Jul 24, 2020

Read Time 11 min

Seven trust-building tactics to increase customer loyalty


Did you know there are more research papers on defining trust than any other sociological concept?

That’s according to Rachel Botsman, a world-renowned trust expert, trust fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, and author of the bestseller Who Can You Trust?, which provides an exploration of how technology is transforming trust.

As the adage goes: “Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.”

It’s also hard to define as its meaning has long been debated.

Botsman contends that most definitions of trust are too rational, describing trust focally as an assessment of risk while neglecting our human nature.

Instead, Botsman offers up this explanation: “Trust is quite literally a bridge between the known and the unknown, and that’s why my definition of trust is so simple: Trust is a confident relationship with the unknown.”

Image Source: Trust-Thinkers by Rachel Botsman, Medium  

The problem is that we, as humans, don’t like the unknown. Facing the unknown makes us vulnerable, which opens us up to the risk of feeling shame – something we avoid at all costs.

But vulnerability is necessary to grow trust. It’s part of our passage to the other side.

“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome,” writes Brené Brown in Dare to Lead.

Trust says despite the possibility of disappointment and loss, I’ll take the leap.

“Trust leap happens when we take a risk to do something new or in a fundamentally different way,” says Botsman.” They allow us to “show how trust is a conduit for new ideas to travel.”

Trust is the momentum that propels change.

Customer Success as an agent of change: why trust matters

Customer Success is often the conduit for change – whether you’re getting a customer to adopt your product, change their existing processes, test an untried strategy, or expand their account.

When there’s a deficit of trust, it causes team inertia and an unwillingness to evolve. Customers don’t value your word, which as consultants, is how you effect change to drive success.

People get stuck in what Botsman calls “the sea of uncertainty,” where she says you hear common objections such as “I liked the old system much better” and “I have so much to do, and now I’m being asked to change X as well!”

As favorers of the familiar, change is perceived as our adversary, concealing our vulnerability as a weapon. So, when our trust lacks momentum, we fall short of making the leap and instead wade and wallow in uncertainty.

Botsman explains that the key to combat this resistance is to reinforce, then repeat again and again, the “why” and benefits behind the change.

“People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it,” writes Simon Sinek in “Start with Why” – the basis for his famed TED Talk.

By explaining your thought process, intentions, and reasoning, Jostle says you give others “a window into who you are” and “a grounding for trusting what you do because they can understand why you’re doing it.”

From fluff to formula: what is trust?

Defining trust can feel like a bunch of fluff talk, but according to Botsman, there’s an exact formula for trustworthiness that comprises four traits divided by methods and motives:

Capability (how you do things)

  • Competence: “Do you have the skills, knowledge, time and resources to do a particular task or job?
  • Reliability: “Can people depend on you to keep the promises and commitments you make?”

Character (why you do things)

  • Integrity: “Do you say what you mean and mean what you say?”
  • Empathy: “Do you care about the other person’s interests as well as your own?”

Using these traits as a guide, we’ll share some of our favorite tactics to engender customer trust.

Seven Customer Success trust-building tactics

Capability (competency + reliability)

For some companies, the below tactics are the exception rather than the rule. If you want customers to view you as competent and reliable, you must always follow these examples. Some of this advice is fairly ubiquitous but it bears repeating when companies fail to get the basics right.

1: Set clear meeting objectives and agendas.

Pre-meeting preparation goes a long way with earning customers’ respect and trust. It is evident when a vendor wings a meeting or gives a rinse-and-repeat spiel. Your customers are not obtuse – seeming scattered, rambling, and putting the onus of conversation on the customer are dead giveaways of poor planning. Respect your customers time. Ill preparedness and lack of personalization translate to “You’re not a priority to me” and show you’re incapable of managing time or this relationship.

2: Infuse value into every interaction.

I subscribe to a slew of newsletters. It’s so many that most get unopened and filed away in an ever-growing inbox folder to be read at a later date (aka never). There are a few notable exceptions, which no matter how busy my day is, I always make time to read. These are the newsletters that have proven themselves to me time and time again. They deliver value each time they show up in my inbox and ask for my attention – not only when I first sign up or when they have something to sell me. I trust that if I give up my time to them, the reward will outweigh the cost, and I’ll get something beneficial in return.

But when you don’t consistently deliver value to your customers, you become unwanted spam and white noise – the proverbial CSM who cries QBR. You lose your customers’ trust, and eventually, you get ignored and shelved.

Tip: At the start of each week, choose two value-adds to share with customers. Customer Success hosts many recurring calls, so if every week you offer customers at least two meaningful pieces of advice about your product that they may not be aware of, you help build their confidence in you. Always demonstrate value to earn customer trust.

3: Follow up with a customer after a meeting.

There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Even when there are no outstanding items from a customer call, you should still send a quick two-sentence meeting summary. This simple action shows that you were fully present and actively paying attention during your time together and want to ensure the team stays on the same page. And when you do explicitly say you’ll follow up with a customer, always follow up, no matter how small or inconsequential the matter – and always in a timely fashion. Botsman says that whether we think we can depend on someone comes down to two things: time (responsiveness) and consistent behaviors over time.

To earn customer trust, you must build a framework and commit to it to deliver greater consistency and value. “Our key tip to remaining consistent is to follow a process – consistent activities deliver consistent results,” writes Yesware. Build these tactics into your everyday workflows and stress accountability. As Bruce Springsteen put it “Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.”

Character (integrity + empathy)

The capability traits discussed above are easier to define and assess as they reflect traditional “hard” skills. But their companion character traits – integrity and empathy – are more elusive in a business world that often glorifies efficiency over ethics. Make sure you market your character, and not just your capabilities, to earn customer trust.

4: Admit when you don’t know.

The know-it-alls: those who always have an answer and are never wrong, ever. We rarely enjoy interacting with them in our personal or work life, so why do we put self-centered perfection on a pedestal instead of idolizing meaningful progress?

“Acknowledging what you don’t know or aren’t sure about not only makes you more relatable, but also makes you appear even more competent and confident: You’ve got nothing to hide, and you know plenty—just not everything,” explains The Muse in their article on the power of “I don’t know.” “Besides, there’s no better way to get others invested in your success than by making them part of the story and allowing them to help.”

The Muse also points out how not seeking answers or asking questions is an especially dangerous tendency for entrepreneurs: “[W]ho spend the majority of their professional lives plunging into the unknown and exploring uncharted territory.”

As an emerging industry, customer success draws similar parallels when it comes to their frequent run-ins with firsts – whether it’s in how to handle new customer situations, their own internal operations, or a pandemic. To grow as a customer success professional, you need to get comfortable with fessing up when you don’t know and seeking solutions. When you pretend to have all the answers, or knowingly give a partially accurate response, you do both your customer and yourself a disservice.

There’s shame in lying, but courage in admitting you don’t know.

5: Share your mistakes and challenges.

In the same vein of being open about not knowing an answer, you can make yourself more relatable by being open about your experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’re facing an internal problem, don’t be afraid to ask your customers if they’ve encountered something similar. If they have, chances are they’ll be willing to share their learnings. If they haven’t, they’ll still respect your candidness – and according to the Pratfall Effect, they’ll like you more for it.

The Pratfall Effect is the tendency for likeability to increase or decrease after an individual makes a mistake, depending on the individual’s perceived ability to perform well in a general sense.

The last part is an important dependency. As Quartz warns “The Pratfall Effect has a multiplicative effect rather than a purely positive one. It makes strong brands stronger, but weak brands weaker.” They also add that it works especially well when competitors’ positioning is heavy on the hyperbole.

EverydayPysch gives an example of the Pratfall Effect by recalling when well-known and respected actor Jennifer Lawrence fell up the stage stairs on the way to accept an Oscar.

“Throughout our days, we constantly compare ourselves to others, but comparing ourselves to someone we believe is better than us, often lowers our self-esteem or incites envy,” says EverydayPsych. “However, when this ‘superior’ individual makes a blunder, it helps to lower our evaluation of them and make them seem more similar to us.”

Lest we forget, celebrities are mere mortals like the rest of us.

In a brand context, Quartz explains the business benefits of the effect: “Admitting weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims more believable. Further to that, the best taglines harness the trade-off effect. We know from bitter experience that we don’t get anything for free in life. By admitting a weakness, a brand credibly establishes a related positive attribute.” They add that when a brand is truthful about its flaws, it can “persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas.”

Buffer, a major SaaS company known for its radical transparency (like publishing employee salaries online), openly flaunts its failings to benefit others experiencing similar problems. Take a look at some of their blogs from over the years, which even cover sensitive topics such as diversity and revenue. 

As big fans of this summarization, Buffer shares  Sparktoro founder Rand Fishkin’s outlook on transparency:

“Will sharing this bring value to my company?” 👈that’s marketing
“Will sharing this bring value to others, even if it doesn’t benefit me/my company?” 👈that’s transparency
I don’t particularly care for the former. I’m all in on the latter.

— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) August 13, 2018

Note: Botsman warns that transparency is not a cure-all for fixing trust – especially when it comes to remedying data privacy issues from today’s prevailing tech goliaths. You can hear more from Botsman on the topic in this Wired Live talk. For the record, Botsman isn’t against transparency, but makes a strong point that when we demand more transparency, we actually give up more trust by reducing our need for it.

6: Practice candor.

We’ve all experienced those cringy situations at retail stores where you try on clothes and the salesperson tells you how amazing you look, even though you know the outfit you’re temporarily donning looks like a flaming heap of trash. It’s in those moments – when said salesperson tells you only what they think you want to hear – that trust is lost. After being subjected to this fake flattery, you reflexively shoot down any item they attempt to recommend or upsell to you, regardless of if it’s something you may really like or need.

We’re subjected to shams like this all the time – where people prioritize selling over helping and honesty. It feels calculated and disingenuous because it is. You lose integrity when you only aim to please and profit, especially during points of sale or when customers confide in you.

“The client needs to trust and rely on you as an expert. Therefore, even though it may be uncomfortable, you should avoid simply telling the client what you think they want to hear or holding back your true opinion. Be honest and upfront (MBO Partners, 2018),” advises Positive Psychology.

Tip: Here are two highly recommended reads on candor: Radical Candor by former Google and Apple executive Kim Scott, which claims that be a good boss, you have to Care Personally at the same time that you Challenge Directly, and Lying by neuroscientist Sam Harris, which delves into the ever-tempting “white lie” we habitually tell to spare discomfort.

7: Be generous.

Your generosity – or selfishness – can be a sign of your trustworthiness. We distrust people who are mean with their money, according to research from Oxford University. Their studies found that “[P]ast displays of generosity are widely regarded as a key attribute when we are looking for indictors of trustworthiness and other information about a person’s reputation is not available.”

This takes exception to when we suspect generosity to be driven by ulterior motives. As researcher Dr. Wojtek Przepiorka from Oxford University’s Department of Sociology explains, “When acts of generosity occur naturally with no concern for how they are perceived by others, they can be effective signals of trustworthiness. […] We regard acts of genuine generosity as those produced spontaneously and these are widely seen as a reliable indicator of trustworthiness even when they are small gestures.”

Generosity can also act as a buffer against “the effects of inevitable errors and disappointments in our relationships,” based on research shared by Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership. The study revealed that “generosity is a more effective way to sustain long-term collaboration than a tit-for-tat or give-what-you-get strategy” and in times of doubt and uncertainty, people will remember your compassion.

Not to mention that 89% of companies primarily compete based on customer experience – up from just 36% in 2010 according to Gartner. Recent Salesforce research further supports this claim citing that 84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products or services – and that trust is a critical factor in choosing vendors.

So, if service is part of your competitive positioning like most of today’s companies, then generosity needs to be an identifying trait to gain and retain customers. When appropriate – and especially in difficult circumstances – be generous with your time, offer flexible payment schedules, allow for contract modifications, or go out of your way to make an introduction without expecting anything in return. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Rare stands out and gets remembered, so make sure your customers always feel heard, seen, and valued.

When earning customer trust, we tend to over-index on capabilities, touting how smart and skilled we are while ignoring the innate human element of the equation – our integrity and empathy. A study shared by Wistia found that “[R]ather than trusting those who have the most expertise, we are more likely to trust those who we believe have our best interests at heart.” It’s a major red flag when we discover that a vendor’s virtues are not aligned with our own.

How can you prove the financial value of building trust?

In our webinar on ways customer success can gain organizational strength, customer success consultant Ed Powers advises that quantifying the monetary value of trust starts with asking your customers.

When you survey customers during different lifecycle phases (including onboarding, renewal, or churn), Powers recommends adding trust-based questions that use a rating scale format (like NPS), to gauge customer sentiment on:

  • Company cares about my success
  • Company provides the expertise I need
  • Company delivers on what they promise
  • Company treats me fairly
  • If a problem arises, I can count on company to reach a fair and satisfactory resolution

Since surveys are attitudinal, not behavioral, Power says they indicate how you feel at the time, but not necessarily what you’re going to do.

So, to establish a relationship between revenue and trust, you need to correlate customer intent gauged in your surveys with customer behavioral data. A customer may answer favorably in a survey, but what do their actions really tell you?

It takes more than trust to make a thing go right

Trust is an essential component to building customer loyalty, but it’s not the only contributing factor. During the webinar, Powers outlines the additional prerequisites for driving customer devotion:

  • Product: Do you have a good product? The top reason for churn is unmet expectations on product value and functionality.
  • Market: How replaceable are you? What are the costs and risks associated with switching between you and a competitor? The higher the cost and risk, the less likely a customer is to switch.
  • Relationships: Do you have a good, bad, or indifferent customer relationship? Buyers value your connection.

You must check all the boxes before you stand a chance of winning your customer’s long-term business.

Put your money where your mouth is

Botsman says if money is the currency of transactions then trust is the currency of interactions. When you squander or fail to build up a customer’s trust, you end up with insufficient funds to engage them and forfeit having a purposeful and influential role in their success. Build credit with your customers through consistent action. When you do, it makes it that much easier to get approval for future requests. When you don’t, it limits your opportunities and potential to expand and make a meaningful difference.

“What is the most important thing in your company — is it trust or is it growth? If anything trumps trust, we are in trouble…You have to choose what is really important to you. We are in a new world… and trust better be number one.” – Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce.

It’s got to be trust over everything.


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