Why Customers Don’t Trust You (and How to Make Sure They Do)


January 31, 2017

by Carla Johnson

Our growing distrust of the news, our governments, the companies for which we work and society in general isn’t in our imagination.

That’s the message, loud and clear, from the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual measurement of trust that Edelman Intelligence, a global insight and analytics consultancy, has conducted since 2000.

Rich with insights, the report hones in on an aspect of particular importance to marketers: We’ve moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or choosing the job to which we say “yes.” We’re now at the point where trust has become the deciding factor under which a society can function.

As trust in institutions erodes, the basic assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity traditionally upheld by “the system” are no longer taken for granted. We observe deep disillusion on both the left and the right, who share opposition to globalization, innovation, deregulation, and multinational institutions.

  1. The trust implosion isn’t just about regular people who believe the system is rigged toward the rich and powerful. We’ve reached a point at which close to half of the “informed public” – adults 25-64 with a college education, in the top 25 percent of income, and consume large amounts of media – have lost faith in the system. These, my friends, are the people on the other end of your buying process.
  2. There’s a lack of belief in leaders who damage the stature of the companies for which they work. We now see a huge divide between the modest trust in institutions of business and government and a pitifully low level of confidence in their leaders. The credibility of CEOs fell by 12 points this year to 37 percent globally. “A person like yourself” is now as credible as an academic or technical expert, and far more credible than a CEO or government official, implying that the primary axis of communication is now horizontal or peer-to-peer, evidence of dispersion of authority to friends and family. In other words, how well you inform and train your employees matters more than ever. These are the people that others trust when speaking on behalf of your brand.
  3. Government struggles are at the head of their distrust. During the wake of the financial crisis, we saw government at the savior. Today people see government as incompetent, corrupt and divided. We can no longer let the bureaucracy of government soil the rest of the business landscape. Either it’s time we demand more from government if we’re on the outside, or push for big change – and carefully communicate it – if we’re on the inside.
  4. Media is now perceived as politicized, unable to meet its reporting obligations due to economic pressures, and following social media rather than creating the agenda. For example, technology has allowed the creation of media echo chambers, so that a person can reinforce, rather than debate, viewpoints. In fact, 59 percent of respondents would believe a search engine over a human editor. It is a world of self-reference, as respondents are nearly four times more likely to ignore information that supports a position that they do not believe in.

What this means for marketers

We’re in dangerous waters. We no longer function under a reliable government that can easily set understandable – and respected – expectations. We have lost the objectivity and shared experience of media as a watchdog on institutions. Non-governmental organizations are focused on issues of the most vulnerable but are ineffective advocates for the dispossessed middle class. Business needs to play the role of the solid retaining wall that stops the uncontrollable storm surge, to fill the void left by the other three institutions in global governance.

There are numerous, significant gaps where people want information that educates them and eases their mind. Interesting, the level of trust that people place in owned media is one of the few areas where trust is growing.

Percent trust change in each source for general news and information from 2012 to 2017

Social Media (41%)                          -3
Media institute (43%)                     -3
Owned media (43%)                       +2
Online-only media (51%)               +5
Traditional media (57%)                 -5
Search engines (64%)                     +3

Business: The last frontier of trust

Businesses have to move beyond their traditional roles of business as actor and innovator; governments as referee and regulator; media as watchdog; and NGOs as social conscience. Not only are the stakes high for business, but so are the expectations that it will act. Of those who are uncertain about whether the system is working for them, it is business that they trust the most.

Businesses need to start first with the adage, “first do no harm.” In a climate in which the system is perceived to be failing, the expectations of business are far greater. The three most important attributes for building trust are –

  1. Treating employees well. The importance of engaging with employees is further supported by the finding that they are the most credible spokespeople on every aspect of a company’s business, even financial earnings.
  2. Offering high-quality products and services. Buyers spend months, and in some cases years, coming to a decision. The worst thing you can do is jeopardize that relationship by selling them something that isn’t meant to last.
  3. Listening to customers. It’s no longer “for the people,” it’s now imperative that we create “with the people,” placing people squarely at the center. The new model calls for institutions to consider all stakeholders before acting – reflecting the trust-building attributes of treating employees well and listening to customers.

To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people – and the addressing of their fears – at the center of everything they do.

Download the Executive Summary.

Download the full report.

Photo credit: Flickr user Jan Mennens

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.