In the “olden days”, all you needed was a handshake to settle a deal. Your word was your bond, and all that. These days, it seems like you need contracts in triplicate, they have to be witnessed by independent people of professional standing, and you are required to provide a whole host of backup information, such as privacy statements, security details and documented standards you will adopt. The simple handshake appears to have been replaced by 100 pages of text. Excellent work for lawyers, of course.

The real issue is about trust. This topic came up in a seminar I was running this week when we got onto the subject of how do you know which websites to trust. One of the reasons we need contracts and pages of background information is because in many instances in the past handshakes were not worth anything and the notion of a word being a bond appears to have eluded many business people. 

Combine that with the ever-increasing notion of “fake news” as well as the dramatic rise in dodgy websites of all kinds and you can begin to see how trust is not always easy. There is decreasing credibility in all sorts of institutions, across the world. The latest information in the Annual Trust Barometer (PDF) from the communications firm Edelman, does not make for happy reading. Trust and believability in many different sectors are falling, in some cases significantly. 

For much of the Western World, trust in business is lower now than a year before – and last year it fell too. Trust in some governments is at an all-time low. Interestingly, there has been a 4% increase in the trust of journalists. It appears that people trust “media” in general terms very low, and so they are turning to established reporters to dig down into the truth of the matter. Traditional journalism is doing well in the era of “fake news” it seems because we are looking to organisations that have some form of editorial process and fact-checking in place.

That is probably a lesson to businesses. In those “olden days” when your word was your bond, your company’s reputation was mainly in the hands of others. Trade magazines would write about you, and other firms wouldn’t say anything about you until it had been cleared by lawyers. In other words, the people who wanted to know about your business could rest assured in the knowledge that the information they received had been checked.

Nowadays, the information about your business online hasn’t been through any kind of editorial process. Who checks what you say about yourselves online? Who independently edits the information to check the facts? On other websites, who has verified the material or assessed its value? These days we are surrounded by more information than ever before about businesses, yet trust in those firms is falling. Could it be linked to the fact that we are all increasingly aware that the material we see is no longer checked as thoroughly as in the past? A seed of doubt is implanted into our minds about every business we encounter.

There is a way out of this situation, though, which is revealed by the Edelman report. It shows that the most believable people are technical experts or academics. They are trusted almost twice as much as a Chief Executive and more than twice as much as any other company director. Also, we tend to believe “people like ourselves” more than other people in business. In practical terms these means there are three opportunities to increase trust in any company.

The first is to get in-house technical experts to write blog posts and articles, rather than the marketing department. The second is to consider ways in which your company can feature in academic research. (Only this week I completed a project for a major retailer which will be featured on an academic website shortly.) The third is to find out more about your customers and match them to other potential customers with case studies and testimonials that are from similar people. 

Trust and credibility haven’t been removed entirely from business, but several factors appear to be combining to make us more likely to believe experts and third-parties. Those are two areas to focus on if you want your customers to trust you more.


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