Building trust in the business world

They say that trust has two enemies – Bad character and poor information. This is because so often we don’t have the information we need to make a sound assessment.

Due to advances in technology and our ability to share knowledge, there are behavioural changes around trust reshaping the business world. Trust used to reside in traditional institutions that functioned in a hierarchical manner through their CEO’s, experts and regulators that told us what and who to trust. But more and more we are seeing a shift in the weight of trust back to the individual. Current statistics show that ninety two percent of people will trust another individual for a recommendation over a traditional advertising company.

This is not to say that institutions are no longer relevant. However the signals they put out must evolve with the times. 

Technology tends to accelerate the trust process. This can have good and bad implications through the seemingly seamless experiences on offer. We see this through the swiping right on dating sites to choose a partner or mate. We have the ability to connect immediately with someone we really don’t know at all. We also see this in the ease in which we engage a driver on Uber, despite the tendency for drivers to operate under names that are common and can easily be transferred to other drivers. 

People need to think, is this person I am meeting for a date or jumping in the car with deserving of my trust?

Rachael Botsman writes about this in her new book Who Can You Trust. While I am yet to read the book, I listened to an enlightening interview with her on one of my favourite podcasts, Building a Story Brand hosted by Donald Miller (I have read his book. It’s amazing!).

Botsman points out the clever designers at Air BnB and their process module they call a trust pause. Rather than have an instant booking, the interaction between hosts and guests involves approximately 5 email exchanges. This is ultra important to the process for setting needs and expectations allowing the guest to feel like they know their host better. The process allows for objections and difficulties to be navigated which gives the guest more confidence in their host. It also allows the guest to hold some accountability should they be slightly disappointed when they arrive for their stay, having had the opportunity to ask their own questions. 

Botsman highlights a story from Service Master in which the company conducted an analysis of all of their customers. What they found was that the customers who had encountered a service issue which was resolved, actually had the highest opinion of the company. Ideally we don’t really want these service issues to happen but it is certainly a compelling understanding of how trust is formed, allowing businesses to rethink how they go about gaining trust from their customers. Finding a new source of trust is a challenge that is truly worth pursuing for ambitious companies looking to evolve.

Botsman concludes that one of the greatest myths around trust is that businesses need to build more trust. But actually businesses don’t need more trust, they to be need to be seen as trustworthy. This is where the science of being trustworthy comes in.

Here are the 5 key traits people are looking for when they are building the trust required to do business with your company:

The following are the ‘ability’ or ‘how’ traits.


Competence is the group of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, and skills that enable a business to operate effectively. Businesses should have the sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to operate and act on their customers behalf in a range of varied situations. Each area of responsibility in a business service offering has its own requirements and therefore requires its own nuanced approach. A business may have wonderful products or services but failing to competently deliver these effectively to the end user means that the offering on a whole is not competent.


Reliability relates to time management and responsiveness. Being able to communicate consistently and effectively, staying accountable, keeping your word and your promises are key functions of a reliable business. Businesses need to present a united and cohesive front to make a customer feel secure in continued engagement of service. Businesses also need to be approachable. Customers need to be able to trust that they can approach a business with a difficulty and not be pushed into the too hard basket. Businesses that are not agile enough to adapt to issues in a methodical and attentive manner, especially when new challenges arise, look chaotic, in-cohesive and many times albeit unintentionally, unwilling to help.


Consistency is key. This is not a catch phrase, it’s something businesses live and die by. It is unfortunately common for businesses to bend over backwards or pull out all stops to get a new client on board and then fall away in their performance once the deal has been done. Over promising and over delivering is a practice fraught with danger. Giving customers unrealistic expectations and then falling away on those expectations can be damaging to relationships and look nefarious in nature. This is especially relevant in bigger consultancy and service based sectors where the spends are higher and the trust building takes longer. Making your customer feel like you know it’s too difficult to move, whether unintentionally or otherwise is a sure way to bad publicity and a bad reputation. Consistency is also key to communication. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the clever talking sales guy who promises the world and passes half of that down the line to those who need to deliver. 

The last two are the ‘purpose’ traits.


Think about how our children are finding their way to knowledge in the world. They have their parents and their teachers, followed by most likely by Google, Siri or Alexa. They say ‘OK Google, where do I or how do I …’ and then trust that these entities will give them the answers that they need. Are these entities necessarily benevolent? I won’t comment as to yes or no due to this being a subjective thought experiment. However, I can answer that the challenge for organisations creating these sources of knowledge for our children is to convince people that their motives are benevolent. If we were to think that Google, Apple and Amazon were attempting to censor certain inconvenient facts and information, channelling our children into tidy little segmented groups that could easily be manipulated in the future, we may not see them as benevolent. If we were to think that these organisations were attempting to make the best information readily available with algorithms (once again with good intentions) that operated for humanity to make the best possible decisions and choices from sound empirical data, then maybe we would see them as benevolent.


Having integrity in business is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because you have to. Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. Let’s take the case of Volkswagen. They made a pretence of doing the right thing. Unfortunately the public found out that they hadn’t. Volkswagen had attempted to cheat their customers and industry regulators into thinking their cars passed low emissions testing. Not only had they cheated, they had done so deliberately. Many customers purchased Volswagen’s  cars because they passed low emissions testing, allowing customers to feel they were doing the right thing by the climate. Instead we all found out that Volkswagen customers had paid for a gross betrayal. Many said that they would never purchase a Volkswagen ever again. Profit over people is not really an effective purpose, especially when you didn’t want anyone to know.

In conclusion

No risk means no need for trust. Yet most things in life require some level of trust. The more of the unknown and the more the uncertainty, the more trust is required.

Real trust needs friction. Instant trust is not the end goal. It breaks down very quickly due to the lack of any real bond or factor for shared accountability. 

Trust is about vulnerability and expectations, the unique tension between our fears, hopes and desires. It is fundamental to every action and every relationship and transaction in society. 

We simply could not function as a society without trust.

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