Where would we be without trust?
We place our children in the care of strangers when we send them to school; we put our income into banks and never doubt the money will be there when it’s time to pay our bills; we trust our medical professionals to be thorough and confidential in their dealings with us. With each interaction, we build a type of equity in these relationships that form the cornerstones of our society. The same principle applies to business. Each exchange of goods or services builds on the next until we construct a narrative that includes our “favorite” places to eat, shop, or vacation, but as the world around us continues to change, it would be hubris to surrender our trust too easily.
Like many conscientious consumers, I’m tired of the amputation between the fiction companies create for their marketing campaigns, and the reality of what I experience when I walk through their doors, call a customer service center, or discover their behind-the-scenes practices. I’m tired of companies that have such a high opinion of themselves that they don’t believe I’d ever take my dollars elsewhere.
Case-in-point, over the last few months (90+ days), we’ve listened to companies tell us that they understand our stress, fear, and sorrow during this pandemic. They want us to know that they support us and our efforts to protect our families. The swelling music and emotional touchstone imagery are great, but if businesses large and small want us to invest beyond the 60- second soundbite, they need to ensure their actions back up the pitch. The greatest mistake an organization can make at this critical junction is to amputate their brand from their messaging. In other words, when customers walk back through the doors of a business, what will they find? What will they learn about the company’s priorities during the lockdown? Did the company continue to champion environmental protections, human rights, and fair-trade practices? Or, did they think that this terrible virus distracted us or made us forget? Will the advertising dollars tell the true story of a company, or will those dollars reveal the flaws in a company’s daily operations? If a company wants to earn my trust, and by extension, my hard-earned income, here are just a few of the things they need to do to ensure that the trust equity they’ve built with me continues to grow.
1. Be Transparent
It might seem redundant to talk about transparency when social media has reached into everything from our bedrooms to the International Space Station. Still, there is something to be said about building trust through direct, honest communication. For example, when Facebook was investigated for marginalizing their users’ privacy and the proliferation of fake accounts designed to spread false information—there were plenty of excuses, finger-pointing, and sketchy ethics. Never once, did I hear anything that made me think they were mortified that they had “unintentionally” betrayed their users’ trust. In contrast, when Zoom became the professional and social platform of the pandemic age, they quickly acknowledged issues with privacy and managing capacity.
The CEO, Eric Yuan, called out the issues and immediately took steps to make noticeable changes. Their reputation with their users has remained largely intact, and they continue to be the go-to means for connecting with loved ones and professional partners during this pandemic.
Most companies already understand that the first step to “returning to normal,” requires them to share the procedures they’ve put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and they will need to continue to respect their customers’ right to receive honest, fact-based information about everything from privacy concerns to environmental practices. Why should we invest emotionally or monetarily in any business that doesn’t know how to give us a straight answer? Or worse—why would we support an organization whose answers reveal that they care more about greed than their communities?
2. Put Employees First
It’s a shame when companies forget that their employees are their first customers. Employees may not write a review on Yelp, but their experience is influencing future sales just as much as anyone a company targets through a marketing blitz. While some companies have embraced this fact, others barely manage to parrot the sentiment for a single news cycle. A company worthy of my trust, will go beyond the obligatory pat-on-the-head and meager annual bonus. A company that genuinely recognizes the commodity they have in their employees will prioritize safe working conditions, enforce strong protections against bullying and harassment, and provide quality healthcare. In other words, they will remember that each employee deserves to be treated like a human being and not like an expendable hubcap.
The contrast between these two mindsets was on full display from the very beginning of this crisis. Companies who value their employees provided full PPE for each person on shift; staggered restaurant tables; and provided no-contact purchasing. Other companies behaved like it was beneath them to protect their employees. In one case, when a company sent a local branch of their business 8x11 plexiglass sign holders to provide “protection” for their employees, the local manager spent his own money to create a full plastic barrier between his employees and the public. I have no interest in supporting a business that doesn’t see the value of reinvesting in its frontline workers. The manager has my support, while the corporate office got a very strongly worded letter.
3. Be Driven by Action and Not Trends
The world is full of social and environmental concerns that impact our lives. While some businesses have successfully transformed their companies to support and understand these concerns, other companies have treated these issues, and by extension, their customers, like they’re a fading trend. Half-measures and platitudes are no longer acceptable substitutes for decisive, long-term changes in the way companies conduct themselves. We want to see evidence that companies want to do more than just “jump on the bandwagon.” As consumers, we’re no longer satisfied to accept phantom product sourcing, or cheaper goods at the expense of our earth, or unsafe/unfair labor practices. Brands must find their heart and own their responsibility in the issues facing their communities. There is no alternative.
Well, as I write this post, the perfect example of a company wholly severed from its marketing just rang my doorbell. To my shock and more than a little frustration, there was a representative from a local solar power company on my porch—no mask, no gloves, and close enough to cover my screen door in germs. While their website touts a group-hug slogan and the façade of concern for their customers’ safety—their actions proved otherwise. When I called the company to ask if they’d lost their mind sending people door-to-door during a pandemic, I was rudely informed that they had the right to make money, and I could get over it. Guess what—no one in this neighborhood is interested in ever doing business with a company that shows such a lack of respect for public safety (not to mention a complete death of common sense!).
The issue of trust is one we face every day. If companies want to continue to build on the trust equity they’ve stored up with their customers, they can’t be complacent. They need to practice transparency, prioritize their employees as the brand’s first customers, and fully engage in actions that prove that the earth and the people who live here matter to them beyond a resource to exploit. For our part, when we ignore the warning signs and give our trust to the wrong organizations, we essentially permit them to continue to strip our resources and violate our future. We become part of the problem. We’re better than that—we deserve better than that. We all have our favorite places that we’re eager to get back to now that businesses are reopening, but when was the last time we asked ourselves if they still deserve our support? And what will be the price of our misplaced trust?