Turning Trust Around

“I don’t believe you. Not only that, I believe you less than I did last year. To put it more clearly, I trust you less and less every year.” That’s what 2,565 consumers told the entire corporate world in October 2007.

A survey by Harris Interactive asked the question:

“Which of these industries do you think are generally honest and trustworthy – so that you normally believe a statement by a company in that industry?”

and the answers show that across the board — banks, supermarkets, hospitals, online retailers — consumer trust in every single sector of the corporate world has sunk in the last five years. Some of the details should make a few CEOs extremely nervous, e.g. 11% said they trust airlines, online retailers are trusted by 10%, and oil & tobacco came in with an unsurprising 3%. I’m no statistician, but thinking about 90% of people not believing what my clients (by and large, online retailers) are telling them makes me a little worried for my clients, and it should worry my clients far more than a little.

Surveys like this of course never answer the really interesting questions, like “why don’t you trust these companies?” The simple answer is surely, as Seth Godin said quite a while ago, all marketers are liars. And the people they’re lying to aren’t as stupid as the marketers like to believe.

This illustrates the bizarre symbiotic, but at the same time, adversarial relationship we all have with the companies who sell us our stuff. Symbiotic because they have stuff we want, and they only exist because we buy it. Adversarial because we’re so often disappointed by the stuff we buy and we’re so often left alone with this disappointment, as if we didn’t have a relationship at all. And from the corporate side, consumers are too often seen as a threat, dangerous creatures with complaints who could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down if the fools had a little more power (and thank God that most of them don’t).

What can companies do to get trust back? Be people, not marketers. People try to deliver what they promise. People admit failure when they can’t deliver. People make up for it when they fail. It sounds stupidly simple, but it’s the way relationships work. [An aside: Jeff Bezos seems to understand this. Amazon is wildly successful. Coincidence?] If you’re the only company in your sector who acts like a person and treats your consumers like people, you’ll be their friend, and step away from their enemies. What could be better than being your customer’s buddy?

[thanks to J. C. Hutchins for the heads up]