Are your customers friends or criminals?

iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) One of the best books I've read this year is by a security technologist, Bruce Schneier. In Liars and Outliers, he sets out to investigate how trust works in society and in business, how it is betrayed and the degree to which technology changes all of that, for the better or the worse.

Schneier absolutely understands how profoundly trust oils the wheels of business and of daily life. "The more customers trust merchants, the more business gets done. The more drivers trust each other, the smoother the traffic." Trust is what allows us to deal with strangers, to expand our horizons and our companies. It is like the air that we breathe: Invisible but essential. That is invisible may mean that we don't consider how powerfully it could work for companies if it were considered an asset, capable of generating growth and loyalty.

In business, it's common to get this wrong. I see companies doing this by assuming their customers are dishonest. When I'm limited to a certain number of items I can take into a changing room, when I'm forced to check my briefcase in a cloakroom, when I'm asked for a credit card when booking a table at a restaurant, the implication - often not so subtle - is that I am not trustworthy. I wonder how often the proprietors of these establishments consider, or measure, the value of their decision to distrust their customers. Does it build or undermine your business when you impose such rules? When you demonstrate that you don't trust your customers, it can cause them to feel the same way about you.

Schneier makes the point that as more and more of our relationships move online, the capacity for fraud and deceit increases - but, more importantly, so does the potential impact of that misuse. Scale changes everything. An online presence makes it possible to do more business but also exposes that business to more dangers. But it also - again invisibly - makes it harder for companies to build relationships of trust with their customers. I see few even daring to try.

But demonstrating trust can provoke wild amounts of irrational gratitude. I recall dining one night in Turin, NY. It's a long way from anywhere and, as luck would have it, I arrived in torrential rain. Tired and hungry, I dashed from my hotel to a local restaurant, Steak 'n' Brew, leaving my wallet behind. When I couldn't pay the bill, no one batted an eye. Of course I'd go back to the hotel and phone through the credit card number. Did they want me to leave anything behind? No; they trusted me. Of course ever since, I've sung the restaurant's praises. Not just because the food was great but because they treated me like a trustworthy human being. Enabling and articulating trust may be any business' most powerful processes but I wonder how many CEOs and executives weigh the positive power of trust against their fear of deceit?

Schneier quotes the Italian philosopher Piero Ferruci: "To trust is to bet. Each time we trust, we put ourselves on the line. If we confide in a friend, we can be betrayed. If we put faith in a partner, we can be abandoned. If we trust in the world, we can be crushed. But the alternative is worse still, because if we do not put ourselves on the line, nothing will happen."

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

Comments

Market Data

Market News

Stock Watchlist