As a community journalist who has covered everything from school levies to murder trials, the most important tool in my storytelling kit wasn’t my reporter’s notebook, my digital recorder or even my video camera. I wish I could say it was an extraordinary set of skills, but it wasn’t that, either. It was, in fact, the glue that held everything together. When used correctly, it opened the most ironclad doors. If damaged, it could take months to repair.
The key, of course, is trust. It’s the foundation for all strong relationships, including those between companies and clients. Gone are the days of Mad Men advertising tactics, when companies could spin half-truths and flat-out lies into effective campaigns. Those were the days before FDA warnings about the dangers of smoking, and, of course, before customers had a wealth of data and real-time reviews at their fingertips.
In today’s hyper-interactive world, savvy consumers see right through the smoke and mirrors. Businesses need to get back to the basics of building trust as they tell their story and interact with customers. These building blocks form the foundation:
We know a lack of honesty destroys personal relationships—the downward spiral of the marriage of Mad Men’s womanizing lead character is a classic example. In business, the proliferation of product information and instantaneous communication has empowered customers to think critically before they buy. It has also made it nearly impossible for businesses to hide poor customer service or systemic failures behind terse statements. This creates fear for businesses that aren’t prepared and opportunities for those able to effectively communicate amid a crisis.
A case study of how three brands—Nestle, Dominos and United Airlines—responded to public relations nightmares last year shows the company with the most proactive approach recovered the most quickly, according to SDL Social Intelligence. The crisis at Dominos, involving two snotty employees who filmed themselves violating health code violations, was the most cringe-worthy of the three, but an apology video and legal action against the offending employees went a long way in regaining customer trust.
When a video goes viral or an offensive tweet is heard around the world, a business must respond immediately, acknowledge the wrongdoing and show how it’s taking action to make things right. The worst thing to do is ignore it. Look for opportunities to provide reassurance even after the crisis has passed. If you were hit with an environmental or safety violation six months ago, explain in detail what you’ve done since then to ensure it won’t happen again. If poor customer service was the culprit, talk about the new training program you’ve implemented.
It’s one thing to be open and honest with the public, but unless you are truly responding to your customers’ needs, all this talk of transparency is just lip service. Being responsive means giving your customers ample ways to relay their questions or concerns and addressing them as quickly and completely as possible.
With social media making your brand more accessible than ever, a “quick” response no longer means three to five business days—it means in real time, according to a recent customer survey by Hubshout. Businesses may be surprised to hear that 72 percent of participants expected their customer service question or complaint to be answered within an hour, and many said they have more negative feelings toward a brand when that doesn’t happen. More than half of those surveyed said response times should be the same on nights and weekends as it is during normal business hours. Only about a third of those customers who complained on social media felt their issues were resolved quickly and effectively.
With the top 100 U.S. retailers taking, on average, a full day to respond on Facebook and about 11 hours to respond on Twitter, that’s a lot of missed opportunities. Businesses can take advantage of these opportunities by designating a specific person to monitor social media, even if that’s not that employee’s full-time function. Anticipate more concerns during peak times—like when you’re launching a new product or service—and be prepared with appropriate responses. Make sure you have a backup plan for coverage during weekends and vacation days.
We can’t trust someone until we know where they stand on something that matters to us. Our best relationships grow from common ground. As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. The quote is more often used in leadership seminars, but the principle fits just as well into business strategies and marketing campaigns.
You already know what makes your company a leader in the field, but the reasons behind what you do should be just as prominently displayed on your website. Talk about your values and how your work contributes to the greater good. Knowing your customers and what they care about is just as important.
Just as we want to know what to expect from those closest to us, potential customers want to see you consistently fulfilling your promises—even if they haven’t bought anything from you yet. If you shared information on your company’s blog and your readers learned something from it, they’re going to expect more juicy nuggets of information to follow. If you don’t get around to updating that blog again for several months, they’re going to wonder what happened.
The same is true if someone asks a question that goes unanswered. If they can’t consistently depend on you for basic information, how can they be sure you’re going to come through when they need you the most? A 2012 study by Peppers & Rogers Group on customer trust found 32 percent of participants cited a company’s ability to deliver what it promised as the most important factor in its trustworthiness. This was followed by doing the right thing for customers (26 percent) and apologizing and correcting its mistakes (15 percent.)
Being tenable means you are an authoritative source in your field. You have years of experience and data to back up what you say. This is where you can rely on your experts in all areas. Take a close look at the experience that makes up your company. Are you doing enough to showcase all the talents in your workplace, including your innovative web designer? You can use Google+ to position yourself as an expert sharing your knowledge. Marketing psychology expert Martin Shervington offers advice on how to build trust on Google+ without unknowingly falling into any of the “weaseling” tactics that can erode it.
Even if you think your business is trustworthy, do what any good journalist does—check the facts. Take yourself through every step potential customers would encounter. Can they see honest reviews about you that aren’t written by a third party? Would they encounter any surprises in fine print that aren’t clearly explained? Are you proactively addressing questions or concerns?
Fast Company offers a good checklist of questions that can help you critique your trustworthiness. If you’re willing to be honest—with yourself and with your customers—you’ll build lasting relationships and, ultimately, your own army of ambassadors.
photo credit: The Ancient Brit.