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When It Comes to Trust, It’s the Little Things

Lasting confidence in a company is built one customer interaction at a time.

Early in my career I helped manage part of the main selling floor at Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship department store. One day a shopper ripped the sleeve of her leather jacket on the loose edge of a display fixture. She came to me for redress.

I happily made the case for replacing the jacket with my boss, arguing that it was our job to keep our fixtures repaired. I added that she’d very likely relay the experience — good or bad — to her friends and because we stocked the same jacket, we could replace it at wholesale cost. I saw taking care of this shopper as both the right and the smart thing to do. My boss backed me, confirming my instincts that the store viewed individual customer relationships as long-term investments.

When consumers trust your brand, overwhelming numbers of them will use your products and services frequently and recommend them to others, research shows. And although companies tend to focus on large marketing efforts — investing millions in ad campaigns and public sustainability reports — these moves do nothing to address the day-to-day problems customers bring to companies. Moreover, these big investments are powerless to stop the sorts of big blunders that grab headlines and customers’ attention, instantly tarnishing a once well-crafted public image.

But what if the key is instead to sweat the small stuff?

A dedication from leaders and their teams to earning customers’ trust through every interaction on a day-to-day, or even moment-to-moment, basis helps companies in two ways: When an individual receives outstanding customer service not only does that customer return again and again, but that customer will tell others of their experience. With social media so pervasive, a tweet or Facebook post from a happy customer can go a long way to building a positive brand image. Conversely, a bad review can disintegrate trust. Second, and perhaps more important, a commitment from leaders to mastering these small moments embeds trust building into your organization’s DNA. This fosters a culture that is more likely to avoid blunders both big and small in the first place.

A commitment from leaders to master the small moments embeds trust building into your organization’s DNA.

I take my thought on trust from observations about ethics and safety. My Harvard colleague Chris Robichaud notes that, according to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the best way to build an ethical culture is to have a zero-tolerance policy for small-scale infractions, such as stealing a stapler or fudging an expense report. Similarly, companies I have worked with that have strong safety cultures obsess over seemingly minor details, such as holding hand rails on the stairs. An emphasis on the small ethical and safety issues ingrains these things into how employees think. The same is true with trust.

I have seen how what may seem to be minor moments build or erode trust in a brand, and I am sure you have had similar experiences. I travel a lot and two recent examples from the road provide a good comparison.

On an overseas trip, I made an online reservation for a sightseeing tour. It was my first time using the platform, and a glitch on the website suggested that I might have been charged twice. Sure enough, the duplicate charge later appeared on my credit-card statement, so I emailed the company. Customer service replied within 24 hours with an apology and a credit. No questions asked and no requests for copies of receipts. Although there were flaws in the front-end system design, the service recovery increased my trust.

A few weeks later, I arrived at an airport to check in for a flight, and the kiosk offered me a seat upgrade for $40, an apparent perk of my elite status with the airline. I agreed to the fee, but when I sought to exchange my boarding pass for my upgraded seat, I was told with a shrug that I was 14th in line for only one seat left. All I’d purchased was a chance for an upgrade. I requested a refund by email, and it took four days to receive a reply. I found the reply — an apology for the fact that I felt disappointed and a statement that upgrades aren’t refundable — unsatisfactory, and it broke my trust. I will avoid flying with them in the future whenever possible.

Both of those interactions likely appear on the respective company’s logs as successfully resolved. However, only one enhanced my trust. It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive to master the trust opportunities embedded in these small interactions, though it takes commitment from leaders and careful planning. Here are three tips.

Make trust a consistent criterion for decision making. When planning your next cross-selling initiative or engineering a customer interface, discuss the trust implications of each element. Clarity and transparency at each step are essential. Is there a clear customer benefit, or is it just a chance to extract a few more dollars from them? Phone trees that frustrate customers can erode trust. When a software update also tries to change my default search engine, it signals that I have to be on high alert with this company. The reward points that get me a discount no greater than I’d get at a big box store make me question the sponsoring company’s motives. Shaving a few cents or seconds off a transaction may seem great in the short term, but if it feeds frustration and erodes trust, you’ll pay a steeper price in the long run. At their best, such conversations can stimulate innovative thinking. One CEO I interviewed led a turnaround by challenging the company to be trustworthy to all of its stakeholders. The process of understanding what that meant led to strategic insights that helped them outfox their competitors.

Create the conditions for trust-oriented service. For all the talk about brand trust, do you allow your people to deliver the responsive, caring service that builds it? It’s easy to measure the number of seconds on a customer-service call but much harder to determine if the customer’s problem is actually solved to his or her satisfaction. One hospital I studied made follow-up calls to each discharged patient to discuss their service experience as well as their care plan. The comments were reviewed in detail at a weekly meeting of all care managers. Great performance was recognized, failures called out, and continual attention paid to improving the service-delivery system.

When a complaint is made, address the actual issue. In a trust-based relationship, people really listen to one another. At one hotel chain where I have spent many nights, I receive a satisfaction survey after every stay. Whenever I comment on something particularly good or bad at the property, the hotel manager sends an email with an explanation, apology, or promise to pass along the kudos. Does that take a little extra time? Yes. Does it keep the manager plugged into the customer experience? Absolutely. And it builds my trust in the company and its people as well as my loyalty to the brand. The airline in the story above might have kept my trust had they said that they valued my feedback and passed it on to their user experience team. A lounge pass or other perk would have helped, too.

Customers want high-trust service. I firmly believe that most frontline employees want to deliver it. It is the job of leaders to give them the time, training, and tools to make every interaction count.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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