Business trust seems to be in short supply these days. Perhaps it’s because we are reminded daily of scams on the Internet that result from unscrupulous businesses and people. Yet if you run a business, you know things won’t get done, and most customers won’t buy, unless they trust you. Thus, it’s critical to your success that you build a culture of trust in you and your business.
It can be done, as proven by the market leaders, including Google and Amazon. According to reliable reports, both your employees and your customers have to feel they know you, and you know them, before levels of trust can accrue. In other words, it’s all about perceived relationships and actions. In my role as a business advisor and investor, I see this proven over and over again.
Most business leaders intuitively understand this, but many are not so clear on the specific actions and programs they need to initiate to build a trust culture in their business, and have it projected outward to potential customers. Thus I offer the following prioritized initiatives from my own experience to get you started:
- Make sure everyone knows the business, good and bad. As I said in the beginning, people don’t trust what they don’t know, so make sure you communicate personally to the whole team, and to customers, your companies’ vision, goals, and challenges. Hiding in the corner office, or sharing only good news, does not build a culture of trust and support.
- Be the role model for trust and consistency in your actions. The most effective business leaders today build trusting cultures by being visible, competent, and approachable, in the office and in the community. They are clearly in charge, but they don’t hide challenges, and are honest and vulnerable when dealing with all constituents.
- Commit to a “higher purpose” that everyone can relate too. Find a social or environmental issue where you, your team, and your customers can make an impact as part of your business. Keys to this would be something that matches your values, and could benefit from your strengths. Make sure your team and your customers have a role.
- Set high but rational team expectations, and follow through. People respond best when they know what needs to be done, and feel challenged, but not broken, by delivery expectations. Follow-through means paying attention to who is contributing, and fixing problems in a timely fashion when expectations are not being met.
- Build real relationships with employees and customers. For employees, showing empathy and respect for their ideas and challenges is key. For customers that you encounter, it means listening to their needs, and being supportive of special needs and situations, exceeding their expectations, and showing appreciation for their business.
- Empower teams to build their own work processes. Key to any trust culture is a feeling of control of your own destiny. That means providing the tools and resources to do the job, without defining and micro-managing the exact process. Your role is to provide mentoring and support as required. It also means listening and following-up on feedback.
- Recognize and reward individual key contributions. The most effective individual recognition is timely positive feedback from you to them, in front of their peers, for going beyond the call and excellence. Annual bonuses tied to production metrics are nice, but these will not generate the long-term trust and loyalty you need to set the culture.
- Provide training and mentoring directed at career growth. Employees need to see career growth and investment in the people around them, and feel all have access to the training and guidance to get the same opportunities. Everyone prefers informal feedback on their own performance daily, rather than be dependent only on a formal annual review.
- Focus on the whole employee and customer experience. With employees, the whole experience might include providing access to food and relaxation at work, or the opportunity to work from home. For customers, the buying experience goes well beyond support after the sale, to include product selection, web site layout, and feedback.
- Enable employee or customer shared ownership. Several reliable reports indicate that, on average, employee-owned firms perform substantially better, and have a stronger trust culture. The same is true of consumer co-operatives, owned by customers and managed democratically with trust, aimed at fulfilling the needs of their members.
With these initiatives, you too can build a culture of trust with your employees, and with your customers. But be aware - trust is like the stock market. It’s hard work to get it to go up, and it can come down overnight if you make one wrong step. Thus, I recommend that you seek to get it right the first time and keep it there. Very few businesses get a second chance to be trusted.