The Competitive Advantage Of Gaining Customers' Trust Early

As tweets cascade and likes pile up, companies and customers are linked ever closer together.

Smart consumers—and their buddies—are no longer dealing with businesses, they're forming relationships with them, and the most trustworthy brands will make the most friends. In Extreme Trust: Honesty As Competitive Advantage, coauthors Don Peppers and Martha Rogers investigate the increased intimacy of buying and selling.

Fast Company talked with Peppers about the exponential increase in interactions, how iTunes is like a person, and cultivating a trust-based company culture.

FAST COMPANY: Why is trust so important today?

DON PEPPERS: Trust is like a lubricant for interactions. It makes things more efficient—if I trust someone in interacting with them, I don't have to call my lawyer to do the due diligence inquiry, I don’t have to have this iron-tight contract, I don’t have use the time necessary to validate that he's actually got the material on hand. There's less time and effort required and the interaction can go forward much faster, whether that's a purchase or an exchange of information.

Human beings are naturally social. We are friends with each other, we look to other people's actions and their appearances in order to know what we feel about things. With interactive technology today and the rapid increase in social networks, we’re more social than ever before.

We all know Moore’s law. There's a corollary to that often cited as Zuckerberg's Law, which is that we interact with others about a thousand times as much today as we did 20 years ago. Think about your life today, with your Facebook, email, and text messages—none of which was available 20 years ago. It only stands to reason that the role trust plays in our existence has also gone up incredibly, and we can see this all around us. Consumers are already beginning to demand a higher level of trustworthiness: what we call trustability, proactive trustworthiness, or extreme trust.

What’s the difference between trustworthiness and trustability?

What we’re arguing is that being trustworthy fundamentally boils down to doing what you say, saying what you do, and charging what you say you're going to charge, but that's no longer sufficient for customers. They're going to demand a company to be proactively trustworthy. The company has to go out of its way to protect the customer's interest.

Everyone can relate to ordering a tune on iTunes that you already own—they remind you before you buy it. You can still buy it if you want to, maybe you're buying it for some other device, but they warn you that you already have it. They wouldn’t be lying to you or deceiving you or cheating you in any way if they simply sold you the tune that you were buying by mistake. They wouldn’t be untrustworthy if they were to do that, but they would be untrustable.

When iTunes warns you that you already have this tune, they're treating you the way a friend would treat a friend. They’re not treating you the way businesses traditionally treated customers: "Hey, you're willing to pay some money, great, I'll put it in the cash register. Here we go." Instead, they're saying, "Hey, we're not positive, but we don't think you need this." They're advising you of something.

It’s a more human relationship between business and customer—

Businesses that show reciprocity, businesses that treat a customer extremely fairly, including watching out for the customers' interests on a proactive basis, tend to inspire the empathy of their customers. When I have empathy for you, you're much more likely to have empathy for me. We're much closer. That increases the level of empathy and trust and human connectedness.

With its iTunes example, it's a line a of computer code, but it basically means that I'm much more likely to ascribe human-like attributes to the company and to have empathy for the company because its acting like a human being would act, like your friend would act.

How should an entrepreneur make use of extreme trust?

You should try to design a business model where you actually make money by protecting the customer's interest.

One way is to use the technology that you have to help customers. We use customer analytics primarily to try and get customers to buy more stuff. We try to figure out what they need, we try to figure out what they're worth, what their likelihood of returning is. Instead, if you really want to think about being trustable, turn that decision-making criteria on its head. Ask yourself, How can we use this technology to save our customers more time or effort or to improve their lives? How can we improve customer experience by using this marvelously sophisticated technology? If we do that, we're going to sell more stuff. And we're going to have happier customers who refer other customers to us, who stay longer, and buy more.

How can a manager make sure to maintain trustability?

You have to back up from the actual processes and tools that you're putting in place to deliver the goods to a customer, and you have to look more carefully at your understanding of the customer. You want to know what it's like to be that customer.

One of the most important aspects of adopting this attitude is having the right people in the organization. Managing your culture. Culture is the determinant of what employees do when no one is looking. When I'm a new employee at the firm, I don't turn to the manual, I ask the person next to me, "What do we do here?" Or I watch other people with the same issue. That's culture. You need to create a culture where your employees, where the central mission of the firm, is to do what's right for the customer, so that anytime some kind of unanticipated problem comes up, at some point in the discussion to resolve the situation, people ask "What is in the interest of the customer?"

Related: Why Extreme Transparency Requires Extreme Trust

[Image: Flickr user Jeff the Trojan]

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1 Comments

  • Robert Stewart

    Enjoyed the article and I agree with what's said here, although I don't think there is anything new in proactively gaining customers trust. For example, a good sales person with a range of products might say to their customer, 'although this model is great, the other one here just won't suit you'. It's a basic example but this kind of thing has been going on for centuries, it's just now we present it in a different way.