Building Customer Trust (Samantha Burns)
There is sufficient evidence of the business case for building customer trust, making our focus not one of whether to commit resources to building trust, but rather, how to most effectively commit resources to build customer trust. While trust is a complex subject and there is no simple formula to building trust, here is a model that provides some pointers that we might find useful in our respective organisations.
The Trust Matrix Model
The model defines that before any targeted, trust-building activities take place, two cornerstones need to be established, namely the competence and character of the organisation. Thereafter the model comprises three key business activities that touch customers in multiple ways, namely; the way we communicate, the way we design products or processes, and the way we deliver on our brand promise. The model proposes five disciplines which serve as trust-building blocks, one of which is competence-based and four of which are character-based.
If we can apply all five disciplines in all three business activities, customer trust will increase and such increase will be measurable on the bottom line provided, of course, that our organisational competence and character is in place.
Would you trust a company that keeps letting you down? That sells products or offers services that don’t always work? To stand a chance of building customer trust, the basic business competencies are critically foundational. Competent companies have a certain expertise that commands the customer’s respect. Competent companies know how to provide great quality products and services in a consistent manner. It stands to reason that a customer is unlikely to trust an organisation or brand if there is any lack of basic competence. In our ambition to build customer trust, we need to first be sure that we are meeting our quality standards. Without this in place, the effectiveness of any other attempts to build trust is significantly diminished.
The complex nature of trust requires that not only must rational requirements be met, but also emotional and psycho-social ones. Assuming the quality of our products and services is exceptional, a customer will still hold back trust, and will certainly limit if not terminate their purchase relationship with us, if they have reason to believe that we lack honesty, integrity or fairness. Honesty is about telling the truth, the whole truth. Integrity is about congruency between what our company or brand says and what we do.
Fairness is about not taking advantage of a customer, even when the opportunity exists to do so without being unlawful. If we were to rate our company in terms of honesty, integrity and fairness, how would we score? Our employees serve to be a good barometer of these values. Ask them whether they feel that they are treated with honesty, integrity and fairness in the workplace. These values are either real or not, they are either true in all our dealings or not. If they are demonstrated to clients, but not to employees, then they aren’t real and clients will see through the charade soon enough.
A lack of employee trust in the workplace is a sure sign that a company will have difficulty in building customer trust. A low-trust work environment creates a culture of hesitation, if not resistance, which slows down business, eroding the cornerstone of competence discussed above. Employee turnover in low-trust environments is significantly higher than in high-trust workplaces. The good news is that while low-trust is severely debilitating, high-trust does not just counter-act that debilitation, but is most conducive to high performance. Trust liberates talent and creates fertile ground for innovation, greatly benefiting the quality of products and services. To find out more about building employee trust, consider reading two great books; “Radical Trust” by Joe Healey, and “Building trust at the speed of change” by Edward Marshall.
Ultimately, without the right employees and good leadership, the aspiration of corporate competence and corporate character becomes meaningless. True good intentions are just as important as honesty, integrity and fairness. Do our customers believe that our company or brand will act in their best interests? This is a question worth asking our customers. Even though our customers may consider the expertise or competence of our organisation to be high, they may not necessarily feel confident that we will use that expertise to their best benefit. In fact, if customers are in any way unsure of a company’s intentions, they are likely to be even more wary when a company is particularly smart at what they do. So far in our model we have established the two cornerstones ofcustomer trust:
• Corporate competence: great quality products and services
• Corporate character: integrity, honesty, fairness, and good intentions
With these in place, we have a firm foundation. The matrix that rests on these cornerstones provides some measurable and concrete steps that any organisation can take to build customer trust.
Three key business activities In broad terms, our customers are most affected by:
• the way we communicate with them
• the way we design products and processes
• the way we deliver on our brand promise
To increase customer trust levels, a company may embark on many initiatives, many more than suggested in the Trust Matrix Model. However, the model concentrates on just five, easy-to-remember disciplines that test for character and competence in each key business activity.
Five trust building disciplines
The trust building disciplines emanate from check points of corporate competence and character, yet in their simplicity, serve as clear building blocks to help our employees implement what it takes to build customer trust. The five disciplines are:
1. Be great. This speaks of competence. Be great at what we do for our customers, whatever we do, we make sure we do it with excellence. We do our best to recruit the right people for each job and that they receive the relevant training and support to become experts in their fields.
2. Intend good. Our intentions towards our customers are always good. We exist for their benefit first and foremost, recognising that without our customers, we have no business. Looking out for the best interests of our customers is not one-sided, however. It also requires that we ensure the sustainability of our business to meet customer needs, not only now, but also in the future.
3. Talk straight. We go to great lengths to be clear, simple and not misleading in all our written and spoken communications. We need to do everything possible to avoid confusing our customers. The moment a client feels bamboozled, whether we intended to confuse them or not, in the way we sell our products; explain or fail to explain some complicated process; or even in the way we give them updates of their accounts with us, they are immediately on guard, more vulnerable and potentially suspicious of our intentions. Customers hate to feel that because of their ignorance in a certain area they might be trapped into signing up and paying for something that wasn’t quite what they expected.
4. Keep promises. An obvious key to building customer trust is keeping promises. This is nothing new. It simply requires that a company or brand delivers on what it says it will. While this is not rocket science, it is certainly not easy to do. It becomes increasingly difficult as a company gets larger and requires different divisions to timeously fulfil their part of the promise or when employees no longer have a sense of direct accountability. Keeping promises can be challenging when, for example one division is not aware of another division’s promises or is not prepared to fulfil promises that they did not make.
5. Listen. This is an age-old, indispensable relationship-building principle. Apart from the psychological benefit to the person being listened to, the benefit to the organisation that knows how to listen and systematically record and act on that listening is immense. The most apparent act of listening takes place when customers call or e-mail us or when we proactively contact them. Both proactive and reactive contact points need systems in place to capture the trends of what all those interactions are about. The less apparent act of listening takes place when we hear what customers are saying when they aren’t speaking to us. This involves data analysis of other forms of customer behaviour such as purchase volumes or frequency, depth of product range, call frequency and complaint frequency by customer. A listening company makes sure that it has the metrics in place to hear these messages and then take appropriate action.
As the Trust Matrix Model illustrates, to build customer trust, we need to examine the way we communicate, the way we design and the way we deliver, against the five trust-building disciplines. Space doesn’t allow that we discuss all activities, so we’ll just explore a few disciplines in each business activity and ask ourselves some important questions.
a) Building trust in the way we communicate
Consider the way we communicate with our customers.
• Are we great at it? Do we communicate well? Is the written and spoken word expressed both accurately and effectively? Do we employ expert communicators in our marketing department? In our call centre?
• When it comes to character, are we communicating with good intentions? Do we have our customers’ best interests at heart? Are we communicating with the genuine intent for customers to really know the full picture or are there certain facts that we would prefer not to mention as they might make us less competitive? Ideally we want our customers to know that we are ever mindful of their interests and that we believe in being fair, to everyone’s benefit, in the long run.
• How do we make sure that we ‘talk straight’ in the way we communicate? Specialised research in this arena is helpful and quickly highlights to what extent our communication is not clear. Sometimes words that seem perfectly understandable in our industry are alien to our customers. Other times our style of communication puts customers off and they find our content difficult to read simply due to complex sentence structure and long words.
• Even if a company has complicated products, it can, and must, find a way to communicate with its customers in a plain, transparent, easy to understand, non-jargon way. Employees often don’t realise how they can improve the way they ‘talk straight’. It is worthwhile for client-servicing and communication and marketing teams to be trained in effective communication and business writing, especially in light of the new trend in business towards clearer and simpler communication. Here they learn the imperative to communicate in such a way that clients feel secure that the company has no hidden agendas, no desire to be misleading and no interest in building caveats into products or processes that are designed to trip customers up. Furthermore, when this training is reinforced with strong quality controls, the results of which feed into the incentive systems, the ability to ‘talk straight’ is significantly enhanced.
b) Building trust in the way we design products and processes
• Are our products well designed? With competent people we constantly strive to design products that accomplish what they set out to do within the price bracket that customers are prepared to pay. Being great in the way we design products and processes also means that we keep improving our designs, trying to accomplish more for the customer than what we have achieved in the past.
• When we design processes to support the delivery of our products or services, are our intentions fully aligned to the customers’ best interests? Do we design processes that protect our customers’ rights to confidentiality? Sometimes it seems that companies design their processes with the explicit goal to exasperate customers, especially when it comes to lodging complaints or trying to get something fixed. The administrative hurdles can be so time-consuming or irritating, that customers eventually give up.
• In general, companies don’t try to make things difficult for their customers; they are just trying to make things easier or more cost-efficient for themselves. Unfortunately, they do so without thoroughly thinking through what would also be in the customer’s best interests, thereby damaging customer trust. If we embed the philosophy of always acting in the customer’s best interests as part of every process design, we guard against this type of trap.
• Are we listening as well as we can? Actively searching out and listening to our data and customer research can reveal valuable information, giving us clues concerning what needs to change in the design of our products and processes.
c) Building trust in the way we deliver what we promise
• To build trust, we are very conscious of not bamboozling our customers in the way we deliver our products or services. Endless automated call routing selections can cause a company to confuse customers and lead to unkept promises. You know the feeling, “Press one for this, press two for that, press three for the other thing”, and no number is offered for the subject that you want to talk about.
• Our marketing brochures and advertisements lead people to certain expectations. Are we sure that the type of expectations any reasonable human being would have based on what we publish, translate into promises that we are prepared to keep? Being committed to deliver on all our promises, it is worthwhile to make sure that we aren’t inadvertently making promises that we have no intentions of keeping and indeed, cannot keep.
• At times we fail to deliver what we promise. We all make mistakes; wheels fall off, gremlins creep into systems, people forget something. Unfortunately, these things hurt customers and create critical trust moments. A critical trust moment is a short window of time when a customer suspends trust and is ready to withdraw their trust, and probably their business too, unless the company urgently does the right thing to restore that trust. Depending on the severity or frequency of company mistakes, customers are generally willing to give companies an opportunity to make right, simply because the customer has invested in the relationship too and doesn’t necessarily want the hassle of establishing a new one with a competitor. However, it does make them ripe for competitive picking, and therefore it is a critical moment in which the company needs to restore trust to close that window as quickly and effectively as possible.
• Promises made during critical trust moments are the weightiest promises we can ever make and yet to successfully recover, good promises need to be made at these times. Our employees need guidance on how to make the right promises to customers when trying to resolve a complaint or breach of trust. The promises should be both relevant to the customers’ needs and, more importantly, extremely doable.
We all know that failing to keep a promise made to a customer who is already upset with some shortcoming on our part, is tantamount to ‘nails in the coffin’. In a nutshell To build customer trust, we first establish the cornerstones of corporate competence and corporate character. Upon those, we construct a few trust building blocks by repeatedly checking five things; whether we are great at what we do, whether we have customers’ interests at heart, ‘talk straight’, keep promises and whether we listen. We cross check these five disciplines in three key areas; the way we communicate, the way we design products and processes and the way we deliver on our brand promise. While it is essential for us to make it everyone’s job to build trust, it is highly recommended that we make it one person’s job to specifically drive the trust agenda, onitoring our progress in this regard against a structured framework whether it be the Trust Matrix Model or another, and reporting back to the Executive Committee.
Samantha Burns is reporting to the CEO, currently responsible for Ethics and Fairness at Discovery where she has been for 14 years.
During this time she has initiated and run various divisions, viz. Corporate Relations, Business Conservation, Service Strategy, CRM, Service Institute, Discovery Institute and Employer Brand Management. With a BA in Psychology and Communications, an MBA cum
laude in customer loyalty, and 20 years’ experience, she has frequently been a guest speaker at service excellence / customer