When it comes to building customer trust, service trumps sustainability


New data from Pricewaterhouse Coopers dramatizes how out-of-touch corporate leaders are with the factors contributing to customer trust and how the steps they take to build trust with their markets are largely falling flat.

The PwC Trust Survey asked more than 5,000 consumers and business people about the dynamics that underpin trust, which “we believe is an essential currency for business going forward,” says Wes Bricker, U.S. Trust Solutions co-leader at the consulting giant, in a media briefing.

The results indicate that executives still have a lot of work to do.

The most striking finding is that 87% of corporate leaders believe consumers have a high level of trust in their business, while only 30% of consumers said the same thing.

Business leaders also said trust is more of a bottom-up than a top-down proposition compared to customers by a margin of 47% to 27%.

This indicates that building trust is a problem many would just as soon rather not hear about.

The results also present powerful evidence that the factors that executives believe engender trust with customers are wildly off the mark. For example, while 45% of business leaders said they focus on transparent communications, only 13% of consumers and 19% of employees ranked that quality as important.

And only half as many customers as executives said they care much about a company’s sustainability initiatives.

Basics matter

So what factors most influence customer trust? According to the research, it’s the basics.

The top three are affordable products/services, well-treated employees, and the availability of a variety of high-quality products and services.

Being a good corporate citizen and admitting mistakes quickly and honestly came in well down the list.

One explanation for these results could be the timing. People worried about inflation, high gasoline prices, and supply chain disruption are less likely to look at the big picture than they would during a robust economy.

“The decisions that consumers are currently focused on is the affordability of products and services,” Bricker says. “Those are the present business opportunities for business leaders to address with consumers.”

That doesn’t mean ignoring bigger environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.

The message is that focusing on those priorities to avoid delivering value at the checkout counter can be distracting. “This is not a time to cut corners and erode trust with consumers, employees, and capital providers,” Brinker says.

Overlooking bad news

The results come at an interesting time given the latest tribulations of ride-sharing leader Uber.

The company has endured years of negative press about the business practices of former executives, yet Uber’s dominant market share has barely budged since 2017.

Stories of wrongdoing are evidently more interesting to politicians and the media than to people looking for a ride.

The 2022 Axios Harris Poll Reputation Rankings bears this out. Top companies like Trader Joe’s, HEB Grocery, Toyota, Hershey, Amazon, and Patagonia don’t make a big deal out of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, focusing instead on delivering unique and high-value experiences.

Customers who love the experience are inclined to overlook the fact that their business-practice histories aren’t necessarily squeaky clean.

Those companies are also likely to get the benefit of the doubt when the news isn’t so good, said Mohamed Kande, PwC’s U.S. Consulting Solutions Co-Leader. “Consumers can understand and appreciate the fact that we have inflation and that prices might go up,” he said. “[They expect] that quality will be maintained, independent of the pricing.”

Keep findings in context

While the curt treatment customer respondents gave to environmental and social factors may be a bit depressing, keep the context in mind.

Businesses have many stakeholders, including investors, suppliers, regulators, and value chain partners, and the research indicates that ESG initiatives resonate more strongly with those groups than buyers.

PwC researchers also recommend taking a long-term view: “Employee and consumer priorities can be fickle,” they write. “Trust may sometimes mean acting in stakeholders’ best long-term interest whether they care at the moment or not.”

An interesting sidebar to the study is the importance of building trust with employees, a priority that has become particularly urgent during the Great Resignation.

The 503 business leaders who were surveyed rated employees as their second most important stakeholder group, ahead of investors and suppliers and just behind customers.

Nearly half said they had implemented a trust-building plan with employees.

This is evidence that, at long last, employers are becoming more inclined to treat their people as part of the customer experience and not interchangeable cogs in a machine.

When you think of companies you like doing business with, there’s a good chance that cheerful, motivated employees are part of the equation.

It’s a welcome trend that I hope transcends the short-term skills crunch.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.



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