“If people like you, they will listen to you. If people trust you, they will do business with you.” Zig Ziglar. Legendary salesman and author
Two people who have spent decades building businesses with trusted reputations are Heather Claycomb, owner of award-winning PR firm HMC, and Chris Williams, the director and CEO of King St, the largest marketing agency in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty. They understand why trust is the oil that greases the wheels of transaction, and they know how companies can intentionally build trust with customers in ways that grow business.
What does it mean to be trusted?
For Chris, defining trust in business is rooted in the way we define it with individuals.
“Think about a person you trust. When they say something, you believe them. When they tell you they’ll do something, you don’t think twice about whether they’ll get it done. Why is that? It’s because that person has a history of keeping promises, of living up to expectations.
“I’ve always felt that strong business brands are like good people – they have a history of making promises and keeping them. And because they fulfil their promises, people keep coming back to do business with them. More than that, customers tell others to do business with them.”
Heather takes the individual-business trust comparison a step further.
“A business has its own persona, its own heartbeat. Maybe it sells widgets, but those widgets are made and sold by a whole lot of people, people who have the power to deliver, who have the capacity to be honest and forthright and who can choose to be reliable. It is that collection of trustworthy people that give a company its personality and trusted reputation.”
The importance of being relatable
We live in a world where almost every aspect of an online persona can be shaped and managed. Faces can be made flawless, waistlines pinched, good times captured and posted. To gain followers, influencers present the ‘best version’ of themselves to the public, but according to HMC Senior Account Manager, Emma Letessier, perfection is the enemy of trust.
“People don’t relate to perfection – it doesn’t resonate with us. We’re noticing a backlash against the relentless portrayal of ideals that are beyond reach, and the public are cottoning on to the fact that a lot of these flawless presentations are shaped by AI apps. It’s a universal truth that we don’t trust people who pass themselves off as something they’re not.
“I think the same is true in business. Perfection isn’t relatable. We want authenticity, and real people come in all shapes and sizes, they make mistakes, and occasionally they find pockets of magnificence in the midst of ordinary life. That’s real; we can relate to that, and we tend to trust people we can relate to.”
Tell good stories
From a PR perspective, a compelling way to build trust with customers is by telling the stories of the people inside a business. At HCM, storytelling is a time-tested way of building rapport and connection. Heather explains.
“We frequently counsel our clients to let us interview their people so that we can strategically tell good stories. By ‘good stories’, I don’t mean sanitised portrayals of people and events. We look to include the realities and complexities that make up a true story, the human threads that run all the way through.”
“Quite a few companies are afraid to put their people forward, but it’s these people that make up the business; they are the ones who have the stories that we need to tell.
“It’s quite true that Thought Leadership is a way to build credibility and trust, and HMC encourages this, but the people stories are the posts that get all the engagement on social media. The stories of real people are the ones that make it into the mainstream media. Why? Because people resonate with people. That’s how a business builds trust.”
Look at your foundations
While authenticity and relatability are necessary for building trust, why do some businesses have these qualities while others struggle? For Chris, it comes back to the foundational values of the company.
“Your values are your foundation. That sounds clichéd but they really are. What is it that your people believe? What do you stand for? What is your mission, the purpose that gets you get out of bed every day?
“I’m not talking about an A4 Vision and Values manifesto that was baked in a boardroom but now sits in a draw. I’m talking about concrete values that you and your people truly believe in, that are reflected in the way you live. More than that, these foundational values are a vivid picture of the sort of people you want to become.
“If you can find ways to creatively keep these foundational values in front of your people, you’ll continually grow into a group that people can trust. And if people trust you, they will do business with you.”
Trust and the challenges of AI
The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has brought both opportunities and challenges for businesses. With the help of AI, businesses can streamline operations, enhance customer experiences, and even create written and visual content that was once the sole domain of human creativity.
While Heather can see the potential, she also believes AI has muddied the waters of trust between businesses and their customers.
“AI is very new. Most of the community doesn’t know about these technologies. So, when they discover that a photographic image isn’t a real picture, or that an article was produced by a computer, not a person, it jars their mind. They can become distrustful very quickly.”
In the world of marketing and advertising, Chris believes AI-generated content has a place, not as a substitute for human talent, but as an aid.
“I see AI more as an enabler. If you need to write multiple Facebook posts as well as a cluster of articles, AI can generate ideas to help writers pull materials together. Or, let’s say you’ve written a piece but you need it quickly shorted to 500 words, AI can speed up that process.
“Trust is jeopardised when people get Chat GPT to write entire blog posts for them, then they slap it up and call it their own. The public doesn’t like that. Look what happened this year in New Zealand when the National Party used AI-generated images in their attack ads against Labour. When the public learned the so-called photos were AI-generated, they were up in arms about it.”
For Heather, the key to maintaining trust is full disclosure.
“AI-generated content is so new to people – they need time to get used to it. Radio was like that back in the day; people thought that was the work of the Devil. Same with the internet, then social media.
“For now, HMC’s view is that whenever AI content is used, we disclose that fact. Not only does this maintain business integrity, it also helps people acclimatise to it. We’ve gone as far as writing AI policies that guide us at HMC.”
Every person makes mistakes, and businesses, being filled with humans, makes their share. While there are times when failures can erode the trust of customers, it’s not a given. In fact, when problems are dealt with properly, trust can be increased. Heather explains.
“Because we all make mistakes, we’re kind of hardwired to be forgiving towards others when their time comes. When you screw up in business, the key is to fully own it. Don’t make excuses or offer halfway apologies, just own your mistake, give a proper apology to the people affected, and tell them what you’re going to do to put things right. That builds trust. That turns customers and clients into loyal believers who will keep coming back to you for business.”