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The 8 essential elements of trust in business

Shut your eyes, just for a moment. Imagine a world where you trusted everyone. What would be different?  Cars would be permanently unlocked.  Windows left wide open. If someone told you they were going to do something, you could rely on them – entirely. No need to check up. If you asked for feedback, someone would give it to you straight.  Life would be so much easier.  And you wouldn’t waste time and energy second-guessing whether people had told the truth.

Trust is one of the fundamental building blocks of successful companies. And yet, it’s often overlooked.  When businesses start, they’re usually run by a small group of ‘A-Players’.  They don’t need systems.  Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and they’re moving at pace – like a special forces team.  As the company grows, rules and systems are often introduced.  Why are they needed?  Because a lack of trust has started to creep in. People have stopped doing the things they said they were going to do.

This is corrosive and needs to be tackled – fast.  It’s the root of many problems. You may think you have an issue with sales but, assuming your product is well positioned, it may be because you’re not trusted. Your salespeople turn up in front of customers, but they’re not coming over as believable or trustworthy. Or you may have too many ‘diminishers’ in your business.  According to Liz Wiseman’s book, ‘Multipliers’, 70% of people are unknowingly diminishing those around them.  This may be unintentional, but it all boils down to a lack of trust and understanding.

In a recent conversation with David Horsager for the  Melting Pot podcast, we delved deeply into the nature of trust.  He’s dedicated most of his life to researching this topic, and I love his empirical, evidence-based approach.  His new book, ‘The Trusted Leader,’ is a great ‘how-to’ for CEOs and business leaders looking to build trust in their organisations. And his model is more nuanced than any I’ve used before in my coaching. David’s a man who likes his alliteration.  According to him, there are eight pillars of trust – and they all begin with ‘C’! 

1. Clarity

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is first for a reason.  People don’t trust the complicated or the ambiguous. They do trust the simple and straightforward. And yet, so many companies create marketing messages that are unclear.  Sometimes, they’re total gibberish.  They’re not rooted in the way the customer thinks.  They’re based on how the company sees itself. 

Here’s a great example. We were working with a distribution client last week, using Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas tool.  Thinking from their customer’s perspective, we worked out their pain and identified the features of their product that would relieve this.  The client currently talks about 24/7 support but realised this means nothing to their customers.  Instead, they needed to understand that their customers didn’t want to lie in bed at night, wondering where things were. Far better to frame it in this kind of language.  ‘Know where your goods are 24/7’.

This is the value of segmentation and niching. You’re able to go deep into a customer’s lived experience to understand their problems. Get this right, and you’ll find the floodgates of sales start to open.  When I look at clients who are growing like weeds, they all have clarity around their core customer. They know they serve this customer exceptionally well, better than anyone else in their market. The customer doesn’t have to work out whether they’re selling something they need. Because they speak in their language, it’s crystal clear and they trust them more for it.

Clarity in this context also extends to your employees.  They need clarity of expectation and, once they have this, trust will follow. The first question of the Gallup Q12 measure of staff engagement is, ‘I know what’s expected of me at work.’ Get this right and you’ll avoid so many difficult conversations.  

2. Compassion

As David puts it so succinctly, we trust those who care beyond themselves.  If you get the feeling that someone doesn’t care about you, you’re unlikely to trust them.  There’s been some great research into the most successful commanders in Afghanistan. The army units with the highest levels of trust were the ones commanded by leaders who cared about the welfare of their troops. This variable made a massive difference.

From a business perspective, you see this reflected in the rise of purpose-led businesses. It’s one of the reasons they’re so successful.  Take TOMS footwear.  They donate a pair of shoes to disadvantaged children for every pair bought.  This compassionate approach has seen them grow exponentially. Similarly, a key driver for one of our clients, Pax8, is the rejuvenation of cities. Instead of cost minimising, they deliberately locate their offices in cities where they know they’ll have a positive impact on the local economy.

If you’re doing good, socially responsible work, don’t hide it.  Sometimes I think clients are embarrassed to talk about it.  It’s not bragging – just make it clear what’s important to you and why you do it.  Sharing this stuff in a matter of fact way can do a lot to build trust from customers and employees.

3. Character

How often do you do the right thing, even when it’s hard?  That’s a sign of character and it’s a big factor in trust.   Politicians are a good example of how not to do this.  They’ve become the least trusted profession in the UK according to Ipsos MORI.  Why?  Because they repeatedly duck responsibility. Too often in recent years, there have been serious failings with no consequence. Resignation-level offences that are brushed under the carpet. Leaders cling to power and this erodes trust. Conversely, if companies take a stand over something – not working with certain industries even though they might be profitable – they increase respect and loyalty.  These ethical decisions are a sign of character.

When I was MD of IT Lab, we hired people who’d worked at other MSPs.  Their worst habit when they arrived was blaming BT when there was a service failure. It used to drive me nuts, this attitude of ‘It’s not our fault.  BT let us down’.  We had to train it out of them.  Our clients didn’t care whose fault it was. Their contract was with us, not BT.  If you encourage your employees to lie about failure, you create an environment of distrust.  I know there’s a fear that customers will think you’re incapable if you ‘fess up to a mistake. But if you encourage a culture of lies, don’t be surprised when people start stealing from the stationery cupboard. At the core of your business is a lack of character.

4. Competency

This one’s simple.  If you can evidence competency in the things you say you can do, people will trust you.  I know companies that write white papers or case studies to showcase their credential – that’s all good, but it’s really time-consuming.  And it sometimes comes over as corporate bullsh*t. Way more effective is to have a raw, uncut video of a client saying, ‘This is me. This was my problem and this is how these guys solved it’.  Video works so much better than the written word. 

5. Commitment

Are you committed in the face of adversity?  Can you show you stay the course, doing the right thing over a long period of time?  Being committed to a cause, whether it’s climate change, relieving educational poverty or increasing diversity will make your business more trustworthy.  This isn’t the same as compassion. You’re committed to something that’s beyond you but you care passionately about.   

On a personal level, when I think about the people I’ve hired in the past, they’re often members of sports teams.  That’s because they’re committed beyond themselves. They turn up every Tuesday and Thursday through rain and snow to practice. And this doesn’t just show commitment to their team.  If they didn’t turn up, there would be no League.  Their commitment is to the whole idea of the sport and what it represents. 

6. Connection

It’s interesting.  When I think about the companies I’ve run and the clients that I coach, they seem to go through an evolutionary arc.  Initial success is often down to the heroic efforts of individuals – the lone maverick in sales who wins the deals, for example.  But as they start to scale, this doesn’t work so well. Ultimately, to grow, companies need A-Players who can connect and collaborate.  Yes, they’re individually talented but, more importantly, they can work together and put their trust in each other. 

After all, the reason that homo-sapiens out-muscled the neanderthals wasn’t because they were stronger or had bigger brains.  It was down to social organisation and sharing of knowledge.  They were better together.   

This connection, or lack of it, is one of the biggest impacts of COVID. It’s just harder when everyone’s remote. We’ve lost the random interactions that happen all the time in the office. The serendipitous connections that drive opportunities to work together.  Humans aren’t designed to be apart and it’s much more difficult to build trust remotely. 

7. Contribution

If you deliver results, you’re trusted. Simple eh?  So, from a marketing perspective, you need to evidence this without bragging. ‘We get these results for companies that look like you.’   So often, this evidence is unclear. Or companies take too broad a view, ‘We do everything for everybody.’  You can’t evidence results in that context. This is about being specific.

Similarly, you need to make it easy for employees to evidence their contribution. It’s really important – doing this will build trust in them and their ability. OKRs and KPIs can be invaluable.  If people know they’re working towards one or two targets weekly, they’ll get a sense of achievement when they hit them.  Not only will this boost perceptions of trust in their ability, but they’ll also feel happier.  Win-win!  Create a framework so that your employees can demonstrate their success.

8. Consistency

It may seem boring, but doing the same thing, day in, day out will increase trust.  Consistency is the only way to build a brand and a customer base.  Take my coaching business as an example.  Every Friday we upload the blog and send the newsletter.  There’s a new podcast every Tuesday.  Without fail.  Even during holidays and Christmas, we’ve kept this up. This is how you create a reputation.

David made a great observation when we were chatting about this. He said people will even trust people who are late as long as they are consistently late!  It’s the consistency that’s more important. This made me smile.  One of my clients is always reliably 10 minutes late to our meetings.  I know I can make a cup of tea and a sandwich in the time I’m waiting for him.  So when he turned up on time last week, it was really quite unnerving!


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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