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The trust dynamic

Nick Elsom


Here’s a tempting fact.  Spending on ‘Customer Experience Technologies’ is forecast to reach a whopping $641 BILLION in 2022*. It’s big business. It’s why ‘CX Professional’ is a thing. Why we’re asked to complete a survey after every purchase, every interaction. Why management consultancies are hoovering up the marketing industry in the hope that a century of hidden persuasion will provide an instant veneer of customer expertise.

And yet, with our own customer heads on, do we feel that anything has really changed? That the experience of being a customer is in any way better?

Perhaps this is a good place to start. What would better look and feel like? What’s wrong with now? What are we trying to fix? So many questions in fact, that it’s hard to know which ones to start with, let alone what the answers might be. So let’s distil it down to something simple: what really drives our relationship with the  companies that provide the products and services we buy?

The clue is in the title, but it probably requires a little explanation. Trust is defined as ‘a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something’. It’s what we feel when we’re comfortable in a relationship. When we have a sense that things will go well, and that if they don’t, that no-one will get hurt. We choose who and what to trust, usually without realising we’re doing so. And pretty much the same set of metaphysics apply to our relationship with brands. If we get what we expect, and perhaps more, we build trust. If we get less, we start to lose trust.

In the interests of simplicity, and to move towards something more practical than theoretical, we might split expectations into the Transactional and the Emotional.

Transactional expectations are based on the practical, table-stakes elements of the relationship. We expect airlines to fly us (and ideally our luggage) safely from A-B. For car manufacturers to produce safe, efficient vehicles. For supermarkets to provide a well-stocked environment in which we can fill our trolleys. You get the gist. And of course, most of the time, these things happen - or the company doesn’t last long. But things are more complex than that. The airline, the car manufacturer and the supermarket all have competition, so the stakes are raised - we also expect a certain price for the transaction. Additional benefits, gadgets, offers and rewards evolve to become the ‘new’ basics. But still, if we get what we expect, we are happy and comfortable. And if we are happy and comfortable, we build trust.

And if we continue to build this Transactional Trust, whether by using the product or simply by its reputation, we start to store up a bank of Emotional Trust. This is less hard-nosed, more subjective than the Transactional, but no less vital. We could summarise it like this:

Transactional Trust

When the basic, transactional elements of the product/service are delivered as promised, and match/exceed the customer expectations

When the basic transactional elements of the product/service are not delivered as promised, and are below customer expectations

Emotional Trust

When the customer feels that the product/service will be delivered as promised, and that if it isn’t, that the relationship will not be damaged because it will be dealt with to the customer’s advantage

When the customer does not feel that the product/service will be delivered as promised, and that if it isn’t, that the relationship might be damaged because it will not be dealt with to the customer’s advantage

These values will increase and decrease as the relationship evolves. For example, if we try a new product because of an offer and it falls below our expectations, we are disappointed. And worse, because it was driven by price only, we have no Emotional Trust to draw on, offsetting the Transactional shortfall. And so the relationship becomes - most likely - fleeting.

We know this, instinctively - and as customers, we act on it. But despite the immense spend on ‘customer experience’, brands appear no closer to recognising that the question must be: are we trusted?

This might be a difficult question to answer. Not just because the available scoring criteria isn’t fit for purpose, but also because there’s a nagging sense that the answer might be an inconvenient truth. Equally, tech is driving incredible opportunities to listen to and engage with customers, and it’s growing. But this seismic, Spinning Jenny-rivalling opportunity is too often seen as a way to save money or reduce headcount. More like a 1950’s ‘Jetsons’ version of the 21st century, where robots and technology make for increased leisure time, not increased human endeavour. Technology is there to help us be better at what we do, so isn’t it about time we started using it to answer these difficult questions?

Trust is like love. Both parties have to feel it before it exists


Simon Sinek (Twitter: @simonsinek)

That there is a power in Trust shouldn't be a surprise. But its potential to fundamentally change the way business regards its customers might be. Customer Experience is an enormous market, and our post-Covid world will need a few more of those.

But the challenge is to make at least some of those billions make a noticeable difference to the simple, everyday experience of being a customer. To understand it. To make it measurably better.

And investing in Trust might just be the key.

*Worldwide Semi-Annual Customer Experience Spending Guide from International Data Corporation (IDC).

Curiously, the customer appears to be secondary to the company’s - or perhaps the shareholder’s needs. As per IDC: ‘IDC focuses only on business process and therefore does not include the customer's experience of the actual design of the product that the company sold to the customer, nor does it include aspects specific to the product or service such as the user interface or the product aesthetics’

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