top of page

The Real Problem with Customer Trust

Tim Williams


The critical importance of customer trust in a brand is axiomatic. Indeed the very concept of branding has its origins in the need for consumers to be confident of the authenticity of a product. Without trust, the argument goes, a business will struggle to acquire customers, let alone keep them. So, maintaining it is a business imperative. But is this emphasis on trust as ‘a thing not to be lost’ actually the right focus for most businesses? Is honest dealing now such a given that customers rarely even think about it when engaging with most brands? Is the real issue not the handful of organisations who behave badly, but the majority who fail to build a foundation of trust in the first place?


This article argues that brands are out of kilter in only thinking of trust in ‘macro’ abstract terms such as integrity, honesty and ethics, when most customers experience trust at a far more prosaic ‘micro’ level. Therefore the bigger risk for brands is that customer trust is being hindered in often hidden ways.


The good news is that it is possible to address this imbalance by first understanding customers’ expectations and then assess where, why and how their actual experience measures up. Armed with this knowledge of the ‘expectation gap' brands can take focused, practical steps to fix the shortfalls and double down where they are exceeding.

The real problem with customer trust is not losing it, but failing to win it in the first place

Imagine how hard life would be without trust. Every encounter, every transaction, would, to put it mildly, be difficult and slow as we tentatively negotiated our way through daily life. As customers we want to trust brands because the human brain is lazy, we don’t want to have to think twice about the choices we make. If we feel confident about the experience we will have with a brand we’re more likely to use it again; why take the risk of going elsewhere?

When it comes to the relationship between brands and their customers an absence of trust in the former by the latter is generally seen as the fastest route to bankruptcy.  But, when discussing customer trust, we’re often guilty of lazy thinking. The absence of trust is not necessarily the same thing as mistrust. Talking about a loss of trust implies it was there to lose in the first place. In many cases, the biggest problem for brands is not losing their customers’ trust through some major screw-up but failing to do enough to create and sustain it. Addressing the things which cause distrust is of course important, but it’s only half the battle. Customer trust is not something brands are implicitly endowed with; no brand is born with an inalienable right to be trusted. Trust has first to be built. But the effort is worth it, not least because building trust acts to ‘inoculate’ a brand so it can better weather the screw-ups.

Displaying commitment to higher order expectations of ethical behaviour and sustainability is not enough and is no longer differentiating. Such things are now a given, they do not in themselves create trust (their absence however might erode it).


We’re not measuring customer trust at an actionable level

Consider how a customer satisfaction or NPS score is typically used. Knowing that 90% of your customers are ‘happy’ is great to hear, but wouldn’t it be even better to learn exactly why they are happy? If you knew this you could double down on the satisfaction drivers. Conversely, knowing your NPS is declining or is worse than your nearest competitor is even more dispiriting if you don’t know what is driving the decline.

In much the same way, trust is often taken about in terms so general they make for great headlines but hopeless strategy. The Edelman Trust Index is frequently cited as a good indication of public sentiment. The problem is that it measures trust at a broad sector level making for an entertaining but not very useful comparison between entirely different industries. This ‘macro’ approach to measuring trust results in the unsurprising finding that politicians and journalists in general are not trusted as much as nurses and teachers. The 2022 index for example finds that only 64% of these surveyed trust the telecoms sector whereas 74% trust the technology sector. What it doesn’t tell us is why, let alone who are the most and least trusted brands within a sector.


Where does trust originate?

The findings of the Edelman approach suggest that trust on a sector or profession level in part depends on familiarity. It is much easier to trust those we are likely to have had direct personal experience of than those who seem more remote. Similarly, repeated experience of a brand engenders a sense of confidence in that brand; habit drives trust as much as trust drives habit.

But how does a customer come to trust a brand they have little or no experience of? What gives us the confidence to buy from a new online retailer or try out an unfamiliar restaurant? Where does this trust come from? To answer this, it’s helpful to consider how a ‘successful’ customer experience works and to recognise that it is context-driven and relative. It’s as much about how a customer feels as how they think (note how we’re more likely to talk about how we ‘feel’ trust).  Put another way: whilst the temperature in the room may be the same for everyone, not everyone is warm.

When engaging with an unfamiliar brand we find ourselves rapidly processing a number of stimuli which play out at different levels. Our emotional state has huge impact on how we perceive the experience and the experience itself can have positive or negative impact on our emotions. Consider your last time at an airport. Were you feeling relaxed and happy, or stressed and anxious? Do you find the self-check-in app intuitive to use and convenient or confusing and frustrating? If there was a delay, did the airline handle it in a way which left you annoyed or appreciative? Would you trust them enough to use them again? What’s the most important thing the airline should do to make it more likely you will?

The answer to where customer trust originates is often hidden in plain sight, lost in the weeds of an often complex and fast-moving customer experience. To see it, you first need to understand your customers’ expectations.


Trust fails to grow when expectations fail to be met

Trust is first built at the coal face, at the ‘micro’ level of the customer experience, in the day-to-day interactions we have with a brand across all touch points. It is easy to forget that trust first emerges from the mundane and day-to-day. It is neither pre-existing and there to be preserved, nor something especially profound.

Most organisations increasingly recognise the importance of delivering a ‘good’ customer experience but, in doing so, fall into the trap of comparing their customer experience with that of their competitors (or even with that of brands in entirely different sectors). This thinking betrays the fallacy that there is some kind of benchmark or Platonic ideal out there which you should constantly strive to meet.The only benchmark that really matters is the expectation of your customers. This is of course influenced by their experience of other brands, but it is essential to focus on what your customers’ expectations actually are, not what you (or your competitors) think they are.

Once this is understood, trust is de-mystified and becomes very actionable because it becomes possible to zero in on what matters most and has the most impact on the creation of trust for your brand.


Things which hold back the creation of trust

Rather than just considering the big issues which cause customers to lose trust, it is useful to consider some examples of what hinders its growth in the first place. The good news is that, unlike the former, these can usually be addressed far more easily.


(i) Confusing and unexpected interfaces:

A lot of what governs trust happens at the subconscious level. A website that looks attractive is inherently trusted (the same also applies to people incidentally). Conversely, a site or app which is confusing or has unexpected navigational features will undermine confidence in it. In both the physical and digital world we pick up on subtle sensory cues which affect trust and subsequent customer behaviour (the genre of background music in a wine shop has been shown which wines sell more; the imagery and vocabulary used in an email newsletter can attract or repel different audiences.


(ii) Novelty and complexity:

When launching an entirely new product or service it’s essential to have a proposition that is simple and easy to understand. A new but complex product is best launched on the coat tails of a familiar (trusted) brand. The worst combination for stifling trust is a proposition that is both complex and unfamiliar. Great examples of this can be found in the fields of blockchain, crypto-currencies and NFT - a field riven with novelty, complexity and consequent lack of trust for the mass market.


(iii) Incongruent design:

How would you react to seeing a mint-favoured ice-cream in strawberry coloured packaging? Or, if you entered a major department store and found they were selling TV’s on the ground floor and perfume on the 5th? It just wouldn’t feel right because we’re habituated to expect certain conventions in design. When such ‘rules’ are broken there is a risk of undermining our trust simply because they run counter to our expectations. This is especially important when it comes to ensuring a website design is congruent with a brand’s positioning; you would not expect to see a garish, red ‘Sale’ sign covering the window of a Prada store.


(iv) Opaque and hard to find information:

Digital interfaces are a great way to allow customers to perform tasks themselves and provide access to a wealth of information. A problem can occur though when sites evolve over time to accommodate the needs of multiple stakeholders: there is an accretion of content and functionality and it becomes hard to see the wood from the trees. Always consider how easy it is for a first-time visitor to use your site.


(v) Processes designed solely for the convenience of the brand:

Whether it’s hiding your Customer Service number from your customers, using a pre-recorded voice telling me to hang-up and find the answer for myself ‘due to our agents being extremely busy’, or closing down a local bank branch ‘due to changing customer needs’, customers can quickly see through one-sided processes.


(vi) Lazy marketing which doesn’t reflect the audience:

Not taking the time to understand who you audience is and what matters most to them when engaging with you is short-sighted because you’re missing an opportunity. Often, a simple segmented approach based upon a core insight is all you need to greatly improve responsiveness.


In summary, brands unwittingly hinder trust when they make it hard to be a customer.



How to build trust through the customer experience

In addition to addressing the things which stop customer trust forming it’s also important to consider ways in which it can be actively promoted.


(i) Empowered staff:

In a world increasingly given over to automation and AI-powered decision making, the simple power of human interaction should never be underestimated.


(ii) Simple and aesthetically pleasing digital interfaces:

Just because you can make something complex doesn’t mean you should. An interface that’s intuitive and well-designed is more likely to be used again and again.


(iii) Smart (not creepy) personalisation:

There’s a fine line between using technology to offer a more relevant and genuinely useful experience and making it appear you are being too clever. As a rule, never make assumptions, but allow customers to control how much or how little information they want to share with you.


(iv) Taking time to understand your customer’s goals:

This doesn’t have to mean interrogating every single customer (see above) but making an effort to understand them more generally. For example, talking in depth with a handful of customers might reveal some hitherto unknown insights into why they and others choose to use (or not use) your brand.


(v) Giving your customers agency:

Involving them in the design of their own experience and giving them a sense of control provides them a sense of partnership.


(vi) Being proactive:

Don’t wait until a customer complains to fix a problem. Better still, anticipate issues in advance and be honest when things go wrong.


(vii) Sharing negative as well as positive reviews:

Warts and all reviews on your website are far more likely to drive trust in a brand than a pageant of relentless positivity.


(viii) Advising when not to buy your product:

It might seem counterintuitive, but there are times when a customer will appreciate (and remember) an honest opinion.


To be trusted, you need to know what exactly customers want to trust you for…but how?

It’s clear that if trust is created when expectations are met it’s essential for a brand to know what those expectations are and how well they are meeting them. Understanding customer expectations is not simply a case of tracking satisfaction or Net Promoter scores. Whilst these are useful as overall indicators of customer sentiment they are not generally granular enough to be truly actionable. Nor should they be. If you’ve ever been subjected to a detailed survey asking you to rate every detail of your last interaction with a brand you will quickly realise not only do they deliver questionable results, but can also manage to damage the customer’s experience in the process. 

More to the point, conventional customer research tends to focus on measuring the things we assume are important to customers and may miss key insights hidden under the surface. Indeed, a customer’s expectations are not always consciously apparent even to the customer. For example, one might find navigating a particular website generally frustrating, but struggle to articulate precisely where the problem lies. Another might not open an email because the subject line ‘just doesn’t feel right’. I might walk out of a shop empty-handed simply because of ‘the vibe’ (in fact, if you are a retailer, the single most valuable customer research you should do is to ask those leaving empty-handed why they didn’t buy).

Many techniques can be used to measure the customer trust gap in both the digital and real worlds using observation of how people actually behave (e.g., UX), analysing the issues that cause them to need to speak with customer services  and (perhaps most powerfully) old-fashioned in-depth one-to-one listening about their experience, where the otherwise unstated, hidden issues reveal themselves.


Conclusion: Satisfaction, advocacy and loyalty are the dividends of customer trust

Whatever customer outcomes do you need to achieve (acquisition, up-selling, satisfaction, loyalty, advocacy, reducing Customer Service costs etc) it’s important to remember that these are all behaviours (in many cases habits) and behaviour is an outcome of confidence, which in turn is an outcome of trust.  Looked at the through this lens, customer experience is seen in a whole new light. Trust is personal. It’s built (and eroded) in the details of the customer’s experience, often in ways you might not be aware of. Maximise trust at this level and desired customer behaviours suddenly become a lot more achievable.


Losing trust is bad. Failing to create it in the first place is fatal.

bottom of page