In the animated Disney classic, The Jungle Book, Kaa the snake is wrapped around young Mowgli and serenades him with a song with the lyrics "trust in me, just in me." As amusing as this is, there is a reality that exists in business where a prevailing attitude is just telling customers to trust in the company. In both cases, just saying something does not make it so.
Trust is essential in our lives, particularly in the 24-7 instant-access news and comment world we live in. We have experienced mixed messaging related to major issues, such as COVID-19, that causes citizens to question which piece of information is correct. We have trust issues in relationships that can fracture families and friendships. Trust is required everywhere and yet often fails to take hold in a meaningful way.
When you see or hear messaging from companies that includes "we have great customer service" or "we have the best staff," we are usually skeptical of such claims. Our skepticism exists because these are claims provided with no evidence to support them. They are claims made by the organization, not by those being served. When you make a claim related to trust, you need to demonstrate trustworthy activity. And this often includes taking full responsibility for your actions and words.
Many organizations believe they are trusted advisers to their customers. However, there is typically little evidence provided to support that customers believe this to be true. Therefore, the question becomes "how do we create trust with our customers?"
While there are many opinions on the concept of trust, I spoke to my friend and colleague Charles Green, co-author of the seminal book The Trusted Advisor to gain an expert perspective.
The three main questions that we discussed offer a guide to businesses that want to establish or improve their trusted relationship with their customers.
First, I asked Green about the best way to establish a foundation of trust. He said, "Two things: be trustworthy, and learn to trust others. To be trustworthy, focus on credibility (be competent and always tell the truth), reliability (make lots of promises and keep them all), intimacy (be a safe haven for anything the other party wants to talk about), and keep your self-orientation in check (pay attention to others, not just your own neurotic self-obsession). To trust others, recognize that you must take risks — without risk, there is no trust. Risks can be emotional (sharing yours or commenting on theirs) or cognitive (don’t just issue bulletproof white papers, have a point of view that might possibly be wrong, but is intelligent and provocative)."
Green offered similar advice to companies looking to build trust with their customers and advised that they should "rinse and repeat from question one. The most powerful form of trust is personal; and trusting and being trustworthy is how you do it, whether it’s with colleagues, customers or prospects."
Finally, I asked Green about the best way to ensure a high level of trust is maintained on an ongoing basis in the company. Green said, "Principled behaviour and leading by example are the top two. Don’t focus so much on metrics and incentives, because that’s impersonal and selfishly oriented. Pick a set of principles (e.g., customer focus, transparency, relationships-over-transactions, and collaboration) and then seek opportunities to visibly apply those principles in dramatic ways. Leading by example is important in all things, but especially trust; hypocrisy is the death of trust."
We now know that establishing trust with your customers requires a focused and consistent approach. Simply saying "trust us" is not enough to establish trust. If anything, this type of flippant approach erodes trust with your customers. It is your actions that will reinforce that you can be trusted. When you reinforce that you can be trusted, you are locking in a long-term bond with your customers.
If a customer trusts a company, then the delivery time is the delivery time. The return policy is exactly as it’s written without any fine print that’s usually only in the company’s favour. And the goods or services are exactly as described and offered. Perhaps you can deliver beyond those expectations whenever possible, but never less than promised, according to the brand, the ad, or the employee as trusted adviser.
Be wary of a snake in the grass that hisses a message that, while hypnotic, lacks substance and validity. Break the spell of talking about yourself and demonstrate that a foundation of trust is what you really stand for.
Tim’s bits: Two letters in the centre of the word trust are "us." And as Green described, you need both parties to come together to create a trusting relationship. You cannot have trust in a relationship if only one party wants to participate.
The steps you need to take are simple to see and require ongoing deliberate actions to ensure you are creating a trusting relationship. Because it takes two to create this relationship, your efforts will assist customers to acknowledge their role, too.
Building trust is extremely powerful and a cause for good in business and personal relationships.
Tim Kist is a Certified Management Consultant, authorized by law, and a Fellow of the Institute of Certified Management Consultants of Manitoba. His column runs on the first Saturday of the month.
Tim is a certified management consultant with more than two decades of experience in various marketing and sales leadership positions.