The Trust Manifesto

July 7, 2010

maksim_ovsyannikov_color_biggerMaksim Ovsyannikov is the VP of Product Management at Zendesk.  This is the first in a regular series of posts from him about the changing relationship between consumers and businesses.  Follow him on Twitter: @Maksim.

I live pretty close to the San Andreas Fault—a fact that bubbles up into my consciousness every time some other part of the world experiences an earthquake. I sometimes wonder whether this subterranean sense of impending disaster is at least partly responsible for Silicon Valley’s feverish, “get-it-done-yesterday” work norms. Build your company quick because tomorrow we might get flattened.

It so happens that this isn’t the only sort of “flattening” that concerns me these days. Much destruction is now happening along the fault lines that run between consumers and organizations, and I’d like to reflect a bit on the importance of rebuilding at least some of what I am simply going to refer to as “trust” in those relationships.

Over the past few years, we have seen a fundamental breakdown in the confidence and belief that individuals are willing to place in large organizations and in the people who run them. When asked to rate the ethics of various professions in a recent Gallup poll, Americans ranked those who represent big business and big government near the bottom. Only 12% of respondents rated the ethical standards of business executives as “high” or “very high.” Members of Congress fared even worse at 9%.

In the recently updated Edelman Trust Barometer, barely one-quarter of Americans said they would regard the information they receive from a company CEO as “highly credible” or “extremely credible.” Neither do employees place much trust in their managers. In its 2007 Global Workforce Study, Towers Watson found that only 38% of employees believe their managers communicate openly and honestly. What is going on? How did we reach the point where, particularly in customer relationships, the item that we need and lack both is trust? We are in a very desperate need of trust therapy – what I would call a “trust manifesto”.

Understanding Trust

So where do we start? First, we should understand what is trust. This is the first part of my trust manifesto to you – understand what trust is. You see, trust is not simply a matter of truthfulness, or even constancy. It is equally a matter of amity and goodwill. Organizations forget this aspect very frequently. As customers and consumers, we trust those who have our best interests at heart, and mistrust those who seem deaf to our concerns. Deceit and dereliction can undermine a relationship, of course, but so can a slow erosion of affinity and goodwill. Interestingly enough, good legal citizenship hasn’t been a main factor in the true trust barometer.  Instead, if business leaders treat customers and employees like expendable “resources” while rewarding themselves handsomely, or hack away at product quality and employee benefits while retaining their own lavish perks, corporations will be viewed suspiciously—whether or not any laws have been violated.

You see, if you define what trust is, it will be much easier to instill this very concept into everything you do with your business. You will be more likely to select employees who are trustworthy based on your definition; you would be more likely to build products in ways that promote credibility; as a business leader, you will also be more likely to exhibit this very trust yourself. You can’t get anything unless you know what you need to get – defining trust is simply the first step towards getting it.

Become More Responsive

I was once introduced to a physician whose mission related to transforming his practice was entirely based on significantly improved responsiveness to his patients. “I have a medical degree, good training, 15 years of experience, good modern office,” he claimed. “But that’s exactly what every one of my colleagues who run competing practices can also offer.”  Think about it – why build your competitive advantage on factors that are easily obtainable by others? Instead, why not just place more focus on the aspects of your business that can’t be easily replicated? Ability to respond to markets and customers is definitely one of these factors. Hence the second component of my trust manifesto – become more responsive as a business. There is a good saying among startup entrepreneurs – almost a rule of thumb. It basically says that if your first few hundred customers are not in an absolute love with you as a product and service provider, you are likely to die soon as a company. Ability to respond to the needs of your customers is also tightly linked to the level of trust that they would offer you. I don’t know if institutional leaders have become less honest in recent years, but it does seem that they have become less responsive to the interests of their customers and employees. This is exactly what needs fixing. Think about your organization – if you had to find a home for the “response” unit in your company, where would it be? In most cases CEOs believe that customer support teams should own the response barometer back to your customers. I believe that product, engineering and marketing teams definitely have substantial amount of ownership in your business’s ability to respond to the needs of your clients, but it turns out that customer support team is key to this turnaround.

If you examine the causes of being unresponsive, however, the roots of the disconnect are many and much deeper than your customer support team. In business, this misalignment is often a result of authoritarian management practices that undermine employee morale in your customer service team and frustrate contribution. The result – “Your call is important to us”…. (Yeah, sure…)

Distribute Power to the Frontlines

There is an interesting connection. Responsiveness is tightly linked to the amount of power given to the front lines of your customer support team. Hence the third component of my trust manifesto – give true power to the frontlines of your business. Norton Long, a political scientist, once wrote, “People will readily admit that governments are organizations”. The converse, that organizations are governments, is equally true but rarely considered. As a result, people spend lots of time analyzing how power effects governments, but very little time looking at how the power is spread within organizations that provide services to them. You see, those who have power often want more of it—and are usually skilled at concocting arguments for why they should have it. Who can argue with the need for a “comprehensive solution,” for “harmonization,” “shared services,” “integration”, “transformation” or “economies of scale?” Yet as power moves away from the periphery – the core of your customer love – and toward the center of an organization (the CEO), individual influence wanes and customer facing policies become less attuned to local circumstances. The result: your customer population that feels aggrieved and impotent.

It’s devastating, and whatever the cause, the data are clear: more and more of us feel that institutions around us are run for the benefit of those who are leading them – for the benefit of those who have the power. And an interesting bit is that it’s not limited to corporations. When viewed from the bottom of the pyramid, the problem at the top is less blatant dishonesty than imperial disregard. Interestingly, a typical front line voice for your organization, someone who picks up the phone and helps your customers, is typically at the bottom of this pyramid. If you took the power away from that individual, you effectively closed the welcoming doors that your business should offer to the world. Simple steps can help your customer support team feel more empowered – over-communicate to them, always ask for their opinion and offer a great amount of discretion in making customer-related decisions to them. And unless you do, the power may very well be with you, but it just won’t be there for any of your clients.

Quick summary – understand trust, become more responsive and give power to the people in your organization. Do you think you could pick one aspect of this manifesto and add it to your goals for the next quarter?