trust issues

Trust Issues: What Happens When You Trust Your Customers

It is hard to have a positive relationship with someone you don’t trust. When you don’t trust someone, it’s hard to believe they have your best interests at heart. Without trust, there can be no true partnership. The thing most of us don’t realize is that trust issues affect more than just our personal lives, they impact our business relationships as well.

One Veteran’s Day. My wife and I were checking out of a large grocery store in a neighboring town. “Are you a veteran?” the young cashier asked as I reached for my wallet.

Before I could answer, my wife proudly announced, “You bet he is! He was an infantry commander with the elite 82nd Airborne, and a guerrilla tactics instructor at the Army Infantry School.”

“Wow!” the cashier responded. “We give veterans a discount on Veteran’s Day!” But, her “I’m impressed” temperament quickly transformed to the stern disposition of a rigid auditor. “Do you have proof you are a veteran?” she asked.

I was taken aback by her apparent trust issues. “What proof would I need?” I asked disbelievingly.

“I don’t know,” she said, “a military card or a baseball cap with a military pen. We have to have proof before we can give you the discount.” Ironically, the young man bagging our groceries grasped the irony her assertion and asked her, “What about customer service?”

But, she obstinately refused to give up her “rules ‘r us” stance when I indicated I carried no proof. “No proof, no discount…it’s the rule,” she said harshly as if educating me, my wife, the bagger…and, all the cashiers within earshot! I silently paid for our groceries and left without acquiescing to my strong temptation to cynically salute her.

Customer service researcher Dr. Leonard Berry has found that the attribute customers value most is reliability, “Can I trust you to do what you promise?” However, overcoming trust issues doesn’t begin with kept promises; it starts with a leap of faith! Someone takes a risk that builds experience, which leads to trust. And, when an organization takes a risk with customers, customers typically respond in kind. Their loyalty soars.

Customer Trust Starts with Employee Trust

Showing trust in customers starts with trusting associates, especially since associates are customers as well. Customers enjoy dealing with empowered employees. In fact, customers believe the attitude of the entire organization is reflected in the authority they perceive is given to the front line. If they deal with employees who seem to be untrusted by the organization, they assume they will be treated the same.

Isadore Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons Hotels, tells this story on the power of trust in his 2009 book, Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy.

Four Seasons Nevis [a tiny island in the Caribbean] was open a year…most of the people had never worked in a hotel before and many others had never worked anywhere. At the time, I was staying in one of our cottages along the beach and I ordered room service. A young lady came in with my order and set it up on the terrace.

“Where did you learn to do this,” I asked her. “What job did you have before?” “Oh, I never worked before,” she told me. “This was my first job, sir.”

“Then how did you learn to do this? There are a lot of items, and everything’s here, placed exactly as it should be.” “Well, sir, they taught me everything.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “How did they do that?”

And she explained, “They let me take everything home for me to practice with my family.”

Don’t Step Over Dollars to Pick Up Pennies

The late Stanley Marcus enjoyed telling the story of the young debutante who returned a $175 evening gown after one evening’s rough treatment and wanted her money back. It was obvious that her own reckless behavior had left the dress in shambles. But, I gave her back her money. And, in 1935, one hundred seventy-five dollars was a lot of money for a dress.”

Marcus beamed as he related the punch line: “But not only did she spend over a hundred thousand in Neiman-Marcus over the next thirty years, she made sure all her wealthy friends did likewise. Trusting her turned out to be a great investment.”

The organization without trust issues generously puts more focus on nurturing a relationship than miserly squeezing every dollar out of every transaction. This does not mean “giving away the shop.” Everyone in the organization should protect and grow the assets of the organization. However, customers remember organizations that refrain from “nickel and diming them to death.”

Look for opportunities to say “No charge” or “That one is on us.” Find ways to do little extras for customers that they didn’t expect. The small, personalized extras gain more loyalty mileage than big, splashy ones.

Trust the customer, even when he or she is dead wrong. Trust is not about facts and figures; it is about feelings and perceptions. It is not about “the customer is always right,” it is about helping customers “feel right…and valued.” Get off the plane of who is right and who is wrong; being effective trumps being correct.

Trust comes from a clear and present demonstration that you seek to know your customers’ hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations. A superficial interchange will always yield a shallow understanding. The pursuit of understanding is the groundwater of trust.

Find Areas to Dramatically Demonstrate a Trusting Attitude


The wait staff at Vincenzo’s Ristorante in Omaha, Nebraska greets patrons at their table with a pitcher of “honor wine,” an excellent Chianti. “Enjoy this if you like,” the waitress informed a group of us there for dinner. “We charge by the glass. At the end of the meal just let me know how many glasses you had and I’ll add it to your bill.” When I asked the owner on our way out how many patrons drink the Chianti he smiled and said, “Most…it’s one of our best features!” Trusting actions such as this can immediately allay any potential trust issues.

Trusting actions can be as small as the cup of pennies next to the cash register. Put a sign on the cup which reads, “Got a penny, give a penny; need a penny, take a penny.” Be on the lookout for areas where a “We don’t trust you” message is being sent to customers. Look at your signage. Do your signs and messaging sound like warm instructions to a valuable partner or like tough laws for a crafty criminal?

The anatomy of trust issues reveals that they are irrational, emotional and perceptual in nature. We trust lots of medical personnel during surgery whose resumes we never check. We trust the food we eat in a restaurant without a visit to their kitchen. “Real trust,” wrote Seth Godin “doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes.” Remember: trust-building is homegrown (from the heart) and handmade (actions speak louder than words).



Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Managing Knock Your Socks off Service, Managers as Mentors, The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service, and Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service. His newest book is: Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.. Global Gurus ranked him both in 2014 and 2015 as the #1 keynote speaking in the world on customer service. His has appeared live on CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, ABC, Bloomberg TV, NPR and his work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Money Magazine, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CEO Magazine, Fast Company and Businessweek. He can be reached at

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