Winning Customer Experience – Simple Matters of Trust


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Customer Experience and Trust…hmmm.

Here’s three quick questions to engage your brain.

1) How would you answer the following?  “Most people can be trusted” – True or False?

2) What percentage of Americans answered “True” to that question in 1964? and,

3) What percentage of Americans answered “True” to the same question in 2016?

If I were a betting man, I would guess you answered “No” to question 1, underestimated on question 2, and may have been close on question 3.

The Findings

So the answers are…. drumroll please… In 1964 77% of respondents said “most people can be trusted”  but only 31% viewed most others as worthy of trust in 2016 (thus causing my negativistic prediction about you today).

So where did those 46% points worth of trust go in that 52 year span?

My uneducated guesses include such things as the highly vitriolic and alarmist tone of political discourse, high profile cases of corporate greed, a 24 hour news cycle trolling for stories of human depravity, a level of social media viciousness fueled by people relishing in the anonymity and reach of their online posts, etc.  But I will let social scientists take a scholarly approach to understanding our ‘trust gap.”

Trust and Customer Experience

For me, as a customer experience consultant, “low trust” has huge business importance. The 2016 data emerging from research conducted by Stanford Law School has led PBS to opine that the new US motto should be “In Nothing We Trust.” This pervasive cynicism is not limited by how we view one another but how we view most institutions including government and business.

So how do businesses thrive when they are likely populated by owners, employees, and customer who all share a common and heightened level of distrust?  More importantly how do you differentiate yourself as a trustworthy brand?

Given the enormity of this topic, I will try to digest it over multiple posts.  For this week’s installment, I will focus on the importance of EXTENDING TRUST IN LOW TRUST TIMES.

Trust Extending Customer Experience Example from Zappos

I remember working with Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, as he defined a policy that allowed his contact center staff (referred to as the CLT- customer loyalty team) to credit a customer’s account with a return if a customer notified the CLT that they were “going to be returning” items.  In essence, a call to the contact center might go as follows:

“I have ten pairs of shoes I am going to be sending back.”

Zappos CLT: “Great I will remove those charges from your credit card.”

Customer:  “Wait, I don’t trust myself to do that immediately.”

Zappos CLT:  “That’s ok,  I trust you and I have off backed the charge.”

Customer: “WOW, are you real?”

That type of unconventional policy essentially extends trust “even before the customer” thinks it is warranted.  (BTW, if the shoes never make it back they can always re-run the charge.)

Customer Views of Brand Trust

From a customer’s perspective it is a rare brand that extends trust.  Given laws of reciprocity, people tend to return that which they are given — thus, unexpected trust results in the reciprocal action of finding a brand to be trustworthy.

There are at least 3 key elements to extending trust.

1) Contrary to the emerging trend, you have to fundamentally believe that “most people are trustworthy”; personally, I am not sure if I can operate any social contract if that is not at the center of my belief system

2) You have to authentically extend trust whenever possible, and

3) You need to know reasonable limits of trust and how to manage those cases where your trust is violated.

Sidestepping the Cynics

I know the cynics. They talk about how “customers will rob you out of business” or “if you give an inch an employee or customer will take a mile.”  They will cite examples like the recent story in the Washington Post where an umbrella-sharing start-up in a very “communal” culture like China struggled from overestimating the trustworthiness of people. According to the article,

“For a deposit of about $2.79, users could check out an umbrella via app. They would then pay about $.75 for every half-hour of use and check them back in when done. Users could find the umbrellas in stands at subway and bus stations, they could leave them wherever. Once checked out, a user would receive a code to unlock the lock built into the handle….<BUT> not everything that can be shared should be shared <as> nearly all of the 300,000 umbrellas have gone missing.”

I counter with examples of businesses that adhere to the three tenets I’ve listed above and how those businesses extend trust to customers as a part of the respect they have for them.  That respect and trust are foundational to all relationships and should be assumed until the other person acts to erode it.

Tracking Reasons to Trust People

Call me naïve, but I would rather read less about humans being untrustworthy and read more about #dressmatchmaker – the hashtag used by a grassroots movement of women offering to let other women “borrow” their wedding dresses in the wake of dress manufacturer Alfred Angelo’s sudden bankruptcy.

Here are excerpts from a few tweets that continue to give me cause to trust the amazing goodness of people….

#dressmatchmaker I just got married in May and am willing to give my dress to a scrambling Bride in need!

#dressmatchmaker I heard the news! I have a size 18/20 dress that I would happily part with to a bride in distress!


Anyone willing to donate their wedding dress to a bride in a bind? I’m going to offer mine after our wedding in 2 weeks. #dressmatchmaker

I am looking to share more on “trust” in future blog installments and you can TRUST that!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. I’ll take your “uneducated” perspectives as, sad to say, pretty accurate. Trust is core to vendor-customer relationships; and, if it’s elusive, the likelihood of experience being both emotionally positive and memorable is also elusive.

    About 50 years ago, it was Jean Shepherd who said: “in God we trust, all others pay cash.” We’re now living with that reality. Customers are challenged to trust vendors, and vendors rarely make it easy for customers to do so.

  2. Hi Joseph: you bring up some interesting points in this article. First, it’s hard to put credence in the apparent evaporation of 46% of ‘trust’ points. What were the sample demographics? Who conducted the study? Was it the same company conducting the study in 1964 and in 2016 using the same questions and research methods? It’s extremely unlikely that the sample population consisted of the same individuals both times. If it did, that might make for a more meaningful comparison.

    Second, I look at trust differently from how you’ve described it in this article. Companies and individuals cannot “extend trust” because trust is something that one person grants to another. I choose to trust – or not. There are a myriad of reasons. Companies and people can be trustworthy. From there, it’s up to others how to respond.

    I realize this might appear semantic nitpicking, but to me, it’s not. Many companies I work with operate under the same “trust extension” mindset. “We do [this], [this], and [this], therefore, we’re trusted!” . . . No. The key matter is that a company has full control over its intent, and that is where it should concentrate its policies, communications, and governance. Those things – and some others – make a company (or person) trustworthy – or not. That depends as much on what its actions are as how those actions are perceived. You can consider yourself trustworthy and ethical, yet still not be trusted. No one can extend trust by dint of some external trust-implanting power. For me, this is a crucial distinction. (Thanks to Mahan Khalsa, author of the iconic book, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play for turning on this light bulb for me. If you have time, check out the book. His section on trust starts on page 23, and his presentation of the intent/trust point is on page 26. It’s way more eloquent than mine.)

    You make an interesting point about Zappos, because it brings up the connection between risk capacity and trust. I believe Zappos’s offer to refund money to customers prior to receiving the goods has less to do with trust and magnanimity than with an actuarial risk calculation. Zappos knows that a certain number of customers will abuse the policy, and they already have allowed for that for budgeting and cash-flow planning (Allowance for Un-returned Shoes? – a Contra-account to Sales). On balance, Zappos knows that they’re going to come out OK. Presumably, customers really like the policy, and many will even talk about it (more goodwill!) The company understands that most people will return their shoes within a reasonable timeframe.

    On the other hand, most individuals don’t have a hefty cash pool to cover unfulfilled vendor refunds, so they might be more parsimonious when it comes to extending trust.

    Another reason it’s key to understand that trust is granted by people based on evidence, actions, and their personal situations at the time.

  3. From what I can gather the question is replicated across time but the samples are independent (not a repeated measure).

    I agree with the words “choose to trust.” That choice must be followed by behaviors of trust. Those behaviors must also be proactive not reactive to the behaviors of a customer.

    In keeping with Jim Collins book “How the Mighty Fall” – all choices to trust must be made within a risk/return calculation because you can’t “choose to trust” to the point where you would take a “hit below your waterline.”

    As always Andrew you expand perspectives with your incisive intellect.


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