Customer Relationships and Extreme Trust

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In an age where every action a company takes can be instantly exposed across the Web, consumer trust is more important than ever. In their new book, Extreme Trust, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D., founders of the management consulting firm Peppers & Rogers Group, explain that increased transparency and communication requires companies to proactively earn their customers' trust. Peppers and Rogers explained to Associate Editor Judith Aquino what companies can do to turn honesty into a competitive advantage.

CRM: What interested you about trust in a customer relationship and how do you define extreme trust?

Martha Rogers: When we think about customer relationships, one of the things we realized is that as technology drives greater interconnectivity and more customers talk to each other about their experiences with a brand, what customers say is actually more important than what companies say about themselves. And if that's the case, that means the relationships that companies have with their customers and the experiences those customers have are what will really matter in the long run.

Don Peppers: What's happening is consumers are sharing so much information they're beginning to demand a higher level of trustworthiness from companies—something Martha and I call extreme trust or trustability.

Extreme trust is proactively protecting your customers' interests. For example, if you order a book from Amazon, they'll remind you that you already bought it. ITunes does that as well. Either one of these companies could make money in the short term simply by taking their customers' money, since it's a mistake from the customer's end. But increasingly, companies are finding consumers will hold them accountable if they take advantage of someone's mistake or lack of knowledge. They want proactive trust—extreme trust—and that's what the book is about.

CRM: In your book, you make a distinction between companies that are trustable versus those that are trustworthy. How can companies tell which one they are?

Rogers: If you're not cheating customers or you're following the law, or you're simply doing what you say you'll do in the 18 pages of tiny print, then you're trustworthy. If you're going to be trustable, if you're going to practice extreme trust…then you have to be competent at what you do and look out for your customers' interests as well as your own and do it proactively.

CRM: What misconceptions do companies have about gaining and maintaining their customers' trust?

Peppers: One of the things we see frequently is they [companies] look through the CRM telescope from the wrong end. They say, "We want to be customer-centric. How can we employ these CRM technologies and processes to do a better job of selling more stuff?" Consumers can smell profit on your breath, and they will spread the word. The right way is, "How can we use these CRM technologies to do a better job and provide a more appropriate or relevant product, and save our customers time and energy?"

CRM: What are the challenges that companies face in pursuing the concept of extreme trust?

Peppers: There are principles that companies are coming to grips with. One is the issue of sharing. People want to post comments and share the good and bad experiences that they've had. A company that wants to be trustable needs to figure out how to tap into this sharing need. That might mean allowing some customers to help other customers through crowd service, or it could mean getting into the sharing economy yourself. More companies are open sourcing their software, for example.

Another issue that companies have to deal with is the issue of control and management and predictability. Social media sentiment is not very predictable. You have to learn to live with the fact that you can't manage what people say about you. You have to prepare for the eventualities [of negative comments] and, basically, being on the customer's side is the best defense you can have. Having customers who want you to succeed is a very important aspect of this strategy.

Rogers:  It used to be that companies could control everything about themselves; now the opposite is true. It doesn't matter what they say about themselves, what matters is what other people say about them. Companies have control over how good their product is and how much customers know that the company can be relied on.

Peppers:  There are things that a company can do in almost every category [to proactively gain their customers' trust]. The first companies that do these things are going to receive the lion's share of word-of-mouth recommendations.

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