Do You Trust Your Customers? Do They Trust You?

It’s popular to claim that “trust is down.” Mostly, that’s true. It’s definitely true that trust in government in the US has declined. It’s a bit less true of big business, but not enough to be proud of. Edelman basically has it right: trust is broadly on the decline.

This is mainly a business blog, so let’s focus there. My clients have lots of questions about trust, ranging from what to why to how. But most of them have one question about all others: How do we get our customers to trust us?

It’s the wrong question.


A long time ago, at least as we remember it, we all had more control over our businesses and our lives. Not everything we wrote would appear instantly on the Internet. We didn’t need to mention price until we had discussed value. We largely controlled our public image.

Back then, it wasn’t hard to trust our customers. After all, we held all the cards. And our customers more or less trusted us because we appeared trustworthy.

That was then; this is now. Information now is drastically, radically free. Copyrights and trademarks are losing their protective power, and first-mover advantage lasts a nanosecond. Your brand image is determined by forces outside your control.

Nowadays it’s hard to trust our customers. They can integrate upstream, threaten us with reverse auctions, switch suppliers in a heartbeat, force us to deal with procurement, and screen us out of every advertising and promotional channel we can think of. Worst of all—they trust us less than ever before. The ingrates!

In such an environment, the natural response is to tighten control. That is precisely the wrong response. The right response is not to stand in front of the wave, but to get out your board and surf it. And ironically, the best way to get our customers to trust us may be to trust them first.

Ways We Control

Given the volatility in nearly every aspect of business over the past decade, we don’t need more scary headlines. We are all overly conscious of terrorism, intellectual property theft, out-of-control jury awards, computer hacking, identity theft, and unscrupulous business practices. The fear factor is more than adequately taken care of just by reading the headlines (online) or watching the evening news (cable, delayed so as to strip ads).

We have responded with controls. We put screens and filters on our email, phones, and social networks. We use password protection programs. We instruct our lawyers to include non-compete clauses. We require our subcontractors and customers to indemnify us against all conceivably imaginable negative events. We engineer our CRM systems to include sub-routines to cover all possible downsides to the sale.

AI and Big Data are bringing new dimensions to this dynamic. We no longer have to trust our customers to tell us what they want: we can discern it from their behaviors, from scraped data. Increasingly we can divine intentions, rather than having to trust what our customers themselves say.

We do all this to manage risk. But when we expend so much energy on the negatives, we tend to mistrust everyone—customers, employees, subcontractors, strategic partners. And the result of all that mistrust is—mistrust handed right back to us. Trust is, after all, reciprocal: what you put out, you get back.

All the stats about the decline in trust tend make us think we’re seeing a decline in trustworthiness. Often that’s true, but it also implies a shift in our propensity to trust. We have become, as a business culture, less willing to take the risks that are necessary to building a trust relationship. And when we trust less, we get less trust back.

The Dynamics of Trust and Trusting

We sometimes forget that a relationship of trust requires two players: one to do the trusting and one to be trusted. Those roles are very different, and the players have to switch back and forth between them.

All the risk lies with the trustor, the one doing the trusting. By contrast, the one being trusted (the trustee) has a largely negative task: to not appear untrustworthy. But, if all the trustee does is appear trustworthy, and never take any risks, eventually the trustor will become suspicious: “Why am I always taking all the risks here?”

Healthy trust relationships are composed of an ongoing ever-reciprocating pattern of trusting and being trusted, with the roles frequently shifting. I reach out my hand in a gesture of greeting, risking your disapproval, and you return the gesture by shaking my hand. You share some important information with me, risking my abuse of that information, and I return the gesture by ensuring that I will treat the information appropriately. It is the back and forth that forms the pattern of trust.

Trusting Customers and Trustworthy Customers

Henry Stimson is credited with saying, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” Other pieces of received wisdom echo the same principle: “Whether you expect good or ill of someone—that’s what you’ll get.” “No pain, no gain; no risk, no return.” But what does all this have to do with customers?

Plenty. Let’s take buying. In the old days, we controlled the information and doled it out when it suited us to suit our sales process. Buyers know they no longer have to put up with that; they can put together almost all the information necessary on their own if they have to. They now resent having to deal with salespeople to get information that should be available on the web.

So, trust your customers. Put all your information out there on the web for your customers to see. Don’t force them to wade through salespeople to get it. Instead, use those salespeople to respond to intelligent questions from customers who arrived informed on their schedule.

Don’t force your “customer service” on customers. They no longer believe “your call is very important to us” or “our menu has changed,” and they can’t stand having to repeat their problem at every step of a convoluted process built because you don’t trust your employees and reverted to low-cost automation. Instead, invest in educated, empowered, always-available support.

Don’t hold back on price until value is established. Get price out in front; trust your customer to be smart enough to ask you value questions to determine whether the trade-off is good. Don’t try to “close” your customers. That’s just another form of control. Instead, trust them to make an intelligent decision, and help them by providing useful questions.

Don’t force your customers through returns hell. Take their word for it that the jacket didn’t fit, it wasn’t the right book, or they already paid for the software.

And while you’re at it, trust your employees. Don’t start the employer/employee relationship by threatening them with lawsuits if they ever leave and try to work for a competitor. Don’t sue people who “steal” clients from you (what do you mean “your” client, anyway?). Above all, listen very carefully to them. They’re the ones who can tell you what customers are talking about.

Back to the Most Common Trust Question – How do we get our customers to trust us? By changing the question. Channeling Stimson: the best way to get customers to trust you is to first trust them.  Try focusing instead on asking, “How can we find ways to trust our customers?”

It’s not the latest insight. In fact, it may be the oldest. But it still works.