Do You Trust Your Customers?

Spotlight on People
Franchising World

Investing in trust is a smart, profitable business strategy.


By Laura Bates and Karen McSteen
Do your business practices tell your customers you trust them? Trust is the foundation for any long-term relationship. When customers trust a brand, they are becoming more deeply, emotionally engaged with that brand. And deep emotional engagement pays off in greater share of mind and share of wallet. Yet trust is a two-way street. You have to show trust to earn trust. And customers know when you don’t trust them.


Messages of mistrust

Businesses send subliminal messages every day about how much they trust (or don’t trust) their customers. Hotels have a particularly bad habit of signaling to customers that they don’t trust them. You have undoubtedly experienced at least one of these irritations as a traveler. The clothes hangers with the tiny hooks on the tiny bar that seem to say, “If you steal these hangers, you won’t be able to use them at home anyway. We gotcha.” Or the threatening legalese some hotels use to scare you from taking the bathrobe. Or the minibars that automatically charge you for picking up an item to read the label.
These practices defeat the purpose. The very small minority of guests who are going to steal will find a way to do it anyway. The honest masses are turned off by the insinuation that the hotel thinks they are low enough to steal. Why would guests not also take the sheets, duvet, pillow, television, lamps and the glasses in the bathroom? Should there be a “Warning: you will be prosecuted” sign on every element of the room? Of course not. But whether on selected items or on everything, negative signals offend customers (and are just as illogical).
Have you ever gone to a health club, paid the $15 daily entry fee and then were charged a $5 deposit to “rent” a thin, tiny towel that is barely large enough to sit on? Daily-fee customers are not criminals out to steal towels. Daily-fee customers represent an opportunity to gain trial from a new audience. Why not treat them like members? Why not wow them with unexpected delighters? Suggesting that they might steal the tiny towels is not a way to earn trust or grow your customer base.
Or have you eaten at a quick-service restaurant that gives you one napkin with your order, and if (or when) you need another napkin, no napkin dispensers can be found? The practice suggests that the restaurant believes its customers are going to steal all of their napkins, that they are rationing their napkins to preserve profitability. It’s absurd! The customer is forced to return to the order counter and either wait in line or interrupt another customer’s transaction to get another napkin. Now, two customer transactions have been negatively impacted… over a second napkin.
Those kinds of practices speak volumes about the true values of a company, and they most likely don’t match the ones espoused on the company website. They essentially communicate to customers, “We don’t trust you. And, we really don’t value you.”


Investing in Trust

As the examples demonstrate, some businesses believe that showing trust in customers and adopting a spirit of generosity erodes profits. Think again.
Smart brands eschew the “customer as enemy” philosophy, invest in trusting their customers and are rewarded handsomely. Here are two companies with policies worth noting.
Zappos not only provides free shipping both ways, but also allows customers to return items for a full year after purchase. They even have a clever twist to their policy. Customers who make purchases on February 29th (Leap Day of a Leap Year) have until February 29th of the next Leap Year to return items… four whole years. Such an offer shows trust in customers, and a sense of humor as well. This spirit of generosity drove the company culture and enabled Zappos to reach $10 billion in sales in less than 10 years.
L.L. Bean has one of the most gracious return policies of any retailer. Customers can return items at any time, for any reason, with no questions asked. Here is the exact wording from their website:
“Our products are guaranteed to give 100 percent satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory. L.L.Bean Signature remains rooted in the values that Leon Leonwood Bean instilled in his company from the beginning. Our 100 percent satisfaction guarantee is as simple now as it was then. No restrictions, no limitations, no fine print. Just a promise we’ve kept for over 100 years.”

Undoubtedly, L.L. Bean has had customers return boots, jackets, sleeping bags or socks after years of use, just to take advantage of the system. But, the vast majority of customers view this guarantee as a signal of the confidence L.L. Bean has in the quality of its products. The guarantee also says, “We trust you.” And putting that much trust in your customers lays the foundation for a sound, lasting relationship.


How can you build customer trust?


  • First, embrace the belief that most people are good and will do the right thing. Yes, there may be a handful of customers who will try to take advantage of you. But the mileage you get out of building a relationship of trust with your customers, the vast majority of whom are decent people, will more than make up for the small minority who want to take advantage of you. Assume the good in people, and they will prove you right nine times out of 10.
  • Second, conduct a “trust audit” of your customers’ experience. Assess the critical touch points and count the number of signals your brand is sending to both customers and employees that you do not trust them. Just as expenses add up, signals of distrust add up as well. Experiencing a number of “distrust messages” will keep your customers from developing a strong emotional attachment to your brand. If they are not emotionally attached, they will be less likely to seek out your services, recommend your business to others or forgive you when something goes wrong. They will be more open to trying a competitor and, eventually, may take their business somewhere else permanently. It has been proven time and again that finding a new customer is much more expensive than keeping an existing one. 


  • Third, rewrite or eliminate the policies, rules or practices that convey mistrust. Approach your customer experience protocol with a mind-set of generosity. Put trust in your employees to do the right thing. Give them the freedom to demonstrate that they can and will do right by the customer. More often than not, they will exceed expectations.
  • Finally, find one or two visible, signature ways to demonstrate your brand’s trust in both employees and customers. Execute on these signatures with energy and consistency.


The bottom line

Investing in trust is a smart, profitable business strategy. As Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and business partner of Warren Buffett, once said, “By the standards of the rest of the world, we over trust. So far it has worked very well for us.” No doubt, he is right.
Laura Bates and Karen McSteen are partners in Brand Verve, a consulting firm that helps organizations grow their brand value through strategic positioning, engaging customer experiences, and innovative products and services. For additional information about Brand Verve, visit