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It’s an extraordinary fact that around half of the world’s population is taking part in an election of some form during 2024. Here in the UK, our own General Election is hard upon us with a much-changed political landscape seeming a certainty.

And yet the depressing reality is that trust in politicians is at rock bottom. The latest Ipsos Veracity survey found that just 9% of UK adults trust our political leaders to tell the truth — the lowest level in 40 years of the research. Meanwhile, global studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer show that trust in all forms of authority is seriously compromised.

But with so much of the world casting votes this year, wouldn’t it be fantastic if it became the catalyst for a new era where people could believe what they were told, and felt valued and listened to?

The trust challenge for business

This isn’t just a challenge for politics — it cuts to the heart of the corporate business agenda too. Trust in organisations is also perilously low. In the UK, a succession of high-profile issues including valued institutions like the Post Office has sadly reinforced public scepticism.

How often do we hear people say things like “They just want to make a profit, that’s all they care about” or “They say one thing and do another” or “They’re all the same, there’s no point in switching to someone else”?

A lack of trust ushers in a fatalism and apathy that in fact further damages the consumer, because they disengage and lose the motivation to find a better deal or a better level of service.

Risk and reputational consequences

For businesses, a lack of trust can have serious risk and reputation effects. It becomes a major risk vector, because when customers don’t trust an organisation, they won’t share their data or feedback and they won’t engage with business initiatives to improve or innovate services and products. An organisation with low levels of trust ends up working with poor quality, incomplete or inaccurate data sets and doesn’t have a clear picture of what customers really want or need.

Customer segmentation can go awry so that the right services or offers are not targeted at the right people. Efforts to improve are therefore hampered from the outset. Customer satisfaction gets worse rather than better because the lack of trust that has formed means the organisation can’t make the changes needed, which frustrates customers further. It can become a downward loop that is extremely hard to break out of.

Then there is the reputational aspect. Every organisation makes mistakes from time to time — it’s an inevitable fact of doing business. But for those businesses with low levels of customer trust, these mistakes simply wipe goodwill out completely. Organisations with higher levels of trust have effectively built up a bank of goodwill or tolerance that will enable them to weather a reputational challenge as long as they acknowledge their mistake and address the issue openly and honestly. Most customers are prepared to give businesses some leeway as long as they can that genuine efforts are being made to rectify a situation. But amongst the least trusted businesses or sectors, mistakes are seen as further evidence of corporate malaise. In an age of increased consumer activism and a much stronger customer voice amplified through social media, it can take years to rebuild perceptions if popular sentiment turns against you, even when this feels unfair or unjust.

Building trust from the top

Gaining trust ultimately comes through an organisation doing what it says it will do, providing reliable services that address customer needs, putting errors or problems right promptly, and listening to what customers want. For this to really come to life, there needs to be a service culture instilled from the very top. Serving customers should not be side activity — it should be what the business is all about. The customer agenda must be established in the Boardroom and made part of the organisation’s DNA. This then feeds down to the whole business and every aspect of how it works — it’s about building a detailed understanding of the entire end-to-end customer journey, connecting every stage, ensuring that each component and the experience delivers on the customer promise. Leaders need to ask penetrating questions of the business to make sure that the customer is at the heart of every process.

One mistake I often see businesses making is to become too operationally focused in their approach to service. Their attention is on ensuring that systems are working, and the right processes are in place. But it’s really about the culture that you have established in the business, not the systems. For example, the question should not be “How fast did we answer that customer call?” but “How well did we answer it?” There is a huge difference between the two.

An opportunity to reset

It is only by enshrining a customer-led purpose and commitment that organisations can build durable and strong customer trust. And it’s only by establishing trust that they can really understand their customers and avoid the risk of running a business that is out of touch and/or tarred with reputational problems.

Let’s all strive to leverage the new start that is coming, here in the UK and elsewhere around the world, to rebuild trust and push harder on the customer service agenda. In doing so, the potential is there to unlock better business outcomes that help generate greater national wellbeing and increased economic growth.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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