How to Deepen Customer Trust

When top-notch companies focus on customer relationships, their goal is usually a mutually beneficial outcome: satisfied clients who are happy to pay more money to keep doing business with them. The foundation of that deep mutual regard and loyalty—as with any strong relationship—is trust and good communication.

A simple case comes from the personal finance industry. As market leaders in this space quickly learned, investors don't just want static monthly statements. They want portfolio-analysis tools that help them compare year-to-year, month-to-month, and lifetime transaction histories. Ideally, investors would like to see how their portfolios and actions compare to idealized models and to people who are similar to themselves.

In other words, they want to know everything that the company can tell them—about themselves.

The more analytics these financial companies offer, the more brand loyalty their customers develop. The more information they share—detailed information for each customer about herself, and aggregated information about customers as a group—the better off both the customers and the company become.

The lessons learned in the world of personal finance are quickly spilling over into many other domains, from retail to healthcare. Wellness companies are creating more complete electronic health records, and, in some cases, they provide personal health dashboards for viewing lab results, assessing risk factors, and tracking biometric trends. Utility companies have started to provide consumer analytics, particularly with the advent of smart meters and smart grids that collect data at a fine-grained level.

Sometimes companies even provide information that seems to benefit the consumer more than it does the company. For instance, if a big box retailer lets consumers review their own point-of-sale data and spending histories, it can also let them know about specials on frequently purchased items. The retailer might get less money on a specific transaction or two, but will make up for it by gaining customers' loyalty and trust.

Gathering information about consumption habits is just a starting point. To get to the next step of the relationship, companies should start giving customers control. Let them set alerts and thresholds of activity. For instance, cost-conscious electrical consumers might want to know quickly that their usage has spiked—and would rather know within a day or so, instead of waiting until their monthly statement arrives, that the dehumidifier they just bought is adding significantly to their bills. Others would rather not get a lot of email, and would choose a higher threshold or no threshold at all. A cable TV company, meanwhile, might allow customers to analyze their families' viewing habits to determine which channels and shows they are actually watching, and how much they are paying for unused services.

Tech Essentials

There's an entire class of technical capabilities designed to provide information to people: business intelligence, or BI. Most companies think of BI as an internal-only technology or practice, but solid customer-facing BI applications provide the trust, loyalty, and customer relationships described above.

Consider six criteria for deploying BI applications: usability, interactivity, scalability, security, data quality, and timeliness.

Usability: Resist the strong temptation to use fancy drag-and-drop Web interfaces. Use simple interface objects that everyone understands: drop-down boxes, radio buttons, column sorts, "OK" buttons. Being clear and obvious matters much more than being slick or cool. As an editor once told me, "Duh..." is better than "Huh?"

Interactivity: Always have something more to click. "Reporting" is boring, but even dull old quarterly statements become more valuable and interesting when they're information-rich and interactive.

Scalability: Don't bother to put out a rich, interactive environment that doesn't perform well.

Security: It almost goes without saying that trust starts with security, including Web site security, data security, application security, and optional data encryption to protect data in transit. And it's a selling point, so make sure your customers know their data is secure.

Data Quality: Don't think of data quality as something added to the CRM system. Clean data everywhere you can. Ideally, every transaction in your enterprise would be cleaned as it happens, because then real-time data from any system can be added into the mix.

Timeliness: Start to develop a strategy to provide information in real time. Alerts and real-time dashboards are eye-catchers, and they require information from production systems.

Once customers have analyzed their information through your applications, they're much less likely to jump ship and climb aboard with a competitor. Premium services have a high "stickiness" factor that grows as customers rely more on the information.

One final note: Most consumers won't pay for their own data. Whereas you might be tempted to sell analytic information in a B2B setting, your B2C revenue is more likely to come from the differentiation, loyalty, and trust that your customer-facing BI application provides.

Jake Freivald is vice president of corporate marketing at Information Builders, a provider of business intelligence and integration software.

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