• May 26, 2017
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

A Customer-Engaged Culture Requires a Vital Ingredient—Trust

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For many years, I and others have written at length about strategies, programs, technologies, systems, processes, and all the things associated with CRM, customer experience, and customer engagement. All of them are important to companies. But an area to which I’ve devoted far too little time is what makes all the above sustainable and continually improving over a lengthy period—and that’s company culture. I’m not talking about what we all call customer-centric culture, but something I’m calling customer-engaged culture.

To build the kind of company that can demonstrate successful customer engagement requires a culture that would foster a relationship between company and customer characterized by trust and empathy. That’s what customers are looking for, anyway. As a customer, you want to feel comfortable with a company—best case, you’d feel the company was trustworthy and “understood” something about you. It doesn’t exaggerate, it doesn’t lie, and it doesn’t hide things. It knows enough about you to provide you with what you need to derive value from it, which is how it gets value from you—value in exchange for value.

But, keep in mind, the value a company wants is not the same as the value a customer wants. The company sees value as revenue, profitability, increased shareholder or stakeholder value, etc. Customers aren’t interested, obviously, in any of that—they themselves want to feel valued. They want to feel that a company respects them in ways that make continuing the relationship worthwhile. They want what I call “a company like me.”


How do you go about reaching this nirvana, this exalted state of “a company like me”? First, understand who customers and your employees trust—and how they trust.

Back in 2000, Edelman, the public relations company, released the first Edelman Trust Barometer. The broad framework was simple: ask people who their most trusted sources were. Over the past 17 years, it has become the most trusted source for who is your most trusted source. The socioeconomic value of the report is its ability to determine the level of trust people have (or don’t have) in mainstream institutions. For example, the 2017 report found that two thirds of the countries surveyed are now “distrusters,” which means that less than 50 percent of respondents trust in the mainstream institutions of business, government, media, and NGOs to do what is right.

In the earliest incarnations, back in the 2000 to 2004 era, the Edelman Trust Barometer, in a clear fit of irony, identified industry analysts and financial advisers as trusted sources. But in 2004, a new category of trusted humans emerged—23 percent of respondents said “a person like me” was one of their most trusted sources.


“A person like me” is someone you feel has similar interests to you—perhaps similar or identical hobbies, or favorite sports teams, or business interests or language or favorite foods and beverages. Think about your own use of review sites. When you are looking for the best steak in Chicago, you are on Yelp, scanning the ratings/rankings of the restaurants in question. First you look at how many stars the restaurant has and probably, though not absolutely, eliminate the one- and maybe two-star restaurants. But then, with the three-, four-, and five-star restaurants, you’re reading reviews that say things like “the best tenderloin I ever had, but the service was slow.” Or “the service was exquisite and the tenderloin a very good cut and cooked close to my specifications.” Let’s say you see about 20 reviews that are in line with what you are looking for. Based on that, you make a decision.

But do you know what you just did? Without thinking twice about it, you trusted the reviewers. In other words, people like you with similar interests—steak. And yet the only thing you know about one reviewer is that his email handle is rabiddog@gmail.com!!

That’s “a person like me.” In 2004, 23 percent saw them as a most trusted source. By 2006 that categorical person like me was considered a credible public spokesperson, which means for the first time, we were seeing the rise of influencers—especially brand influencers. By 2016, the number of people who felt that a person like me was a trusted source was 82 percent, and by 2017, peers were identified as very or extremely credible spokespersons by 60 percent of respondents, tied for first place with academic or technical experts. Peer trust has become a force to be reckoned with.

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