Building the Bridge of Trust — 7 factors that make your company more trustworthy

Adam Karmiński
Bethink

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In July, 1940 the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was finally finished. Throughout its brief existance it was the world’s third longest suspension bridge. It collapsed in November the same year, just after 5 months from being opened to traffic. At some point, the huge structure of steel and concrete started bending and fluctuating like a piece of rubber.

The Tacoma Bridge minutes before its collapse

Inquiry into the accident found that the root cause was related to internal vibration of the structure. It turned out that even thought the bridge’s model was tested against heavy weather conditions, it was defeated by normal speed winds which frequency matched the bridge’s natural frequency.

Building the Bridge of Trust

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge’s story struck me as a great metaphor of the mechanics of building trust in relationships, including the one between a business and its customers. It came to me at a time when we, as a company, realised that one of our greatest challenges will be to gain and retain trust.

Look at it this way. Your business and your customers stand on the opposite sides of the River of Doubt. Their side is called “problem” and yours is called “solution”. The river has a current so strong, that the moment something touches its surface it’s drifted miles and miles away.

Now, your job is to build the Bridge of Trust between the two sides.

Now imagine that the bridge’s load is represented by money. The more expensive is your product, the more resilient your bridge needs to be. But beware! There are many different conditions you need take into account. Design of a bridge can’t only focus on the load and ignore aerial, water and terrain conditions, because your bridge might collapse like the Tacoma Narrows one.

Naturally, the trust building process is also multi-dimensional. Just ensuring transactions security is not enough. What’s more, conditions that shape your environment are much more elusive, than the ones in civil engineering. That’s why a dedicated model to understand trust is extremely helpful.

The model of trust

When trying to understand the challenges our business faced, I started looking for ideas that would help us improve our strategy of building trust. That’s when I stumbled upon an HBR article “The Decision to Trust”, by Prof. Robert F. Hurley. It was the model I was looking for! Even though Prof. Hurley uses his model to describe the employee-manager relationship, I found it very useful in navigating the complex landscape of gaining trust of our customers.

The model speaks about 10 factors and differentiates them into two groups — decision-maker factors and situational factors. Let’s list them and go into details later.

Decision-maker factors

  • Risk tolerance
  • Level of adjustment
  • Relative power

Situational factors

  • 🔒 Security
  • 👥 Number of Similarities
  • 👣 Alignment of Interests
  • ❤️ Benevolent Concern
  • ⭐️ Capability
  • 💎 Predictability and Integrity
  • 💬 Level of Communication

The decision-maker factors are the ones we cannot easily impact since they are intrinsic. Risk tolerance, level of adjustment (how much time does one need to build trust) or relative power are specific to every individual customer. I didn’t find many ways to move the needles on these spectrums. Maybe you have some ideas?

Anyway, I find the second group much more relevant to our case. The situational factors are specific to a relationship between a “truster” and “trustee”, so you are actually able to impact them.

The original article provides much more in-depth explanation of each of the factors so I highly recommend it. But the basic ideas might be enough for you to use them, so let’s finally move to the big question — how can we affect these factors to make our business more trustworthy?

🔓 Security

It’s the most basic and probably obvious thing to check before getting on a bridge — is it secure? But what this feeling of “security” really is? I’d argue it’s just inverted probability of loss, multiplied by its size.

In other words, how likely it is that crossing the bridge (or transaction) will go as planned and how much do I lose if it doesn’t? As a consequence, you need to feel more secure when you buy a car, then if you buy a burrito.

As business, you can increase perceived security by familiarity, transparency and guidance and putting more control in customers’ hands.

  • Familiarity — using familiar design patterns, known vendors for money transfer or other services.
  • Transparency and guidance — exposing who you are as people, giving a chance to test the product first, clearly laying out the transaction process and what happens next (think of it as roadsigns).
  • Control — giving customers a way to react if the product or the service doesn’t fit their needs.

Naturally, the stronger trust you need, the more you need to invest in these factors. In case of a previously mentioned burrito, just the familiar look might be enough.

On the other hand, we as a company running 4-month long e-learning courses had to think bigger. Mechanisms we chose included a satisfaction guarantee (if you finish the course and fail the exam, you get a full refund), transparent and honest communication, exposing our results and the whole analysis process or meticulously documenting our sources.

👥 Number of similarities

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. As Prof. Hurley puts it:

At heart we are still quite tribal, which is why people tend to more easily trust those who appear similar to themselves.

Compare hosts of YouTube channels dedicated to gaming and fashion. Imagine switching their outfits. They could act the same way, say the same things, but would they be as effective? I really doubt that. They just wouldn’t seem similar to their audience.

Of course not every company is started by representatives of the target group. Regardless, there are still ways to thrive in the similarities factor. For customer support, hire people that use the language your customers use. Use pop-cultural references that are familiar to them in your marketing. Engage in activities they like.

If you are simply not like your customers, you can look for ways to make the product itself reflect aesthetic taste of your customers, work with influencers or, even better, interview the customers themselves. It’s important to be genuine. We all know how bad and cringy a rapping politician can be.

👣 Alignment of interests

Your customers want their problems to be solved efficiently. If you can actually benefit from working less efficiently, it’ll be much harder for you to gain their trust.

That’s why I personally prefer subscription based fees for apps, to a one-time purchase. Subscriptions can be easily canceled whenever I feel like the company stopped caring and quality of their products plummets. It’s a motivation for continuous improvement.

Part of the building trust process is making sure your customers know that their success is in your best interest. Going even further, that it’s in your best interest, also financially, to deliver the best possible service. In other words, this factor is highly impacted by your business model.

Show that if your customers that solving their problem is in your best interest. And if you fail, you also lose. Different rules drive different behaviors. Design them in a way that leaves no doubt about your motivation.

❤️ Benevolent concern

A few weeks before the first one of our e-learning courses, we got a message from a participant who was about to become a mother. She contacted us because her pregnancy was in danger and she wanted to cancel her order. It was shocking for her, that we agreed so easily and wished her and her baby all the best.

A year later, she signed up again, finished the course, passed the exam and sent us a selfie with her son. She said, “I thought no companies operate like this”.

Accepting short-term loses to gain long-term trust is one of the ways you can manifest your benevolent concern. But it’s no the only option, there are a few main communication-based tactics:

  • Don’t rush — people can feel it when you want to shut the case as quickly as possible.
  • Explain thoroughly — you might think “they won’t understand anyway”. And you might be right, but your customers will appreciate your effort to explain them what the situation was about.
  • Provide alternative solutions — sometimes you just can’t agree on the solution suggested by your customer. The way to show concern in such situation is offering alternative solutions. If you’re afraid to come as pushy, ask for permission to suggest something.

There will be problems. Always. Technology fails, communication is hard, stress will get to you. But a problematic situation can be a great gift. It’s the best time to manifest benevolent concern.

⭐️ Capability

No shortcuts here, it’s about pure competence. You either can or can’t solve your customers problems. But let’s imagine that you actually can. Is there anything that might make your customers doubt it? Actually, there is. Some behaviors may undermine people’s trust in you even if you’re absolutely up to the task:

  • Overpromising — people who are generally agreeable overpromise to please people. Others, to boost their ego. It’s much better to make a humble promises and deliver them consistently, than to overpromise. Remember, that people don’t miss what they don’t see.
  • Under-communicating — communication is a whole separate thing. But in the context of capability lack of insight into your process can be harmful.
  • Misorganization — even if you’re competent but come a cross as a messy company, there will be questions about your capability. Invest in exceptional and well-organised customer support, keep your promises, always communicate a clear plan for the next steps.

💎 Predictability and integrity

Imagine driving and seeing the road signs saying “San Francisco, 30 miles”. You follow the road and after 50 miles you end up in Oakland. I mean, it’s not that bad, you kinda got where you wanted to, but your trust in the road signage just received a major hit.

Think, say and do the same. It’s so important and yet so scarce. You can see it everywhere — in politics, marketing, news. People seek truth and genuinity.

I’d argue that predictability and integrity are the hardest to maintain. They require constant attention, as entropy naturally increases.

If you speak about your values, actually follow them. If you announce your plans, execute them. If you commit to a deadline — do your best to meet it and if you don’t always try to make it up.

💬 Level of communication

And last, but not least — communication. It is a conveyor belt for all of the previous factors. You may have all of them, but if you fail to communicate them properly you wont’t see an increase in the trust level.

Communication, as you might guess, is especially important when dealing with complains, errors and crisis. Many business cases show that it’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t work. You can actually increase trust if you handle crisis openly and focus on good communication. But you can as easily bury it.

So how to communicate? I’d say that the former 6 factors are a great map for you. Anytime you craft a message try to think about it from the perspective of security, number of similarities, alignment of interests, benevolent concern, capability and integrity.

Now, build your own bridge

For a start-up, gaining trust is the main challenge. When we realised that and optimised our efforts to increase trust, certain choices became much simpler.

Whenever we had to make a decision on what to do with our limited resources, we asked ourselves a question — what gains us more trust? A recorded video or a live streaming? Should we invest in building a demo version of our product or develop more features before the release? Offer a satisfaction guarantee and risk a few cash returns or save a few bucks, but make people risk?

The strategy turned out to be successful. Trust translated into recommendations, which translated into market growth. We started big from 5% of the Total Addressable Market, and after 2 years we’re at 50%.

Designing a solid Bridge of Trust requires thorough consideration of all of the relevant factors. To maintain it, you need to close attention and a lot of energy. In the world of ROIs, KPIs, OKRs and IPOs, it’s easy to forget about something so primal as trust. And yet, investing your energy in gaining it might be what you and your business need the most.

If you had or heard of any cases that might be a great example of how building trust translates into business results, please share them in the comments. Great examples are always powerful.

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Adam Karmiński
Bethink
Editor for

My dream is an education system that encourages discovery, independent development and critical thinking. I write about making this vision happen.