words, it’s the knowledge of the sales rep. Reliability is one’s ability to connect words with actions. That is, being able to follow through with commitments and remain consistently dependable. Intimacy embraces the level of security that a customer feels with their sales rep and is exemplified by the sales rep truly knowing the goals and objectives of the customer in both business and life. A more open and well-defined relationship will lead to greater transfer of information, increasing satisfaction for both parties. Self-orientation considers who receives the most attention or focus in the relationship. That is, if a sales rep has low self-orientation, then they have the customer’s best interest at heart. Conversely, high self-orientation places the focus on the sales rep and their own motivations.

The key findings from the survey heavily centered on a unifying theme: Sales reps have the ability and can directly control building more trusted relationships with farmers. Farmers did not put as much emphasis on the age or number of years the sales rep had been working in the industry. In fact, farmers felt that to build trust, agricultural sales reps should focus on improving themselves both professionally and personally. Sales reps should focus on being more knowledgeable in their specific areas, exhibit honesty when they are not informed about a topic, exemplify dependability and demonstrate their desire to help their farmer customers. Sales reps can accomplish all of this by focusing on their own personal development to build more trusted relationships, as opposed to things largely outside of their control.

To do so, sales reps need to work with the farmer constantly on clearly defining potential problems. Farmers feel trust is established and deepened through discussing the nature of issues rather than the sales rep trying to sell solutions. Thus, sales reps need to improve and constantly work on their communication skills to better understand the wants and needs of the operation. They need to take time to understand the goals and missions of the operation while working with the farmers to clearly define the problem the farmer faces. In short, agricultural sales representatives can build more trusted relationships with farmers through personal development of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation.


Maister, David H., Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford. The Trusted Advisor.  Touchstone: New York, 2000