The (Priceless) Value of Trust

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The overly aggressive salesperson is a stereotype with which we're all familiar. Suave, smooth-talking, and out to dupe you into paying more than you might otherwise for a product or service. You may trust the product or service you want to buy, yet you have trouble trusting the person trying to sell it to you.

In business, as in life, trust is a coveted commodity. It is hard to earn and can be lost in a heartbeat. In the past, companies built customer trust through personal relationships. The local butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, through a series of in-person interactions, established a rapport with their customers. They learned what their customers liked and how best to please them. Quality and price were always a consideration, yet often it was the remembrance of small details—the preferred thickness of a customer's porterhouse steak, the extra drizzle of chocolate on the croissant, or the favored length of a wick—that earned their customers' trust and kept them coming back.

As small local enterprises gave way to large corporations, mass production, economies of scale, and big box retail chain models, the focus on building trusted relationships was lost. Companies began instead to concentrate on increasing operational efficiencies and shareholder value, and outsourced their customer relationships to call centers in low-cost jurisdictions. The move provided bottom-line savings, yet alienated large numbers of customers, who felt betrayed by the depersonalized interactions, diminished level of customer service, and apparent lack of corporate interest in building or maintaining a valuable trusted relationship.

And then there is the aggressive salesperson example. Look at automobile manufacturers, who have spent decades investing in amazing driving experiences. From making leather interiors and heated seats standard features to building cars that park themselves to offering state-of-the-art safety innovations, automakers have been designing cars specifically with the customer experience in mind. Despite the extraordinary efforts manufacturers put into getting customers to trust their product, many of those customers still feel trepidation and intimidation as they make their way through the buying experience.

In today's golden age of technology, customers are back in the driver's seat—and they are demanding more. They want the return of a personal experience, whether it's in person or online. They expect every interaction and experience to consistently meet their expectations regardless of channel, time of day, or where a call center is located.

So how do companies build trusted relationships?

The answer is simple; the execution, however, is far more complex. Every interaction is an opportunity for a company to earn a customer's trust. Transforming into a trusted and trustworthy company requires looking at the customer experience from the outside in, designing processes for both effectiveness and trust, and creating experiences that consistently meet or exceed customer expectations—throughout the value chain, across every channel, and through each interaction. It also requires being transparent with the customer, operating with integrity and authenticity at all times.

Leading companies around the world understand this and are investing as much time, money, and effort in building trusted customer relationships as they do in new products, services, and operational efficiency. They look beyond building trust in their products and services to building trust in their buying relationships. And they do it for the payoff, because in a trusted relationship, customers are less likely to care about price and more likely to forgive an occasional misstep. They are also more willing to promote your product or service, transferring their trust to others in the social sphere.

In today's world of the always-on, ever-connected, highly demanding consumer, a sustainable, competitive advantage is more than just a product, price, or feature. It’s building relationships that transform customers and employees into loyalists and ambassadors for a company's brand.

That's the power of trust.

Woody Driggs is Ernst & Young's global advisory customer leader. He is a principal in the firm's Advisory Services Performance Improvement practice and is based in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Stier is an executive director in Ernst & Young's Advisory Services Customer practice and is based in New York. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP.

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