Trust and Verify

It is a truism that people don’t trust companies – they trust individuals. An example of this comes from a recent Australian survey.

“Trust is the way most Australians define a great brand. When asked to rate factors that defined a great brand, nearly all the top factors people chose related to trust, such as trustworthy, credible and `never lets you down’. The report showed that the consumers polled had little trust in big companies and big brands. Source: AFR on 16/10/06 in an article by Neil Shoebridge titled Trust and innovation are great company.

He was quoting from a survey called the Australian Report released by STW Communications Group which was based on interviews with 2000 people.

In the real world, what makes the difference in most of our personal and business relationships is the exercise of “trust cues”.  In essence we like to spend time and interact (business) with people we like and that we trust. See partial description below:

(“When people in business meet for the first time to discuss a transaction, they often exchange “trust cues” – reciting empty phrases such as “win-win,” “synergy,” or “principles.”  Origins are found in early religious rituals – religions spread by producing the trust cues necessary for large societies to develop and trade to emerge.  These cues facilitated peaceful interactions among strangers…” From Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn 2006)

This is especially so in the online world. We are developing ways as individuals to cut through many of the layers and be able to preserve and extend trust cues into our online world.

A personal example of this is Linkedin, which I joined in March of 2004 because a friend in Sydney sent me a link and then pretty much ignored until this year. At the time there were 1.5m people in the community and now there are 8.5m! including 7,600 in New Zealand.

The reasons these types of projects are successful are because they add a depth of real world connection to a virtual community that can transform a list of strangers into a valued community of interest. In effect a community like LinkedIn is an online way to present trust cues in a business context.

This is especially useful when dealing with really large companies. I sometimes need to visit monster sites like IBM and a search for useful information there is doomed by its own scrupulous efficiencies. I then do what the 300,000 staff at IBM do when they want to find the most reliable and trustworthy information sources. They go have a look at some of the thousands of unofficial but increasingly useful blogs by product managers and researchers within the company so they can find out what they want to know before the marketing filters are applied.  That is  – they want to hear from a senior person who is credible and trustworthy.

IBM has developed their own corporate blogging standards partly as a response to this. This type of activity allows a very big company to put on a human face and get much closer to people – even making the brand look a bit smaller but much more trustworthy.

I especially like it when I find a CEO has a blog where I can get a sense of the fireside chat and some straight talking from an insider. Of course if the blog is not updated that can also say a lot.

Governments are also seeing the need to preserve trust as a high priority. Actual research into issues of trust are being addressed by the Australian Government in Australia’s Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 2004–2006 to the extent that one of the four priorities is to ensure the security and inter-operability of information infrastructure, and support confidence in digital services. And also see the shorter companion slideshow on the same subject.

So what happens when there is an issue that requires public comment and the company makes the kind of statements noted below?

“He has defended his wine, saying that while the batches were “technically different” they had a “flavour consistency” and consumers would not be able to taste the difference.”

In my opinion the response reported above doesn’t do much to increase the public trust for the company or the people speaking for it. There are many things that people are passionate about. Wine is very much one of them.

If I was in that hot seat so to speak – I would welcome the opportunity to show the brand was trustworthy and has respect for all its customers. And so what if consumers might not be able to tell by taste – it is the breach of public trust that is significant.

Embracing change and challenges to the organisation in a way that builds trust with staff and customers has to be the way to leverage the trust cue concept.

“What it all boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.”

I doubt that many people will recognise this from the farewell speech of US President Regan. No doubt there are a few great speech writers behind every president but I like the central idea which reinforces the value of trust and straight talking in any relationship. (From speech on January 11, 1989)

Trust and verify still sounds like good advice.

(Thanks to Noric for valuable feedback on this topic.)