The clichés are endless; the rapacious banker, the duplicitous real estate agent, the disingenuous insurance salesman. Clichés are clichés for the truth they convey - the stereotype often reflecting the perceived character of the industry. So how can businesses in low trust industries - banking, insurance, real estate, big pharma, and so on - seek to gain or regain trust? How can they become market and moral leaders in an increasingly ethical landscape?
Perhaps a good place to start is to look at the qualities that engender trust in an individual - integrity, candour and shared values. By understanding the character of the trusted individual, can we determine the ideal characteristics of a trusted organisation?
“…as we lose trust in a cheating lover we quickly lose trust in a cheating brand…”
Originally connoting a sense of wholeness, purity and cohesion, the meaning has morphed to include ideas around rectitude, morality and decency, and imply a sense of alignment between thought and words and deed. Simply, we trust people who say what they'll do and do what they say. It's obvious; just as we lose trust in a cheating lover, we quickly lose trust in a cheating brand. Hence the tragedy of Volkswagen, now slated to lose more than 18 billion Euros over its lack of alignment between values and actions. Integrity is a valuable asset.
“…get to the truth, even if it is sometimes a difficult truth…”
There's an old, somewhat sexist joke, that women get to know each other by sharing secrets while men get to know each other by swapping lists. Revelation - giving something of ourselves, being open and candid - is a key way we build trust, and therefore relationships. The emotional intimacy of shared insights is one of the most powerful of human bonds and it happens incrementally, carefully, as we open ourselves up to another. So how does this very human trait inform how a large organisation might set about to gain, or regain, trust?
In many ways, candour is just another term for transparency, a willingness to reveal the truth. Secrets create distance while revelation creates intimacy. It’s a simple contract, yet one that business continues to ignore: telecoms companies with deliberately opaque billing systems; insurance contacts that overwhelm the reader in fine print; hidden extras, undisclosed limitations, financial surprises; unresolved complaints redirected through labyrinthine systems.... The Ombudsman reported over 164,000 of these complaints over the last half of 2015, mostly from banking and insurance and telecoms. What is true for one is true for us all; get to the truth, even it is sometimes a difficult truth, and deal with it fairly, and I'll respect you, and trust you. Don't and I won't.
But there is something even more fundamental to consider. The moral foundation. Our shared values.
“…people don't remember what you make them think, but what you make them feel…”
Studies in social identity show that the closer the leader is to being a social archetype - personifying the core group values - the more influence they have. Voters vote for those who promote and protect the values they hold most dear. The societies that endure are those who cluster around common values; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; Faith, Hope and Charity. For brands struggling to connect and become trusted, it is often necessary to go back to basics, to redefine the fundamental values that reputation is built on. And most importantly, to live those values every day.
The purchase of Volvo Group, is a good example of the value of values. Li Shufu, Chairman, Geely Holding Group says, "Put simply, Volvo is a brand you can trust', and the group's values Customer success, Passion, Change, Performance - and of course, Trust - informed him in the acquisition- “We did what Volvo Cars is famous for. We paid attention to detail; we approached the deal with care and integrity; and we adopted a safety-first attitude in what we did and said”. The prospective new leadership embraced and personified the collective values and it helped win them the deal. After all, as Maya Angelou observed, people don't remember what you make them think, but what you make them feel. The emotional alignment of values is the deepest emotional connection there is, and the most primal basis of trust.
But how do leaders make this real every day? How can we gain and, where necessary, regain trust? At Fable Partners, we believe it begins with stories.
Every culture, every community, every family even, shares a common story. These are the legends of our heroes - those who personify our belief system, who encapsulate all that is best about our humanity. Whether the legacy of a sports team, the history of a country, or the founding of a company, these heroic tales tell initiates all they need to know about the beliefs of a group and the behaviours that can be expected from them. VC citations tell of valour and self sacrifice, the prerequisite for a military heroism; sporting stories tell of moments of brilliance under pressure; business stories can tell great tales of exemplary service, of ethical probity, of commercial acumen, of collective endeavor. It is in the telling and retelling of these stories, and their personification as characters, through which the character of our culture is revealed. And from character comes trust.
Make your stories honest and true, coherent and candid and aligned with your deepest values and those of your customers. Tell that story through your actions every day, and keep on telling it. Very soon your customers will be telling your story to their friends. After all, people only introduce those they love to those they trust.