By Kathleen Hosfeld and John Forman
Trust in business is starting to make a comeback from historic lows during the Recession, according to the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer research. It’s a fragile trust, the report tells us. Those surveyed say that after the economic pressure is off, they expect business to go back to unbridled self-interest. In other words, they don’t really trust business – not for the long-haul. At a Young Presidents Organization event last week, members said that “trust” was their number one concern, regardless of the specific business they were in. The gap is enormous.
The Business Case
The business case for trust is well established. A lack of trust can create a number of problems for a company. It can impact reputations as conversation in the market place is fueled by assumptions of ill-will (like BP), gossip and innuendo, slower decision-making processes, as well as loss of sales. And the misbehavior of one Bernie Madoff can sour public perception for organizations that have never been connected to him. On the other hand, a company that has the trust of its customers or other stakeholders can count on better collaboration and decision-making, resilience in the face of a crisis (like Toyota), more word of mouth advertising from advocates, and fewer legal or regulatory costs.
Trust matters to a lot more companies than a skeptical public might imagine. While there are egregiously self-interested firms that can be said to not care about trust, the larger part of the business world cares deeply. Yet, in the current environment, positive intent may not be enough to reclaim trust.
The Trust Formula
One model of trust in relationships offers some lessons for senior executives and marketing specialists for how to reclaim trust with customers, partners and other stakeholders. The trust “formula” has four factors: Credibility, Reliability, Openness, and Self/Other Orientation. This model is adapted from David Maister’s “Trusted Advisor,” a classic in the field. All four elements in the model play an important part, but the fourth — Self/Other Orientation — can either undermine or enhance the other three factors.
Credibility – The credibility of a firm is built on the truthfulness of its communications, its reputation, its experience base and credentials. If there’s a gap between what a firm says and the customer or partner’s experience, trust can break down. If the firm’s reputation or verifiable credentials or experience don’t line up with its claims or communication, trust can be lost. Marketing initiatives to build credibility center on brand alignment, certifications, client/customer testimonials, promotion and sales processes.
Reliability – The reliability of a firm is demonstrated in its actions. Does the firm follow through and keep its commitments? Does it create predictable experiences, does it set expectations that it can keep? Uneven quality, inconsistent experiences, poor performance, lack of follow up or follow through, all contribute to a loss of trust. Marketing initiatives to build reliability include product management and sales and customer service.
Openness – In interpersonal relationships, openness is often confused with sharing intimate information. That does not foster trust. Openness that fosters trust involves the risks taken in the relationship, and the discretion and empathy with which one treats other people’s risks. In business life, this translates to transparency, and sharing information with stakeholders, sometimes hard-to-admit information like “we made a mistake.” Marketing initiatives that demonstrate openness include stakeholder engagement, supply chain transparency, sustainability reporting and open design standards.
Self/Other Orientation – In individual relationships, we most deeply trust those people who we feel have our best interests in mind. So too with companies. We trust companies that care for our benefit as much they care about profit. Marketing initiatives that foster trust also include integrating social good into all aspects of mission, marketing and communication. Demonstrating this commitment amplifies the benefit of a firm’s efforts in regards to Credibility, Reliability and Openness. Marketing initiatives that “go first” involve making a stand for social and environmental responsibility in the communities and the environment where they operate. But efforts at these forms of conscious capitalism must be genuine, and seen as genuine, efforts to make a positive difference.
How are We Doing?
Each of these qualities shows up in organizations in slightly different ways, but all lend themselves to meaningful measurements. As a result, organizations can benchmark perceptions and behaviors, and objectively assess progress towards trust goals. Companies can be comprehensively assessed on these four qualities to determine the greatest opportunities for reclaiming or enhancing trust with customers and other stakeholders.
Kathleen Hosfeld is the principal of Hosfeld & Associates, a strategy and marketing firm. John Forman is the principal of Integral Development, a teaching and consulting firm focused on leadership, performance, strategy and decision-making.