By Gillian Burdett

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer is calling it a “global implosion of trust.” The annual survey is broad in scope, polling populations in 28 countries about their faith in the media, government, non-government organizations and business. The majority of survey respondents— 53 percent—believe the system supported by these institutions is failing. Consumer trust is an asset, particularly in the digital marketplace with all its privacy and safety concerns. Allow trust to erode, and the bottom line will take a hit.

Why have consumers become cynical?

Edelman President and CEO Richard Edelman, in a January 2017 press release, says the increasing distrust began with the Great Recession and is compounded by the disruptive changes caused by changing technologies and globalization. Survey respondents cited corrupt business/government collusions, large pay disparities between executives and workers, perceived failure of businesses to pay their fair share of taxes, price gouging and unethical business practices as the top reasons for their distrust of business. Trade requires trust. Exchanges of value come with rules. If consumers don’t trust a company to follow the rules, if they don’t trust institutions to enforce the rules, they will not become customers.

How can your business build trust? Take a lesson from Farmer Brown

In local economies of the past, consumers made personal contact with producers and sellers. Shoppers knew Farmer Brown and knew, firsthand, that he kept a clean hen house. His poultry was safe to eat. He offered a fair trade. When empowered with this knowledge, buyers could purchase with confidence. As a member of the community, Farmer Brown was scrupulous about the quality of his product. He had a stake in his community, and he had a reputation to maintain. He knew not to mess where he ate.

As the marketplace grows in complexity, consumers are losing the power that firsthand knowledge gives them. They now must trust corporations to guard their private information and to represent products accurately. They must trust banks to accurately and securely record transfers of funds, and they must trust the government to inspect the hen house. That is a lot to ask when fraudulent business practices and data breaches regularly top the headlines.

Consumers don’t have the time or resources necessary to research each business with which they trade. They definitely want this information. Look at the rise of review websites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor. The smart business provides this information.

State your purpose

Start with your purpose. Yes, Farmer Brown sought to earn a living, but his true satisfaction came from providing high quality, wholesome food to his community at a fair price. You’ve invested time and treasure in developing your brand. Recognize this: Your brand is the glove; your purpose is the hand that fills it and lifts it up. Communicate your purpose. It will become intricately linked with your brand and will attract and build trust with like-minded consumers.

Be honest and open

A trusting relationship with the public depends on integrity and transparency. If you haven’t written a Statement of Business Ethics, write one. It is your standard, and all decisions must rally around it.  A short-term gain produced by a breach of ethics will become a loss in the long run as your customer base begins to peel away. Some decisions are unpopular and hard to make — closing a store, raises prices. Be open and public about these decisions and, if you’ve done your job building trust, your loyal customers will stay on board.

Community engagement starts with employees

Your employees are your ambassadors to the world. This has been said before, but really hasn’t been true until now. Peer-to-peer networks are running circles around Corporate Headquarters and its dictates. Company culture, how you treat your employees, will impact the public’s trust in your organization. Imagine a Venn diagram with one circle representing the community at large and the other your company. The set inside the overlapping curves is your labor force. Keep this in mind when setting HR policies.

Every business decision has financial, ethical and moral implications. Sometimes these are at odds with each other, but if your company is known to consistently take the high road, public trust will follow.

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