What is your most valuable asset? Don’t look at your last balance sheet because it has limitations. It fails to show a value for the people in your company, and it does not measure intangibles, such as goodwill. Goodwill underlies everything else you do to build a successful operation.

The most important factor in creating goodwill is establishing trust, which is seldom on the radar screen of business owners occupied with chasing profits and solving problems. Yet, the business of contracting is built on enormous leaps of faith that have little basis in logic, like the story I’m about to share.

A couple of years ago, I accompanied my sister, a music teacher, and my mother, a violinist, to a convention for string teachers. On the return trip, we came upon a small dog, obviously injured and trapped in the center lane of the westbound interstate. The image of my sister waving her arms as she ran in front of trucks going 70 mph still makes my heart stop. She trusted that those vehicles would avoid her as she gathered the dog into her arms. The dog was terrified but didn’t bite, resist her or attempt to escape as my sister drove her to the vet. She remained stoic and trusting through weeks of hip surgeries and heartworm treatments. Today, named Gracie, she is a healthy, vibrant member of my sister’s family and shows no signs of trauma.

We were amazed at the level of trust that little dog placed in strangers. Whether it was desperation, instinct or the way we approached her, it worked because everyone involved did his or her best to make sure she was treated respectfully and her pain was minimized. We honored her trust in us and worked to maintain it.

What relevance does that story have to your business? It’s very similar to what happens at the start of a new project or a new relationship. Every time you hire a new person, send an invoice or bid on a job, the players are trusting each other to deliver on promises, treat each other with respect and minimize errors.

When you consider the randomness of the competitive bid process, it defies logic. What sense does it make to award a multimillion dollar project to an unknown producer based on the lowest number? Even when prequalification or negotiated work is involved, any new relationship carries risks that make it illogical to trust customers, vendors and employees.

That is why the first project is so critical. You may have done similar projects many times, but it is the first performance your customer witnesses. Remember the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, who played thousands of baseball games? He believed in delivering his best performance each time. His fans were a mixture of veterans and those attending their first professional baseball game. It would have been a breach of trust for him to become lazy.

It is especially challenging for the experienced performer to keep things fresh. When I saw Anthony Quinn on stage as Zorba the Greek, he had performed that signature role hundreds of times. He could have “phoned in” his performance, and any actor doing the same part night after night fights boredom and the temptation to automate the delivery. For the consummate professional, such as Quinn, the moves were ingrained, but for the first-time audience member, the experience was a deep and lasting memory.

What impression does your company make on its new customers, suppliers and employees? Would they give you a standing ovation or leave after the first act if they had the choice? Would they buy a ticket to see you in your next role or seek out other entertainment? For each customer representative, supplier, inspector or end-user, the performance of your employees and the impression you make cannot be erased or excused. The cost of mistakes can be measured, but the broken trust reverberates and can sully your reputation for years.

The cost of losing customer confidence is immeasurable. Maintaining their trust takes more effort than coasting, but it is imperative that you walk the walk because your employees will follow your example. You cannot buy integrity, and you cannot create trustworthy people through training. So hire carefully, and create the expectation that all employees must deliver on every promise, every time. Perform every day like it’s opening night, and never take for granted the trust of your customers, employees and suppliers. It is priceless, and losing it could cost you everything.

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at ddjohnson0336@sbcglobal.net.