Tales of trust from Berlin

It’s a common question on the Americans in Berlin Facebook group: Karen wants to get $3500 from her US account and have it available in cash euros. But her bank charges $35 and a 3% transfer fee — $140 total! Isn\’t there a better way?

I could help her out. After years of frustration, I finally found a German online bank that allows me to have accounts in both EUR and USD. For a small fee, I transfer dollars from the US to Europe, then exchange them for euros as needed. (Or as uneducated guesses about the direction of the exchange rate dictates.) Adding the extra step of transferring the euros from my account to Karen’s would give her access to the converted dollars.

Practically, though, this solution runs aground on the shoals of mistrust. The problem is, who goes first? If Karen starts by paying her dollars into my US account, she risks that I’ll disappear without giving her any euros. But if I start by transferring the euros to Karen, how can I be sure that I’ll get her dollars? After all, I don’t know anything about her – including her real name or even her gender, since I’m going on nothing more than a Facebook profile picture.

This dilemma nicely illustrates the role of uncertainty and vulnerability in any (potential) trust relationship. As I’ve argued in Can We (Re)Build Trust?, both of these “vectors” of trust have to be at play to some meaningful extent. If you eliminate all of the uncertainty (say, with a perfectly operating distributed ledger technology – see my rant on trust and crypto/DLTs) or if there is no vulnerability (e.g., no bad outcomes) then trust is not only not needed, it’s impossible.

This is why the trust guru Rachel Botsman calls trust “a confident relation to uncertainty” (and so a reasoned decision to accept the vulnerability).

Trust me, Karen!

So let’s focus on why Karen doesn’t (and shouldn’t) trust me to pay out the euros. (The analysis is the same for me trusting her, so we need look at only one side. And let’s further assume that I represent a brand/seller and Karen is a prospect/consumer.) What could I do to help Karen feel “a confident relationship” to the uncertainty inherent in our proposed transaction?

  • Demand trust: I could put on my best used-car toothsome smile and say, \”Trust me on this Karen, this is a perfect deal for you. Just perfect.\” But if Karen has existed on earth for more than a few minutes, she knows that is someone asks you to trust them without providing any evidence that they\’re trustworthy, you should run as far away as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, this unproductive approach is deployed by brands and marketers far too often. Most recently, it’s the opening gambit when a company tries to get access to consumers’ personal data. If the first consent banner on the home page says “We take your privacy seriously,” the rational consumer response is: Really? Really? Where’s the evidence?

  • Reveal reliability and integrity: Now we’re getting somewhere. I could put Karen in touch with other expats in Berlin who confirm that I’ve delivered on my promises consistently. In effect, this amounts to providing testimonials, or, passively, achieving positive ratings and reviews on Yelp, Amazon, Trip Advisor, etc.

  • Demonstrate competence: I could point Karen to my work on trust and trustworthiness, for example here, here, and here. This is, of course, basic content and thought leadership marketing. Karen might be more likely to trust an expert on trust for the same reason that makeup.com could encourage her to think of L’oreal as trustworthy.

  • Emphasize empathy: The bold step would be to for me to proactively give Karen the euros. But, again, that removes all uncertainty and vulnerability from her side of the relationship and alleviates the need for her to trust me. Instead, I could demonstrate that I empathize with her anxiety about the transaction by giving the euros to a mutual friend until she completes the dollar deposit. From a business perspective, this is akin to a money back guarantee.

Work on your pillars of trustworthiness

Reliability, integrity, empathy, and competence – these are what we call the four “pillars” of trustworthiness. As we emerge from the current global pandemic, the levels of perceived uncertainty and vulnerability will be elevated (even if the risk in a given transaction is not objectively higher). Customer relations and business success will depend more than ever on consistently demonstrating in word (content) and action (behavior) that your brand, products, and services are worthy of consumers’ trust. Now is the time to identify, strengthen, and extend your pillars of trustworthiness.

P. S. — Karen used Transferwise.

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