What Is The Future Role of Consumer Trust?


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Most would agree that trust is critical to establishing, building, and sustaining positive and value-based customer relationships. It is the connective tissue that holds customers, brands, and enterprises together; and, without trust, these connections would quickly dissolve.

Trust is also at the core of customer focus and customer centricity. Winning trust means creating rapport, understanding what’s important, communicating openly, and providing what customers want from an emotional, as well as a basic competence, perspective. Increasingly, driving perceived value and successful relationships with customers will require that organizations take a more proactive, inclusive, and human-centered approach. Keeping that trust means providing proactive, consistent delivery. It means going the extra mile to exceed customer expectations, so that the investment in faith that customers have made is justified.

Consumer trust isn’t a vague or abstract concept. It’s real and it monetizes. Trust is the key factor that drives customer loyalty, and repeat business, so has quantifiable bottom-line impact. Though trust can be seen in long-term engagements, most companies begin by looking at what results from the transactional tactics they take with customers. Before shaping customer relationship strategies, this is a good place to start. Here are some useful, basic guidelines.

1. Focus Employees on Creating Positive Customer Interactions, Whether Purchase or Service-Related

2. Ensure That the Customer Feels Heard, Understood, Valued and Respected

3. Set Customer Expectations – The Experience Should At Least Meet the Promise

4. Ensure That Employees Understand, and Represent, Your Company Values As Ambassadors

5. Evaluate How Cost Management, Especially in Service,Will Affect Your Customer

This last guideline often receives insufficient attention, but it deserves to be put under a microscope. Most customer service operations are, historically, viewed as costs of business, rather than profit-generating centers; and, in one of the last remaining vestiges of re-engineering, organizations are always looking to see where they can cut service costs. Especially where customers are concerned, there is a big difference between cutting costs and managing them for optimum effectiveness. What customer-centric organizations never do is undermine service quality or its ability to drive downstream behavior. A company lives or dies by its reputation, and quality of services is a significant component of its reputation, often at least equal to product features as a barometer of customer-perceived value.

Consumers today are constantly sorting, emotionally and practically, between alternative vendors, endeavoring to identify which engender the most belief and trust. And, stated simply, the more emotionally engaged a consumer is with a brand or company, the higher will be the level of loyalty and advocacy behavior. This has been proven again and again in industries around the world, and the causation and correlation can always be seen in the marketplace.

Much of what shapes consumer trust is driven by an emotional connection, or personal alignment, with the enterprise. And, much of what shapes the enterprise culture is set and accomplished by senior executives, who are what Max De Pree termed “servant leaders” to the stakeholders. This creates a dynamic and continuously evolving situation where the employees and customers sit atop the organizational priorities pyramid.

Service and customer behavior expert Ken Blanchard was recently quoted on this subject: “Your people need to know what business you’re in, where you’re heading, the values that will guide your journey, and your goals. Responsibility lies with top management to establish these guidelines and be sure people understand them. Once everyone understands the leadership part of servant leadership, you can turn the pyramid upside down. As a leader, you now serve your people and are responsive to their needs. This is the servant part of servant leadership. Now your people are empowered to bring their brains to work and do things the way they think they need to be done—within the guidelines that have been set. It’s not a free for all. It’s guided empowerment where (employees) know they can be trusted to make decisions that are in the best interest of the customer.” So, employees are both creators and enablers of consumer trust.

Trust and emotions are also all about humanizing business processes, and creating experiences which add both differentiation and unique value. Increasingly, business is getting the message that, for trust to be earned, customers must be heard, understood and respected. Customers expect this, and trustworthy enterprises make this a core strength and element of their mission and vision. For the future, trust won’t just be a strength, it will be essential to survival.


  1. Michael – the part of your discussion I was looking for is intent. The absence of positive intent from vendors toward customers (and from customers to vendors!) is the greatest reason that trust doesn’t get established in the first place. The five checklist items are a good start, but if the marketer’s or salesperson’s objective is simply ‘gain a customer’ or ‘make the sale,’ that self-serving intent will come across, and the customer or prospect will decide not to trust – unless they have their head stuck in the sand.

    Very few businesses recognize or accept this reality, preferring to stick to old-school outcomes like ‘do whatever it takes to close the deal.’ And ‘have positive intent’ is not without controversy – does it make sense to ask business developers to commit to helping customers be successful, or to create delight’, if there’s no revenue reward baked in? The assumption is often that ultimately there will be a revenue reward, but I’ve seen plenty of vendors get caught in this trap. They don’t stop helping prospects even when they aren’t buying.

    Still, in any relationship, it’s impossible to address trust without paying attention to intent – the only part of the equation that’s 100% within the vendor’s control. Senior executives need to set the tone at the top. Even if the example is set for employees to ‘create positive experiences’, it’s hollow if intent and purpose is palpably self-serving.

  2. This hits to the heart of the issue about why (I believe) trust is widely misunderstood: For vendors especially, what needs to be ingrained are the BEHAVIORS that promote trust, because trust is a thing that Party A gives to Party B when Party A is satisfied that Party B is trustworthy. it’s not something that Party B can presumptuously assert that it possesses.

    This is the core problem. Too many executives think that trust is switch that THEY turn on. “Follow this roadmap, and you will have trusted relationships . . . ” What’s missed is understanding the conditions in which prospective buyers grant trust.

    We’ve all had this happen in selling, at some point. “I don’t know why Steve is so reticent to approve my proposal. I’ve been completely clear and transparent.” Trust, like beauty, is always in the eye of the beholder.

    If it was from creating positive interactions alone, I’d call my car dealership trustworthy. After all, they are always kind and offer me coffee and use of a desk and a phone. But trustworthy? Not at all. Their intent is to sell me a car. It doesn’t matter to them whether it’s the right one.

  3. Trust is something most people assume to understand intrinsically, because as humans, we’ve all had personal experiences that inform our perceptions. However, it’s important to bear in mind that psychological researchers lament the paucity of research available to explain precisely how trust is formed.

    As someone who has studied the concept of trust, and specifically how to uphold trust during times of change, I believe that when we offer business advice on trust, we walk a fine line between over-promising and failing to help businesses make smart decisions. If psychological experts are unable to make definitive statements, then perhaps we in the business consulting field should proceed with caution.

    In my efforts to understand trust, I’ve found it tremendously helpful to study its converse—distrust. And more precisely, to learn how to perceive events and information from the standpoint of vulnerability. That’s because trust is not extended without risk. One of my preferred definitions of trust is that it is the juxtaposition of people’s loftiest hopes and their deepest fears. By studying customers’ hopes and fears, therefore, we find the keys to fostering trust.

  4. Kellie: thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that when it comes to defining trust – and which conditions surround it – it’s useful to recognize that the answers are contextual, and subject to many variables. I mentioned intent as a trust indicator, because for me, it’s one of the few that I’m aware of (or I think I’m aware of). When a seller’s intent is unclear, or when his or her intent seems counter to a positive outcome for me, it’s a given that I won’t trust the vendor.

    Your comment about studying the converse of trust – distrust – compares to how author Witold Rybczinski wrote about comfort in his book, Home. Paraphrasing, he wrote that it’s impossible to define the precise characteristics make a chair comfortable to sit in, and that it is more fruitful to focus on characteristics that make it uncomfortable (too hard, too soft, etc.). That makes sense to me – and it makes sense for trust, too.

  5. Hi, Andrew —

    Of course you’re right about intent, which is why transparency is so important. My background is in communications and one of my principles is that we don’t tell people to trust us; we demonstrate our trustworthiness through our actions and our behaviors. People trust what they see, the actions that demonstrate character, because those actions seem to reflect our intent. That’s partially why outreach programs and CSR are essential for demonstrating trust (among many other things.) Years ago, companies communicated with customers through traditional branding and advertising activities. But today, no one trusts any of that garbage. In fact, the trust deficit in society makes it essential for companies to demonstrate their intent, not just hold a press conference.

    Another interesting topic that also addresses the role of intent is “trust repair.” Essentially, a person’s ability to repair or restore trust depends on the nature of the trust fracture, of which there are two types. One type of trust fracture is competency based. Say a football coach has a string of unsuccessful seasons, we don’t think it’s impossible for him to bounce back (e.g., Pete Caroll, the coach of the Super-Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks who had a miserable run in the NFL about a decade ago).

    The other type of trust fracture is morality based because it reflects character and people assume character to be a permanent trait. A great example of this is Tony Hayward’s infamous line about wanting his life back after 11 men died on his company’s oil rig and thousands more were suffering along the Gulf Coast. To your point, Tony Hayward’s statement reflected his intent, which was a frighteningly arrogant view of the value of others.

    To wrap up, I wanted to share a recent NYT Op-Ed, which addresses the future of customer trust called, “The Evolution of Trust.” Even if you don’t like David Brooks, it’s worth a read: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/opinion/david-brooks-the-evolution-of-trust.html?_r=0

    Thanks for a lively discussion.

  6. Hi Kellie

    I can’t remember who said…

    “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made!”.

    The same thing surely applies to trust.

    Graham Hill

  7. Of course, in consumer matters as in life, perhaps the safer approach is to assume universal insincerity, and put no trust in any person or institution, resulting in neither risk/vulnerability nor advantage, and no concern about intent. As Herod famously said to Claudius in my favorite BBC mini series (I, Claudius, 1976): “Trust no one, my friend, no one. Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one.”

  8. Wonderful insights Michael! Trust is developed in a mutual way, and I have experienced it in my life! If I have shown complete trust on somebody, 90% people reciprocate the same, and you still gain from it! In a corporate environment, there is always a need to strike balance between, Results & Customer focus. When you take the corporate value chain the top management is always focusing on maximizing shareholders value, the irony is, how you maximize the shareholder’s value by creating a superior customer experience and trust, and we have seen ample example of customer focused companies continuously outperformed their peers in creating shareholders value in the long run! it is all about how you are positioning yourself, and how you are managing your customer expectation through creating great culture, people and process! cheers, Raghu


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