Just the other day, I said to my 10-year-old daughter ‘trust is hard to win and easy to lose.’ She was having a tough time with a good friend who had done something jerky, and she wanted to know if she should trust her friend again just because she was being nice. Once trust is broken, it takes time and evidence to repair the damage. That’s why it’s always best to behave in an honest and trustworthy manner, rather than endeavor to rebuild bridges. While school girl antics usually come and go, life lessons about the formation and maintenance of trust are the foundations on which relationships are built in friendship … and in business.

The dynamics of trust is a topic carefully tracked by Edelman’s TrustBarometer. The 2012 edition measures attitudes about the state of trust in business, government, NGOs, and media across 25 countries. This hot-off-the-press report identifies a number of critical shifts in trust. While government officials are deemed the least credible spokespersons, CEOs also saw a rapid decline in trust.

The chief executive’s voice is no longer the trusted source for information about the company, the industry or service trends. Customers no longer look to executive leadership for vision and facts. Instead, thanks to the information now readily available through social media, peer-peer information and expert points of view have soared to the top of the trust pyramid like a kite in a windstorm!

As these data clearly demonstrate, expert opinions and peers are the drivers of trust. They are where the buyers of both consumer and B2B products and services gather the information they need to make informed decisions. And through the proliferation of user-generated content via self-publishing channels such as blogs, YouTube, microsharing, content curation and reviews, there are ample sources of information.

Current wisdom suggests trust can managed using the role of the Influencer to shape public opinion. These are experts with credentials which demonstrate credibility, are unencumbered by financial bias and, armed with data and experience, can offer feedback, advice and vision to help guide the buyers’ opinions and actions. So for greatest business impact, the obvious answer is to invest heavily in developing thought leadership content and securing strong influencer programs, right? Not really... It’s not that simple where trust is concerned.

The Edelman report takes a hard look at the operational and societal attributes that build trust over time. The study discovered that there are a few key elements that facilitate organizational trust. The ones that stood out to me include:
  • Listens to customer needs and feedback
  • Places customers ahead of profits
  • Takes actions to address issues or crisis
  • Is transparent
  • Communicates frequently and honestly
Do these sound familiar? They are the basic tenets for building trust within communities online.

In a 2007 article entitled “What is trust worth?,” published in Qn, the Yale School of Management journal, author Steve LaVoie discusses his company’s experience with the role and value of trust. The founder of Arrowstream, a start-up focused on improving supply-chain management in the restaurant business, LaVoie discovered his firm’s ability to deliver savings for customers and profits to the business required rethinking the relationships between all the parties involved. Establishing and maintaining trusted relationships – and avoiding self-interested behaviors that jeopardized trust -- were the key to unlocking savings for everyone and making the business a success. Arrowstream became, in essence, a community of customers for the benefit of each and for the company as well.

Customer communities have been around for a long time. But the advent of new tools and technologies has greatly expanded their scale and scope. Online communities are now recognized as a key channel for building trusted relationships and engaging with customers, employee and other stakeholders. The ingredients are transparency, active listening, and taking action on expressed issues and needs.

Data points:
So … if your employee engagement survey yields data that gives HR a headache and an agenda, or your NPS scores are not all you had hoped, consider addressing the root cause – lack of trust! Take the time to explore new and innovative experiences such as online communities to engage your audiences, building and supporting trust in your company. And remember, as my daughter’s friend recently learned: it takes time and effort to earn trust.