Building customer trust in business: 9 tips from experts

September 26, 2022 | By Hayden Harrison

Like innovation, trust blossoms when companies prioritize it, develop strategies to build it, track metrics that can show them when and where to change course and then consistently apply those learnings over not just days and weeks but years and decades.

Trust, then, is the currency of innovation. And companies that invest in trust are in a very real sense also investing in innovation. But businesses sometimes misperceive which elements of trust their customers value most.

The latest Business Innovators Index from Mastercard and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services surveyed more than 1,800 business leaders and 10,000 consumers globally to understand their priorities when it comes trust and innovation. Three-quarters (75%) of consumers say trust in an organization is an important factor when deciding to buy a product or service. They rank issues such as “maintaining my data security and information privacy” (53%), “maintaining health and safety of customers” (32%) and an “organization’s transparency in its public communications” (32%) more highly than businesses think they do.

Eight in 10 executives say customer trust makes it easier to innovate. Resolving the disconnect between what customers want and what businesses do about it can kindle the kinds of innovation both are seeking. Here are nine tips for building — or rebuilding — trust, from leading executives and academics interviewed for the Business Innovators Index.

Understand your customers. “Start an open discussion with your customers, learn what is important to them, assess your capabilities and core competencies to figure out where you can make a difference and then work obsessively to deliver on those capabilities and set yourself apart from the competition,” says Andrea Sentimenti, group marketing and innovation director at Bormioli Pharma, a Parma, Italy-based manufacturer of pharmaceutical packaging.

Lean into purpose to deliver a positive impact. When customers and other stakeholders believe an organization is prioritizing the welfare of others, it reinforces the notion that the organization isn’t putting self-interest above all else. That selflessness can drive trust. “We really lean into our purpose, which recognizes that creating the world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today,” says Nicole Umana, global agile innovation human intelligence officer for Mars Inc.

Be transparent. Transparency helps show customers and other stakeholders that you’re acting in the way you’ve advertised — in other words, that you are authentic. This is important for customers, but, says Dirk Kruse, CEO of SAP Fioneer, transparency also is important for meeting talent needs. Employees and potential new hires are putting their careers in their employer’s hands, he explains, and want to understand the vision to work toward, the employer’s business model and how it’s executing on that model.

Build trust at every layer of the organization. “It’s OK for the CEO to stand up and say, ‘We will do this,’” says Richard Wright, behavioral science director at Unilever. “But enabling change and innovation requires that you drive trust throughout the organization.” Mark Buitenhek, global head of transaction services and global head of payments and cash management at ING Group, agrees. “If your employees trust you,” he says, “they’re more likely to exude confidence and conviction in what they’re doing, which will help build trust with customers and other stakeholders.”

“Building trust means engaging on the journey rather than looking for a one-time quick success. You need to be a partner, sitting at the table, listening and contributing to future solutions."
Dirk Kruse, CEO of SAP Fioneer

Don’t underestimate the softer components of trust, like integrity and empathy. As Frances Frei, professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, points out, empathy can be a foundational component of trust. If customers or employees don’t believe your organization has the capacity to understand or feel what they are experiencing, within their frame of reference, they will find it hard to believe that you have their bests interests at heart — feeding a skepticism that can erode trust.

Diagnose broken trust accurately before trying to rebuild it. When trust is broken, it is critical to figure out the reason — a breach of authenticity, a failure of logic, perhaps a lack of empathy — and then respond accordingly. “If you make an accurate diagnosis, you can layer on the appropriate prescription,” Frei says. “Otherwise, you may put in a lot of effort and actually make the problem worse.”

Position yourself as a partner, not a vendor. Positioning your organization as a partner of the customer, with skin in the game and a long-term interest in the customer’s success, demonstrates an alignment that can help build trust. This approach can be especially important for business-to-business organizations. “Building trust means engaging on the journey rather than looking for a one-time quick success,” Kruse says. “You need to be a partner, sitting at the table, listening and contributing to future solutions. That’s the basis for long-term partnerships and how we like to drive joint innovation projects with our clients.”

Treat building or rebuilding trust like any other operational challenge. Eight in 10 organizations have no trust assessment as part of either an established recruitment process or customer sentiment analysis. As with any business process, building trust requires planning, resources, measurable metrics, a willingness to correct course when something goes wrong and a sustained commitment. “Remove any notion that trust is like a Fabergé egg — so precious that if it is ever broken into a million pieces it can never be rebuilt,” Frei says. “Trust is far more durable and resilient. Treat it like every other operational problem you have.”

Never take trust for granted. Business leaders and academics universally agree that trust can take months or years to build but an instant to lose. Organizations that take trust for granted — who assume their long record of success makes them immune to distrust — risk losing touch with their customers, employees and other stakeholders and chipping away at the trust that reinforces their relationship, Buitenhek says. “Trust is something you need to work on every day.”

Hayden Harrison, director, Creative Studio, Mastercard