In Trust We Brand

Where must we start to regain lost trust? Why, right at the beginning, of course!
One Night To Bring It Down

“Trust me. I know what’s good for you. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

In a world where confidence is shot and people wary of being duped, these words ring hollow. Not unnaturally, we consider them with deep suspicion. Why be tricked again? It’s much easier to turn a deaf ear, to move away. What is it they say? ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ And so we remain unconvinced, more uncertain than ever of the intentions of those who would sell us something.

Trust me? I don’t think so!

In these troubled times, talk of trust is cheap, and even at that price no one’s buying. And yet, more than ever before, the markets where we go to sell our goods and services are crying out for it.

So how do we pick up the shattered pieces and start over? How do we build trust in a place where the ambitions of so many lie in ruins and the broken words that brought them down litter the landscape?

He Laboured All His Life

Where do we start? Let’s not mince our words here. In a market where talk is cheap, don’t waste your breath talking. Never before have actions spoken louder than all the bright promises, earnest entreaties and solemn vows that the seller uses to make a pitch. When trust is in short supply, you can’t boast possession of something you don’t own and can’t acquire at any price; you must earn it.

Be trustworthy. Make that your starting-point.

And how do we begin to build trust in troubled times? When the hidden agenda has undermined confidence and people grow suspicious of what’s on offer, you must be upfront about your motives. Be clear about what you have to offer and what you want in return. Too often, we present our proposition as a boon to the lucky buyer from a gracious, god-like seller. But, deep down, our buyer knows that there’s no profit in the goodness of the heart. If it’s a steal, then someone is out of pocket. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

In order to build a business that lasts, we must be clear about the benefits to both parties to the exchange. In simple terms, this means that I have something to offer you in exchange for something you have to give me in return (usually cash). Of course, there are likely to be other benefits that fall on both sides, some of them tangible, others not. But at the heart of the successful business stands the simple transaction: the timeless barter of goods and services for currency.

When we study the collapse of trust in the markets of the world, we see the quicksand of unequal exchange and exaggerated value at the start of it. We cannot afford to have our own businesses fall apart in the same way. All well-built and successful systems begin with sound first principles; make fair exchange the bedrock of yours.

Gables Reached As High

Great brands are built on that fair exchange, not the spin and hype with which branding is so often mistakenly associated. One of the most remarkable features of the recent disintegration of financial systems has been the lack of sympathy amongst ordinary customers for those main players in distress. This has gone far beyond the petty begrudging of success that sometimes poisons the atmosphere in any place of enterprise and ambition. We have watched these giants lumber about and fail with a cruel indifference that speaks of something much deeper than a resentment born of everyday envy. Our only concern seems to have been that they do not fall upon us or that the tremors of their collapse don’t threaten the stability of our own constructions.

When you think of the amount of money and time that these same giants have spent in what they termed ‘brand-building’, this response seems extraordinary. How could such honeyed words fall on deaf and cruelly indifferent ears? Where is the goodwill that was bought and so heavily paid for?

Our response suggests that such goodwill cannot be bought, that customers became so weary of suffering goods and services that were so dramatically at odds with what was promised they simply stopped listening. It also points to relationships that were built on unfair exchange, on the bullying of the small by the great, and on the unequal agreements that owed much more to the monopoly of power than to any true exchange between two well-matched partners. Too often, these were not even marriages of convenience. They were forced matches, consummated at the point of a shotgun need for financial support and the lifeblood flow of currency through a business.

Our response to these failed matches may be extraordinary but we should not be surprised.

It Took Three Hundred Days

Nor should we make the mistake of believing that our cold removal arises out of any natural indifference to the fate of figures much greater than ourselves. It’s true that the flea shows little concern for the good fortune or otherwise of the beast on which it makes its living but there are many examples of great and prosperous brands whose difficulties or passing would be greeted with real dismay by its customers. In a small number of cases, such a reaction can be more akin to grief at the loss of a close friend. This over-reaction may appear unreasonable or inappropriate but is based on a goodwill that’s earned, not bought.

And so we must return to first principles and build from there. In practice, this means something quite simple although not necessarily easy to do. It means that our fair exchange with our customer must become the ruling measure of everything we do and say in our business. As we begin to construct the frameworks and install the systems that support our business, we can ask of each plank and nail, of every plate and rivet, the deceptively simple question: Does this help or hurt my exchange with my customer?

Think about it. If we wish to build a business based on a fair exchange with our customer, then every action we take must add to the construction of that business and contribute to the value of that exchange. Otherwise, it’s either a mere adornment or a potentially fatal defect that will bring our business crashing down around our ears. Of course, sometimes it’s not as dramatic as that. Instead, we suffer the slow rot of destruction as the wormholes or rust of our neglect spread quietly but inevitably throughout the fabric of our business.

For The Timbers To Be Raised

So as we build, we must check constantly for soundness. This is accountability in the true sense of the word. When everyone in the business has the customer transaction as a ruling measure for action, then the business as a whole is purposeful and consistent in both word and deed. That is how brands work. The value of the exchange with the customer is underpinned by an organisation that moves and acts in uniform and speaks with one voice. The customer can begin to count on the business, whilst trust in both the offer and the people making it grows slowly but certainly.

In order for this to happen, it follows that everyone in the business must be clear about what the business does for its customers and how it does it. The role someone plays within the business must be defined first in terms of the part it plays in delivering on the customer exchange. Too often, job descriptions bear little relationship to the overall function of the business. It’s not enough that the operations manager simply manages operations or the financial controller holds the purse strings. In playing those roles, do they help or hurt the exchange with the customer?

Rewards and progress within the organisation must be achieved on the same basis. The links between what someone does in the back office and what the customer experiences out front must be obvious. The incentive must be there for every person working in the business or on the business to lift their head from what they’re doing and look the customer in the eye. Experience tells us that the breakdown of trust happens most easily in organisations where the left hand is unacquainted with the right hand, and where neither gets to shake the customer’s hand on a regular basis.

Seen For Miles Around

We know that being trustworthy is the right thing to do in terms of our responsibilities to our customer; but is there a business opportunity there too? As we build trust, can we confident that the market is truly crying out for it? After all, before the collapse it seemed that the market bought whatever shady deal was on offer and didn’t ask too many questions.

But even in these troubled times, we can be sure of one thing. In times of uncertainty, the market looks to those who stand squarely for something and act with conviction. Those brands that are built on the foundations of trust and customer care thrive in such conditions. As the charlatans fade into the shadows, businesses that relish the daylight can step forward confidently to meet their customers, look them in the eye and say: ‘How can we do business together?