CX in the age of privacy and trust, Part 3: Can we (re)build trust?

This is the third in a series of articles on creating, maintaining, and optimizing great customer experiences in the context of mounting concerns about privacy and increasingly strict regulations governing data processing. We address topics such as consent strategies, the role of trust, the elements of trustworthiness, and integrating consent exchanges into CX. In Part 3, we ponder how — and if — (content) marketers can (re)build trust among customers and prospects. (See also Part 1 and Part 2.)

What was it Joni said?

You don\’t know what you\’ve got

Til it\’s gone.

Trust me . . . the one thing everybody seems to agree upon today is that trust is gone – or at least rapidly vanishing – and boy, do we now know that we’d got it. (Or whatever; I can’t keep up with Joni’s grammar.)

Just in the last few months we’ve seen:

The Trust Crisis” (Harvard Business Review)

The Trust Crisis in business” (Forbes)

There is a global crisis of trust” (Salesforce)

Oh my god! A crisis in trust! We’ve got to react:

Rebuilding trust in business” (University of Oxford)

The business of rebuilding trust” (PwC Australia)

Trust: How to rebuild brand authenticity” (Skip Prichard)

Content Marketing to the rescue

Here are two other things we know: First, a general decline in brand trust becomes utterly devastating as data regulations and shifting consumer attitudes about privacy institute a battle among firms for increasingly scarce and therefore more precious personal data. (See Part 1, and this report.) In this environment of \”beg data,\” consumer trust will be the decisive factor separating the data \”haves\” from the \”have nots.\” (And guess which one will offer the compelling customer experiences.)

Second, content marketers are ideally positioned to (re)build trust. Quality content consumed by engaged, appreciative audiences, says Robert Rose, ensures that a brand is seen as “the trusted source of interesting things.”  Robert adds:

“Your brand’s trust no longer has to sit below media, nonprofit, or governmental institutions. You can develop the most trusted status with your consumers. It’s up to you to be worthy of both the trust and the opportunity.”

Absolutely. But also . . . not so fast. Before you launch that grand trust campaign, you’d better make sure that everyone is on the same page, with an understanding of the problem and the approach that is not only shared but also accurate.

As Clayton Christensen said:

“Understanding a problem is the most crucial step in solving it.”

We all agree that there is crisis of trust. We all agree that we need to build or rebuild trust with prospects and customers. And we all agree that healthy trust-based relationships are the key to winning with customer experience management.

But do we, as Christensen says, actually understand the problem? Because if we don’t – if we misunderstand the problem, or understand the wrong problem, or have differing understandings of the right problem – then all of our efforts will be wasted. 

In short, any effort to increase trust should start with the foundational questions.

  1. What is trust?
  2. How can we (re)build trust? (If at all.)
  3. What are the elements or components of trust that we should aim to deploy/highlight/communicate in our (content) marketing practices?
  4. How do we know if we’re making progress?

What is trust?

Here’s a nice definition of trust from the scholars Claire A. Hill and Erin Ann O’Hara:

“Trust is a state of mind that enables its possessor to be willing to make herself vulnerable to another—that is, to rely on another despite a positive risk that the other will act in a way that can harm the trustee.”

The most important elements here are, first, that trust is a state of mind – that is an attitude held by the truster about the trustee. (So in a commercial relationship, it is an attitude the buyer, or perhaps a commercial partner like a dealer, has about the seller or brand.) Then, trust involves vulnerability and a passage into an uncertain future. The other “will act,” but how they will act is not known.

The two vectors of trust

These are what I call the two “vectors” of trust – uncertainty and vulnerability. Both of these must be in play for a trust relationship to occur. If you can be certain of the outcome, then there is no reason to trust.

(Side note: This is why I have a big problem with people claiming that blockchains or other distributed ledger technologies “create trust.” Wrong. When functioning appropriately, they eliminate the need for trust.)

For example, if I invite you to fall backwards with the pledge that I will catch you, but you know that I am a robot programmed to unfailing catch falling humans, you don’t need to – and can’t – trust me. 

And if there is no vulnerability – if the outcome is not in some way potentially harmful – then trust is irrelevant. (If, should I fail to catch you, you land not on a hard floor but in a soft foam pit, then trust in me is not a factor.)

The trust researcher Rachel Botsman defines trust simply as “a confident relation to uncertainty” (which I’ve slightly modified in the graphic below). Trust allows you to bridge the gap between what I now say I’m going to do and the possibility that I may not do it.


Still, the question is, where does this initial trust come from? How can we increase the amount of trust?

Can you build love?

In other words, how can we build or rebuild trust? The answer, surprisingly, is that we cannot – and this follows from the fact that trust is an attitude that consumers have about you. As the philosopher Onora O’Neill** says:

“Trust is distinctive because it\’s given by other people. You can\’t rebuild what other people give you. [What you can do is] give them the basis for giving you their trust.”

What is this basis? What makes you deserving or worthy of trust? Well . . . . trustworthiness. You cannot create trust any more than you can make someone love you. The only way to increase trust among consumers (the number of people who trust you or the depth of trust they feel) is to demonstrate that you are trustworthy.

This is an interesting twist. In the age of CXM and customer-centricity we’re supposed to be obsessively, exclusively focused on the consumer. But if trust is the fuel for successful CX, then increasing its power means concentrating on ourselves, on what makes us trustworthy – and on communicating that successfully to consumers.

Communicating successfully and consistently . . . that brings us right back to content marketing. And to questions 3 and 4: What characteristics or behaviors do people look for when judging whether you’re trustworthy? And how can you plan and measure progress towards building these – I call them the “pillars” of trust – into your content strategy?

That the subject of part 4. If you want to chat about trust and trustworthiness in the meantime, contact us.

**It’s probably not a coincidence that so many scholars and experts on trust – as well as so many privacy professionals and authorities – are women.

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