How Will Customers Know They Can Trust Your Business?

Jun 13, 2024 by Eric D. Reicin, President & CEO, BBB National Programs

When Richard Lyons, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley, recently revealed that the school had received a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor, he was asked by The Chronicle of Higher Education to describe the purpose of the gift. “It’s like an investment in trust,” he said, explaining that the gift must be used to better tell the university’s story externally when it comes to research and innovation.

Many nonprofit organizations and businesses do not have the luxury of a bonus $1 million gift to spend when it comes to investing in trust. But as Lyons’ excitement over the donation to Cal-Berkeley demonstrates, many organizations wish they did as they prepare next year’s budget. That is because we are living through a crisis of trust.

Extended to its logical conclusion, this crisis is existential. Since trust forms the foundation of a successful enterprise, many organizations will not achieve their mission impact potential without it. Ranjay Gulati writes about this in his book Deep Purpose, arguing that trust is at the core of an organization’s ability to thrive. In their book Venture Meets Mission, authors Arun Gupta, Gerard George, and Thomas J. Fewer go even further and say “Trust is fundamental to the development of ventures in any market economy.”

That is a lot to contemplate, so let us start with a fundamental question: What steps can you take as a business leader to establish or enhance trust in your organization? To simplify the question further, how will your customers and stakeholders know they can trust you?

These questions have been core to the purpose of our organization, BBB National Programs, not only since we were founded five years ago, but also since our predecessor organization, the Better Business Bureau, was founded 112 years ago. To this day, local Better Business Bureau accreditation standards, which were first created many decades ago and revised throughout the years, are built upon the concept of trust. 

When customers trust you, they are more likely to do business – or at least engage – with you. In its 2024 Trust Survey PwC writes, “Given the importance of trust, companies that understand their trust levels among employees, consumers, investors and other stakeholders — and take a proactive approach to building it — can give themselves a clear edge over competitors.”

But what are the signals that your current and future customers are looking for, and how can you deliver “the goodwill” that comes from trust? 

In my experience and from reading literature on trust (including books mentioned above), I have come across several consistent themes: open and transparent communications, delivery on promises, stakeholder collaboration, creating a corporate culture and values structure that embraces corporate compliance and following relevant law, use of technology solutions, and prioritization of customer satisfaction and customer experience.

As you probably already know, transparency is key to building trust. One component of transparency is in communications – being consistent in your messaging no matter the platform or channel, being open and honest about your products and services, and upholding policies that enable consumers and stakeholders to hold leaders accountable for their conduct.

As crystallized in a HubSpot blog, “In an age where consumers have unprecedented access to information and a massive platform to air out opinions and grievances, generating and maintaining customer trust and confidence is essential.” 

Access to information can work to your advantage when measuring trust. As reported by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, “Resources like the Edelman Trust Barometer, Net Promoter Scores, and Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys can give you more concrete data to paint a clearer picture and help you glean important insights” into the level of trust you have established with key stakeholders. 

Nothing erodes trust faster than a weak corporate compliance culture leading to broken promises and hiding problems. Among other things, this applies to delivering quality products and services on time, providing exceptional customer service, following privacy claims, or making claims in advertising. As I have written about previously, our National Advertising Division was founded 53 years ago as a system of independent industry self-regulation to build consumer trust in advertising and support fair competition in the marketplace.

Trust, of course, can be pierced in the blink of an eye or the keystroke of a cyberhacker. Over the past decade, the impacts of cyberattacks have been prominent – from Target’s 2013 data breach to Marriott International’s in 2018, and MGM Resort’s highly publicized cybersecurity issues that surfaced in September 2023. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the participation of governments from 37 free market-based democracies, has recognized that strengthening trust in the business ecosystem is critical for the long-term prospects of capitalism. OECD’s Trust in Business Initiative recognizes that “trust is not only a strategic issue for business but a lever for growth that fosters long-term value creation.” 

It is well past time for business leaders to, as is wonderfully stated in a Harvard Business Review article, “galvanize around trust and transparency.” I could not agree more. In fact, I believe it is well past time. When it comes to enhancing consumer trust, responsible business and nonprofit organizations can – and must – lead the way.

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