Looking Carefully at Trust
November 24, 2003 at 16:00
Janelle Barlow, Ph.D. President, TMI US
No company owns the brand position on "trust." Michael
Edwardson with the University of New South Wales made that
strong statement at a recent SOCAP Conference (Society for
Consumer Affairs Professionals) in Sydney, Australia. That is,
there is no one company whose brand identity is known for
"trusting our customers," say as Macintosh is renowned for its
design, or Southwest Airlines is noted for its very funny
flight attendants, or McDonald's is recognized for its speed
Yet we all acknowledge that trust is a requirement for
genuine long-lasting relationships. If you don't trust someone
and they don't trust you, you probably don't have a close
relationship. Trust is critical between friends. It's
essential in marriages or close relationships. It's also good
in business endeavors.
Businesses around the world talk about "long-term customer
relationships," yet so few of them are ready to look at what
is required to put trust in that equation.
Lack of trust manifests itself in large and small ways.
With issues of significant ramification, it is reasonable that
organizations protect themselves by verifying facts. Trust
should not mean that we can walk into a bank, attest to
financial conditions about ourselves, and expect clerks, loan
officers, or managers to take our word on faith.
Customers don't expect complete trust, and in fact, feel
more secure knowing that critical information is checked. We
like it that we have to show some proof of identification to
be able to withdraw money from our accounts. Otherwise, it
would mean that anyone could claim to be us and steal our
Where businesses can make a difference, however, is on less
essential but personal issues of trust.
To wit: This past month I was in the United Kingdom and
stayed at a Marriott Hotel at Heathrow Airport for two nights.
This was definitely not my first stay at a Marriott; I carry
their loyalty card and have spent hundreds of nights in their
I visited the lobby shop to buy a Diet Coke, and
unfortunately, inadvertently brought Euros with me instead of
English pounds. The woman in the lobby shop refused my Euros
because all I had was coins and no bills. I also did not bring
my identification card that the hotel issues with the room
number printed on it. As a result, she would not allow me to
charge one bottle of Coke to my room. "Policy, you know."
The hotel is large, and rather than return to my room to
get the I.D., I went to the nearby front desk reception area
and asked for a reissue of the room identification. I
indicated that their charge policy at the lobby shop seemed a
bit extreme to me. The man representing the Marriott told me
that "I wouldn't believe how many people cheat by giving their
wrong room numbers at the gift shop."
This engaged me, as by implication, I was possibly one of
those people who would cheat to get a Diet Coke. In his
presentation to SOCAP, Michael Edwardson also talked about
customer satisfaction. He maintains that as an indicator of
what customers like, satisfaction is meaningless, since
according to Dr. Edwardson, we have taught customers to say
they are satisfied. It simply means that they aren't
dissatisfied. When they are dissatisfied, they are negatively
engaged. That is, they feel personally insulted, embarrassed,
I was engaged/miffed and slighly embarassed by the
implication of my thieving tendencies. So I pointed out the
danger of a policy that attempts to protect the security of
guests by giving them room keys that have no room numbers
written on them. All of this flies in the face of requiring
that you carry your hotel I.D. with you, which clearly has the
room number written on it. Marriott front desk clerk to me:
"You should carry your room I.D. with you at all times."
This is a security system that is reinforced by not saying
the room numbers out-loud when guests check in so no one can
learn where they are staying. Furthermore, every time someone
checks into a room, the key codes are changed, so last week's
guests can't get into your room. And customers appreciate
this. I gave up in the face of the implication of being
someone the Hotel doesn't trust not to cheat about Diet Cokes
and a policy that clearly runs right into a security system.
The latter issue is more important to me. But because the
Hotel doesn't trust me not to cheat when charging small items
at the Lobby shop, my security is compromised by being forced
to carry something with my hotel room number clearly written
on it. This, incidentally, is the Hotel's problem. They have
to figure out a way to protect themselves and not insult me
about a small personal trust issue. They failed.
In fact the hotel would do better on trust issues to come
up with a system that rewards repeat guests, such as notifying
all outlets when a Marriott loyalty card holder is staying in
the hotel. Or they could mark their room keys with a sign
indicating I am a frequent Marriott guest. At a minimum, the
lobby shop clerk could have called the front desk, exchanged
some information about me, and gotten approval to charge the
diet Coke. After all, I assume that is what the cafe did when
I charged my lunch to my room. They didn't even ask to see my
identity card, so they must have checked with the front desk.
Every business should look closely at the issue of trust.
Decisions need to be made when trust can be assumed (small
things), and when trust must be verified (big things). And
when the customer says, "What's the matter? Don't you trust
me?" it's a signal that the customer thinks you have stepped
over the boundary on trust. Embarrassment is a mistake not
easily forgiven by customers or guests of any business!
Remember, it's a matter of building strong relationships.
You may be my friend and ask something of me that requires
checking, it will probably be okay for our friendship if you
check. However, if I demand to go through your luggage when
you leave my house after a visit to see what you might have
filched from my house, we no longer have a relationship.
With businesses, most customers think that all the words
about relationship building and trust are basically
meaningless. With careful thought that could be changed.
Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.
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