Building up to trust

ARTICLE | August 29, 2023

Why building trust counts

Trustworthy companies outperform their competitors. Make sure your company measures up

By Michael Belfiore, Workflow contributor

On July 9, 2023, a storm dropped more than 7 inches of rain in six hours on parts of New York State, creating 1,000-year flood conditions. The airports serving New York City grounded all westbound flights, including one to Minneapolis that had already taxied from the gate. On board, a father was trying to get his daughters to what could be a final visit with their critically ill grandmother. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to depart that day. But what followed demonstrated a core value that companies ignore at their peril: trust. Companies that are building trust—not only with their customers, but also with their workforce, partners, and other stakeholders—can reap huge dividends. 

Even though the stranded father couldn’t fly on the day of the storm, a ticket agent who heard his story bent the rules to not only get him and his daughters out on the next available flight but also to change their return flight so they could have more time with grandma. For the family, who had expected a delay of days, it felt like a win.

According to Ashley Reichheld, a principal at Deloitte Digital and author of The Four Factors of Trust: How Organizations Can Earn Lifelong Loyalty (Wiley, 2022), such interactions are the result of workers trusted by their companies to independently make decisions to benefit—and earn the trust of—customers. “They took a scenario where ultimately passengers are going to walk away unhappy, and they made an even more loyal customer,” Reichheld says. “That's impressive.”


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In an era of increased uncertainty and growing demands, driven by a mix of rapid digital transformation, extreme weather, heightened customer expectations, increasing cyberattacks, and other forces, organizations must work harder than ever to earn—and maintain—trust. These days, building trust is more important than ever for airlines’ organizational success.

According to Deloitte, companies deemed trustworthy by customers outperform competitors in terms of market value by up to four times. Nearly 9 in 10 customers (88%) who have a high degree of trust in a brand they’ve purchased from became return customers. And 8 in 10 employees (79%) who have a high degree of trust in their employer feel more motivated to work. But how can organizations foster something that can feel elusive? As a company leader, how do you “do” trust?

“Trust isn't something that you just earn and hold on to,” Reichheld says. “It's something that you have to be intentionally focused on building. And if you aren't, you have the opportunity to lose it.” Or, as ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott frequently says, companies earn trust in drops but lose it in buckets.

88% of customers who have a high degree of trust in a brand they’ve purchased from became return customers.

To measure how companies stack up on trust, Reichheld’s team starts by assessing their “humanity,” which they define as demonstrating empathy and kindness and treating others fairly. Other key metrics of trust include transparency, which gauges how clearly organizations communicate information to workers and customers; capability, which refers to whether an organization can make good on its promises today; and reliability, which asks whether those promises can be kept over time.

Whatever factor of trust a company is focused on, the point is to measure it and take action based on the results. “If you're not measuring it, it's invisible and cannot be improved,” says Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, which surveys organizations to find management problems, including in the area of trust, and helps leaders fix them. 

Metrics show leaders what areas need work, so they can take appropriate action. For example, according to Bush, recent surveys revealed that managers felt they didn’t have enough opportunities to develop their skills and get promoted at the company. So Bush set up a development program that included weekly meetings for managers to discuss and fine-tune their professional goals. New surveys showed the effort worked. “Our people are feeling the benefit of that development process and every employee is having a consistent experience,” Bush says.

Tools such as social listening and sentiment analysis tools can also track sentiment about companies on the outside through social media, product reviews, traditional media mentions, and more. For example, Task Intelligence for Customer Service from ServiceNow uses machine learning and natural language processing to reveal how customers feel about service interactions by analyzing emails and service agent notes. Similar AI-powered technology aids Great Place to Work in its survey analysis, allowing the company to capture data that don’t fit in the neat boxes of predefined survey questions. Such unstructured data help reveal patterns that might otherwise be missed; for example, the nuances of what Great Place to Work managers felt was lacking in their professional development.

Trust isn't something that you just earn and hold on to. It's something that you have to be intentionally focused on building.

It’s not enough to measure trust once and move on. Bush recommends measuring trust over time to track progress. Great Place to Work, for example, runs its own trust surveys on itself every four months. He acknowledges that it can be challenging to face your company’s shortcomings. “It's painful every time,” he says. “You always have something to work on.” But the rewards of building trust—and working to uphold it—far outweigh any discomfort it may cause for leadership.

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Headshot of Michael Belfiore

Michael Belfiore has written editorial articles for most of the major science and technology magazines in the U.S., including Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, National Geographic, Wired, and Popular Science, for which he wrote nine cover stories. He is the author of two books on  technology development published by HarperCollins and writes articles and reports for technology brands. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

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