Hard Solutions to Soft Trust Problems

I write a lot about how trust is a soft solution to hard problems—like profits, revenue, loyalty, and retention.

Trust itself has some ‘soft’ and some ‘hard’ components. In the Trust Equation,  we usually think of Credibility and Reliability as the “hard” aspects of trustworthiness. And we think of Intimacy and Self-Orientation as being the “soft” aspects.

But it’s messier than that. For example, a firm handshake and look in the eye go to enhanced credibility, yet they have nothing to do with credentials or expertise.

And then there’s a really big one.   Sometimes, very ‘hard’ actions can dramatically affect the ‘soft’ emotions of our clients, customers, employees.

Take my friend R.

How Weak Business Processes Hurt Trust

He shared with me an email exchange with the customer service folks at American Express. He has an Amex-CostCo card that offers rebates for various categories of expenses.
As he puts it, “I trust Amex to get the rebate classifications right.”

Until, that is, he checked and noted a number of vendors who had not been picked up in the rebate program.  They included such obscure names as Southwest Air, Exxon, Red Lobster, and Marriott.

R. wrote Amex a nasty-gram, and heard back (quickly) with a number of reclassifications. However, Amex also said they didn’t know of Red Lobster or Java City, and would R. please give them more information.

This had the unfortunate effect of upsetting R. more, not just because they didn’t know Red Lobster, but because they didn’t try to look it up. As R. put it, “this made me doubt your past statements.”

Sure enough, he went back and found numerous previous missed classifications. He asked Amex to make these changes and further investigate prior months and years on their own. 

In response to this email, he received an apology and a $50 rebate.

Which, again, didn’t mollify him, but had the effect of getting him even more upset.

And it’s not hard to see why. When you’re talking about money, and when you have as good a reputation for customer service as Amex does, customers come to expect, if not perfection, then something not far off. A series of ‘close enough’ efforts, capped by a weak attempt to buy peace, is ineffective—even brand destroying.

The customer just wants things to work the way they should. You buy a BMW, you expect it to work—and well. You go into McDonald’s, you expect the experience to be predictable, on-time and flawless. You enter into a program with Amex, you expect them to get it right. Not close; right.

The effort to get things right is not rocket science. It is just very solid blocking and tackling; making sure your systems and procedures and processes are as airtight and foolproof as you can get them. It’s the “hard” stuff—there is nothing squishy about nailing down business processes.

But look at the result. R. may or may not have been as ticked off as you would be. But your response, like his, would surely be an emotional one.

What Starts as Bad Execution Gets Interpreted as Bad Intentions

The truth is, we impute emotional intentions to hard actions. We see ‘hard’ behaviors, and we impute ‘soft’ motives—resulting in very intense ‘soft’ feelings.  You don’t just engender ‘hard’ trust by doing ‘hard’ things. You can create ‘soft’ feelings by ‘hard’ actions, just as you can create ‘hard’ results through ‘soft’ actions.

Perhaps ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aren’t really all that useful. It’s all part of a package. If we are trusted, and if we trust—legitimately—everything gets a lot better. It’s all part of a package.

4 replies
  1. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:


    I couldn’t agree more with this assessment of the fuzzy line between "hard" trust and "soft" trust.  I love the illustration you’re friend "R" had to unfortunately had to endure.  We’ve all felt that frustration, but relating it to the trust equation sheds new light. 

    Big guys (like Amex) and small guys both suffer from the "fix it" and move on mentality.  Perhaps that more American than not.  Regardless, when we feel trust has been broken, a fix simply isn’t enough. 

    Covey says next to survival, the need to be acknowledged, validated, appreciated, and understood is the greatest human need.  When we get "fixed", without the understanding, it’s like the other party is putting a band aid on with one hand and poised to swing the same club they’ve been beating us with in the other.



  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    To piggy back on Mark’s comment, long before Covey came on the scene, development psychologists pointed to the need for infants, even before birth, to be recognized, loved, cared for, acknowledged, etc. When expecting parents or primary caregivers became annoyed, even for some split seconds, for example, that they were pregnant, that negative energy is communicate to the cells of the fetus. The various flavors of "I wish you were never born," "I wish I were not pregnant," "Pregnancy is a pain…," (even just the thinking of it negatively) etc. all communicat to the infant  a pushing away and thus the seeds of mistrust are impregnanted into the infant and will fuse into her psyche.

    Later on in the early days and  months of the infant, the misplaced and misused "fix-it" behavior of parents or primary caregivers reinforces the notion to the child that he cannot trust anyone. For example, an infant doesn’t have the language to communicate and many (most?) parents don’t know how (for myriad reasons) to interpret an infant’s crying…so they do what they consciously feel, or unconsciously, reactively mis-think, they should do…and often get it wrong…change the diaper when the child is really hungry, feed the child when she is wet, place him  in a crib when he sorely wants holding, push a pacifier into her  mouth when she really wants and  needs a "coo" ing from the parent, or a heart-felt, "I love you-I see you" message, etc.

    The infant interprets these energies and behaviors as "I can’t trust you" and thus the seeds of mistrust are born and the child thus begins life not trusting.

    When we encounter a "fix it," experience, our cry is is really one of "see me, see me!!" as a person not as a "thing" that needs to be "fixed."

    This dynamic not only occurs in the workplace but daily at home and in relationships as well.

    Asking "What do you need from me?" is one question that can support folks to "see" one another and allow the "human" element to drive the interaction.


  3. Sam Bloomfield
    Sam Bloomfield says:


    I had my own interaction with Amex CS and although it did turn our well, it was not a smooth process along the way.

    I had called CS to get the manufactures’ contact information for an item I had ordered/received over a year previously from the Amex rewards program [i.e., the product was almost certainly out of warranty] . CS said they would fax me the contact information I sought. I never received it, or any additional communication from Amex.  About 2 months later I tried again to get the information. Again, CS promised that they would fax and this time mail it to me [USPS].  No fax, no letter ever received.

    I tried a third time, because I trusted that Amex would treat me right on this. When I explained to CS what I was trying to get and what had happened in the past I was put on hold for about a minute by the CS agent. She got back on the phone and said that they were going to send me a replacement for free, no questions asked. I was very happy.

    I persisted because I believed that Amex would ‘make good’,  not a belief I have with very many organizations, say ones’ health insurance company for example. So the power of trust superseded the 2 bad experiences I had; and Amex "exceeded my expectations.” Doesn’t happen very often, and for most organizations I would have given up much earlier and probably, eventually, given up my relationship with that entity as well.


  4. Dape
    Dape says:

    Its hard to believe that companies like Amex get things wrong, or is it.  We all know a business is only as strong as there weakest link.  I realise today that expectations and projection  are normally the traits of frustrated people, what about a bit of patience and tolerance istead of confrontation. If R had probably asked the right questions with the right attitude R might have been given a better answer, sure we all want things to run at 110% but frankly this is not gonna happen unless people start to show compassion to the beleaguered assistants.


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