Do you believe in trust at first sight?

August 17, 2021  |  Charles Spinosa PH.D.

The way that we develop and understand trust has significant implications for the way that we market products and services to our customers. Discover what we can learn about trust from behaviours at the Mexican cement industry and Chaucer – and why we rely on Big Data at our peril.

Like love at first sight, the idea of trust, at first sight, is not very fashionable. We like to believe that trust comes from repeated, reliable performance. But we’ve all experienced a sense of trustworthiness from certain people and certain brands at our first encounter. It’s not because their reputations preceded them but because something just clicked. Intellectual fashion dictates that it was a cognitive bias that clicked. Or, perhaps, you like certain behaviours or personality types. These suppositions are simply not right. Though not fashionable, we are still aware of virtues, and we see them in people quickly. We see the wise person quickly and likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, and the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight. We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire.

In fact, we trust at first sight frequently. Have you ever walked into a store for the first time and found it feels great? Consider those retailers who encourage customers to try on the products or have showrooms for testing them. Consider other retailers whose employees are clearly having a great time when you walk into the store. In the first case, the retailer appeals to the virtue of exploration. If you admire this virtue, you trust the store. In the second, the virtues on display are those of an entertaining host or hostess. If you want your brand to become trustworthy, your team needs to cultivate admirable virtues in your employees and business and make them visible.

Mexicans and cement

We worked with a large cement manufacturer for more than 20 years. It wanted to sell more cement to poorer Mexicans living in the grey economy. These Mexicans generally don’t have enough money to purchase bags of cement. The obvious idea was to extend credit to them, but that didn’t work because they didn’t feel obliged to pay the money back to a large company. We realised that we could encourage them to form groups in which they pooled their money together, and one person every month got to buy cement. That created a bond, and everyone in the group felt honour-bound to pay their share. It worked really well. The company sold three times more cement, and the customers were happy because they were adding rooms to their houses much faster and at a much lower cost. They received the cement just in time, and it didn’t spoil.

But then a new CEO came in and decided he didn’t want to be associated with this old customary form of group finance. He wanted his customers to think like him and buy cement as he would, using modern credit. The upshot? The customers were disappointed, the company sold less cement; trust was lost.

Anticipating anxiety
Building customer trust is also about anticipating customer anxiety. The best brands are very good at anticipating that anxiety and doing everything they can to remove it. Take Amazon. It’s an online everything store. You can find anything there, and its prices are low. But while that’s fine if you want to buy books or CDs, it’s not so good if you’re buying clothes or diamond necklaces, because you want to try the clothes on or see the jewellery for yourself. That inability creates anxiety – an anxiety that springs directly from the business model. Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to change his online business model, but he does want to remove the anxiety. So he spends a lot of money making sure that things get to customers very quickly, communication is strong, and everything is very easy to return.

I’ve been polling clients and asking them: “What do you find so cool about Amazon?” And they say it’s the convenience with which they can return things, which is sort of crazy. They overlook the selection and the prices, which are what got them to Amazon in the first place. But customers appreciate brands that work to overcome the anxiety bred by their business model.

Your customers are not you

Organisations can be very imaginative when it comes to data profiling. They’ll come up with different types of customers and draw pictures of them and list their personality types. But it’s interesting how often these profiles look very similar to the marketing people who have drawn them up. They’re usually just five different versions of the marketing manager at five stages in his or her life. It’s very difficult to create meaningful profiles of customers from data without projecting our own assumptions and preferences onto them. Don’t underestimate the power of your desire to see your customers like yourself.

The Franklin’s Tale
One way of helping to develop the skill of seeing a radical difference is to read literature from moments in history when people were quite different from us. I remember getting students to read Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale. In the story, a knight falls in love with a lady, and she puts him through various courtship ordeals to prove his love. I would ask students: “Why, ultimately, does she fall in love with him and marry him?” And they would say: “Well the guy was doing all these things for her, and she saw he would make a good partner. Deep down he must really have loved her.”

But there is a clear line in the poem where the narrator says, she fell in love with him because she “pitied” him. I would point out that line and the students would say: “You can’t take that line seriously. That’s not what love is about.’ I would say: “Well how about if you do take it seriously? How about if you think that there is now a huge difference between how we see and feel love and how people did in the Middle Ages?” Then you begin to see that love in the Middle Ages was a quite different animal from what we have today. In those days, a woman was made to feel like a goddess, and the knight, as a lover, would have to humiliate himself before the goddess. There were strong hierarchical and religious aspects to love, and those aspects are gone today.

If you see that difference between then and now, you also begin to see there are various versions of love, even now. That is essential if you want to sell something to lovers. There are partnership lovers, companionate lovers, convenience lovers, and even a few romantic lovers left. That’s how we need to think about customer profiles. And that’s how we need to think about building customer trust. Show virtues. Address anxiety. Appeal to radical differences.



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