Customer Experience at the Speed of Trust

Nothing is as fast as the speed of trust. These words resonate from a best-seller written by Stephen M. R. Covey back in 2006. Speed happens when people trust each other. Obstacles are reduced, if not eliminated. Information is shared openly. There is a high degree of accountability. Costs go down. Sounds like customer utopia, no?

Trust is the basis of customer loyalty, the holy grail of customer relationships. But organizations are at different points in their quest for loyal customers. To create a sustainable competitive advantage nowadays, Customer Experience needs to be part of the organization’s overall strategy; otherwise, commoditization becomes the norm, and price wars prevail. However, in many cases it may take years before an organization can become customer-centric. One question on the minds of most executives is: can we get there any faster? Can we somehow reduce the length of the journey?

They say it takes 28 days to break a bad habit. What if the strategy of being product-focussed is not a deliberate strategy, but nothing more than a bad habit which has been taken for granted? You think we could break it in a month? I highly doubt it. But even if we could, imagine how long it would take for your customers to not only detect the change, but also for you, as a company, to begin to put your customers at the centre of your world and have them feel that you truly care about their best interests. Changing people’s attitudes; their belief system, transforming a culture…such transformations are journeys, often taking years for an organization to reap sustainable benefits from. (That’s not to preclude short-term gains being made along the way that show progress and keep the momentum going.)

Your organization is going through transformational change. Why should I as your customer, trust that you’ll change for the better? Why would I trust that the path you take will work…for me?

I like how Simon Sinek defines trust. He says: trust is a feeling. It comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. Trust is important because when we’re surrounded by people who share the same beliefs as we do, we’re more confident to take risks; to experiment and make mistakes; to go off and explore. We know that there’s someone from within our community who believes what we believe, will watch our back, and will help us when we fall over.

Think about it. When we truly trust someone, we let our guard down. We simply believe. In a business setting, when we meet someone who is trustworthy, are we as rigorous about doing background checks? Are we as concerned about the details of the contract or statement of work they present us with? Are we as rigid with our budgets or can we be more flexible? Our gut tells us that they’ll be fair with us, that they’ll be reasonable, that they have integrity. Think of all the measures we put in place because we don’t trust people. Think of all the money that’s wasted on legal reviews and compliance; think of all the time we spend developing policies and procedures to protect ourselves. Now think about how easy it is to do a deal on a handshake when you trust the other person.

Think of all the measures we put in place because we don’t trust people. Think of all the money that’s wasted on legal reviews and compliance; think of all the time we spend developing policies and procedures to protect ourselves.

When we trust a company that we’ve bought a product or service from, we’re more likely to recommend them to our friends and family. We’re confident that by recommending the brand or the organization we’re going to maintain our own integrity. We’re putting our good name on the line. We want the other person to feel just as good about the experience as we did.

Social media is a huge boon to trust. Social media opens up a window into an organization. When an organization puts itself out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogging sites, their personality comes through. They become transparent. We catch glimpses of their communication style, the openness of their leadership, their integrity as an organization, and their approach to giving and receiving feedback.

Most of us know of companies that have implemented a well-executed social media strategy; you don’t have to look very far. Companies like JetBlue, Dell, Best Buy, Ford, Zappos, and Starbucks, to name a few, understand the importance of transparency. We probably have come across others that may have hired interns, outsourced their social community management, or jumped into Social because it’s “free”, and have failed miserably at portraying themselves as a trusted brand; i.e., they’re not responsive, they don’t share content that is meaningful, they don’t engage their customers, and they blatantly try to sell. When we think about how we’ve tried to engage with these companies that have missed the social sweet spot, how do we feel? Are these companies that we would trust to deliver a great experience to a friend or family member that we care about?

Social media is a huge boon to trust. Social media opens up a window into an organization. When an organization puts itself out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogging sites, their personality comes through. They become transparent.

I was intrigued just last week, by our Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). Under pressure by citizens to improve customer service even at a time when budgets have been cut back, the TTC had its first Town Hall meeting, guided by their leadership, that besides being open to the public, was live-streamed, televised, and simultaneously tweeted about. The recently hired Chief Customer Service Officer, obviously socially savvy, responded to each and every Town Hall tweet over the weekend. Since when do you see someone in the public service working outside of regular business hours? The TTC is a very bureaucratic, mistrusted, often-ridiculed public service. Citizens are clearly angry about upcoming service cut-backs and wait times. Yet, the TTC opened up. We think of them as very “old school”, yet they’re taking positive steps to becoming transparent. They are building trust. And while trust isn’t earned overnight, it’s a first step in becoming customer-centric.

Charlene Li, in her book Open Leadership, writes about leading in this socially-connected world. She describes openness as being the new normal. She talks about the importance, as a business leader, of being able to let go of command and control. When you start to dig a little, you often find that the companies that have truly grasped the concept of transparency and its link to trust, have leaders who, according to Li’s definition, are “open”. These same leaders have created a culture founded on trust, among other brand promises, and seem to recognize the importance of having a “customer-first” culture. Li is saying: “Open up or die”. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, once said: “If you’re not fast, you’re dead”. There appears to be a clear link between openness, trust, speed, and a fanatical devotion to the customer. While you don’t necessarily have to be open to be customer-centric (look at Apple, for example), Social Media is clearly a scalable lever that can be used by a company to become open and transparent. Transparency builds trust. And trust is the foundation for delivering an enhanced customer experience. An organization that is trusted by its customers is one that has eliminated many obstacles for doing business with them.

So go ahead, get Social, especially if you’re sitting on the fence; but do it strategically. Everyone’s telling you the time is now. Even if your research is telling you that the customer segment that would engage with you via Social channels makes up a very small portion of your overall customer base, it’s more important to show the world that you’re an organization that can be trusted. And who knows, your transparency may be picked up by a blogger, a journalist for a major newspaper, a Gen Y’er who decides to make a video about you that goes viral. It’s all in your customers’ hands now. Remember, the sooner you open up, the sooner you’ll be able to establish trust, and the sooner you may move the needle on your Customer Experience strategy.