I Trust You to Trust Me: The Right Relationship With Your Customers

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Trust is an important aspect in day-to-day life. Most of our personal relationships are build on it and our best relationships highly depend on it. In fact: trust makes us put extra effort into our relationships. So why don’t we apply it more in the design of our services?
You don’t see it that often anymore: fruit or vegetables placed alongside a country road, unguarded. All you have to do is take the amount you want and leave money behind in a box. This system has been around for centuries and is an easy way for farmers to earn some extra money. It is completely build on trust. And the fact that the owner puts trust in me puts a smile on my face and makes me (and others) honor that trust.

I came across an even more special story about a shop owner in a small town (I can’t remember where I found the story). Whenever he left the shop during the day he didn’t close down. Instead he put a sign on the counter asking people to leave the money they owe. Nobody ever damaged the trust the owner gave them. Why? Because trust is a special thing.

What is trust?

There are many different interpretations of trust, but this is one I can agree on. Trust is:

  • the willingness of one party (trustor) to be vulnerable to the actions of another party (trustee);
  • reasonable expectation (confidence) of the trustor that the trustee will behave in a way beneficial to the trustor;
  • risk of harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave accordingly; and
  • the absence of trustor’s enforcement or control over actions performed by the trustee.

Source: Wikipedia

But what does it give us back? According to the above description trust is a one-way thing: the trustor gives it to somebody else and becomes vulnerable… This feels very unbalanced. If we would open up all the stores in a city and let people put money on the counter we’d be pretty certain that within days the stores will be empty and the owners a lot poorer. A healthy relationship is well balanced and goes two ways: both parties are trustor and trustee. Putting trust in somebody isn’t an anonymous process, but only works when there is a clear relationship between two parties. As the trustor you must make it very clear that you are willing to put trust in somebody and that you are making yourself vulnerable in the process, but that when people honor that trust you are giving them something in return that’s worth their effort.

Design for a balanced trust

One of the best examples in this is Zappos.com, the online shoes and clothing store that offers free shipping both ways and has a 365 days no questions asked return policy. What they have to offer you is a huge collection of products that you can try out at home for free. All that they ask in return is that you don’t abuse their trust and that when you send something back you will return it undamaged. As you can see there is a clear balance between the trustor and trustee, it’s a win-win situation.

Another good example is the release of Radiohead’s 2007 album ‘In Rainbows’. When they released it they didn’t set a price, but instead asked their audience to pay whatever they wanted to pay for the album. They put trust in the honesty of the audience that if they liked the music they would pay a normal price for it. A lot of people and companies thought that Radiohead was crazy and would only lose money, but it paid off: ‘In Rainbows’ is Radiohead’s best selling album.

Turn it around

Recently the NY Times announced their paywall as a means of earning money from their users. This caused a lot of heated discussions. The main counter argument is the fact that everything has been free for ages and must suddenly cost money when you read too many articles. People acknowledge that the quality of the articles is worth money, but at the same time they feel mistreated and are finding new ways of getting free access. In my mind something is wrong with the trust balance: people do claim that they value the articles, but they hate the concept of the paywall. I would say that this is because people have the feeling that the NY Times uses force over trust. If they would turn things around and would ask for a reward (micro-payments) each time you liked an article they would have happier users and earn more in the process. The mistake is that they now force the masses that haven’t got a relationship with the NY Times (but only want cheap news) instead of building on the trust relationship they can have with the core of their users.

So, what now?

When you look at the current examples you immediately notice that these are both big players. You’ll probably think “They can afford to trust people and lose something if it fails, but most companies don’t have this luxury.” I don’t agree with this statement and believe that companies of all sizes can apply trust to build up a better relationship. All around me I see that trust is a wonderful thing when balanced. People don’t give it that easily, but when they do it’s important to cherish it with everything you’ve got.

Trust me on this.

What are your experiences on this topic? Do you know of any companies that use trust in their relationship? How would you design it into a service? I am really curious what your thoughts are on this subject.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

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