5 Ways to Earn a Customer's Trust

Last Updated Aug 1, 2011 10:36 AM EDT

If you're a manager or a company executive, there's a pretty good chance your employees think you're a shady character, if not an outright crook.

A recent survey by market research firm Maritz found that employees harbor a "deep distrust" of company management.

Only a little more than 1 in 10 Americans believe their company's leaders are ethical and honest, it concluded. Only 12 percent think their bosses genuinely listen to and care about them, and only 7 percent say senior management's actions are completely consistent with their words.

Your customers probably feel the same way. I should know. I just finished writing a book called Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals, and based on my research, customers distrust of corporate America, too.

Here are a few tips on how to boost your trust score with both your employees and your customers.

Do what you say. A company that doesn't live up to its promises is a huge turn-off.. That can include an outright distortion, like offering a "no fee" checking account with hidden fees, or a just a gross misrepresentation, like a "gotcha" contract on your cable bill. Make sure your rhetoric matches the reality.

Take a pay cut. The gap between employee pay and executive compensation has widened in recent years. No matter how you justify it, chances are you're being overpaid. This doesn't just raise eyebrows among rank-and-file employees; it also breeds resentment among customers. Ease up on the executive pay increases and hidden perks.

Don't hide. Many managers try to keep their email addresses and phone numbers private. In extreme cases, I've even known some executives to change their email address in order to avoid direct contact with customers. What kind of message does that send? A good manager is accessible to both employees and customers. Always.

Listen. Opening the lines of communication isn't enough; you have to listen, too. Too often, managers will only hear what they want to and respond to the input in way that twists customers' words and tries to make people believe they asked for bad service (this happens a lot with surprise surcharge that somehow get rephrased as a "benefit" and "consumer choice"). But customers aren't stupid. They know you're trying to pull a fast one.

Stop lying. You'll get caught eventually. And although you may not go to jail, your customers, employees and shareholders will remember. Nothing will ever be the same.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to build trust. But customers â€"- and employees -- tend to trust companies that underpromise and overdeliver (sorry about the business cliché, but it's so true). They like executives with realistic compensation packages, who answer their own email (Steve Jobs, take a bow) and who tell it like it is.

But you probably already knew that, didn't you?

Related:

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Casey Serin/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.