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.