When Trust Breaks

As a company, one of the single greatest assets you have is the trust of your community. The people that care enough to do business with you for any number of reasons.

Protecting that trust is critically important, and it’s the entire basis for having continuing open dialogue with your customers and community. It gives them a sense that you’re not only listening and paying attention, but that you value their place among your network enough to be on the level with them.

So what happens when that trust breaks? Can it be repaired?

There are minor things that can happen – mistakes – that can rather readily be repaired with an apology and a correction of some kind. Oops, sorry we sent you that email twice. Our apologies that the product info we put out was incorrect. We’re sorry we didn’t answer your inquiry in a timely fashion.

But there’s one thing that seems to be nigh on impossible to recover from: dishonesty.

When you’ve discovered that you’ve been deceived, even flat out lied to, you’re instantly suspect of every interaction you’ve had with a person or a business. You wonder what else they aren’t telling you, or what other omissions might be escaping your notice. It’s as though your relationship has a permanent question mark on it. And as a client, customer, or business associate, you wonder a bit about just how little you were valued to start with if dishonesty was part of the equation from the beginning. And won’t you wonder about doing business with that person or company again if you’re not sure that their motives are true?

Integrity and honesty are two of the deepest and most human traits, and I say they absolutely translate to a business level. So can you repair them once they’ve been broken? Or is dishonesty a permanent scar on the face of a relationship that can’t be mended?

I turn the comments over to you.

Photo credit: Peter Kaminski

  • http://thesocialnet.blogspot.com mark

    Of course you can repair broken trust.

    The American people are either very forgiving or very stupid. A few years ago, Jack in the Box was KILLING people with its product.

    Anyone remember that? Or do you think of JIB now as the cute antenna ball and viral marketing campaign introduced at the Super Bowl.

    Generally speaking, all Americans ask is an honest admission of the mistake, an apology and demonstrated changed behavior.

    marks last blog post..SXSW Interactive Day 5: The Nerds Go Home

  • http://thesocialnet.blogspot.com mark

    Of course you can repair broken trust.

    The American people are either very forgiving or very stupid. A few years ago, Jack in the Box was KILLING people with its product.

    Anyone remember that? Or do you think of JIB now as the cute antenna ball and viral marketing campaign introduced at the Super Bowl.

    Generally speaking, all Americans ask is an honest admission of the mistake, an apology and demonstrated changed behavior.

    marks last blog post..SXSW Interactive Day 5: The Nerds Go Home

  • http://aerofoilmedia.com Mike Villar

    Sometimes, dishonesty comes not from a business but from its employees. For instance, I work for an online Auto Parts merchant and we’ve had an incident where a customer complained about a part he received.

    He is furious about the fact that the phone sales representative he spoke with promised that the part being shipped to him would fit his car. It turns out it didn’t.

    Apparently the Sales representative was trying to hit a quota. The company does not condone this and the dishonesty stemmed from the actions of one of its employees.

    I feel that, in cases like these, an apology from the company’s management and the appropriate reparations should re-establish some of the trust.

  • http://aerofoilmedia.com Mike Villar

    Sometimes, dishonesty comes not from a business but from its employees. For instance, I work for an online Auto Parts merchant and we’ve had an incident where a customer complained about a part he received.

    He is furious about the fact that the phone sales representative he spoke with promised that the part being shipped to him would fit his car. It turns out it didn’t.

    Apparently the Sales representative was trying to hit a quota. The company does not condone this and the dishonesty stemmed from the actions of one of its employees.

    I feel that, in cases like these, an apology from the company’s management and the appropriate reparations should re-establish some of the trust.

  • http://141st.wordpress.com Kevin Fenton

    I think corporate dishonesty is so hard to recover from because it is the spiritual infrastructure of relationships. And once you’ve lied the phrase “I’m telling the truth now” can’t help but become unstable. I think deceit can be recovered from, eventually, with a clear admission and actual changes sustained over time.

    This post feels very relevant. The term credit came from the term for “to believe.”

    And when we say “transparency,” we mean “honesty.” I also think we need to go beyond transparency to a term that seems to have fallen out of favor: fiduciary duty. It acknowledged that certain professionals had, by virtue of their expertise, had the ability to manipulate their customers.

  • http://141st.wordpress.com Kevin Fenton

    I think corporate dishonesty is so hard to recover from because it is the spiritual infrastructure of relationships. And once you’ve lied the phrase “I’m telling the truth now” can’t help but become unstable. I think deceit can be recovered from, eventually, with a clear admission and actual changes sustained over time.

    This post feels very relevant. The term credit came from the term for “to believe.”

    And when we say “transparency,” we mean “honesty.” I also think we need to go beyond transparency to a term that seems to have fallen out of favor: fiduciary duty. It acknowledged that certain professionals had, by virtue of their expertise, had the ability to manipulate their customers.

  • http://kadetcomm.wordpress.com Ken Kadet

    There’s a reason why Tylenol’s response to its poisoning crisis in 1982 is still in the PR textbooks. Your response as a business to broken trust means everything. Lie and hide, the trust may …no… *will* never come back. Face up to it, apologize, and go overboard in making good with your customers, community and constituents, make sure it never happens again, run your business with honor, and you may well come back stronger than ever.

    The right response earns heaps of respect.

    Ken Kadets last blog post..Shining Up PR’s Apple

  • http://kadetcomm.wordpress.com Ken Kadet

    There’s a reason why Tylenol’s response to its poisoning crisis in 1982 is still in the PR textbooks. Your response as a business to broken trust means everything. Lie and hide, the trust may …no… *will* never come back. Face up to it, apologize, and go overboard in making good with your customers, community and constituents, make sure it never happens again, run your business with honor, and you may well come back stronger than ever.

    The right response earns heaps of respect.

    Ken Kadets last blog post..Shining Up PR’s Apple

  • Amber Naslund

    @Kevin – Ah, I like what you said about “actual changes sustained over time”. It’s the hope that you can recover from a misstep by showing – not just saying – that you know you screwed up.

    @Charity – I’m glad you stood up for your personal integrity. And you make an interesting point about not having to participate in a lie actively to feel the fallout.

    I’m still hopeful the answer is “yes”, that trust can be repaired. Forgiveness is a really important thing. But I think it’s a little stickier in business somehow.

  • http://www.realmendriveminivans.com PJ Mullen

    I think in general a break in trust can be repaired, but it depends on how deep the fracture. If, as in Mike Villar’s example in the previous comment, the management steps in to correct dishonesty on the part of an employee, sends the customer the correct part, apologizes for any inconvenience and maybe sends them an incentive to order again, I’d say that I as a consumer would certainly give them a second shot. But if the actions taken do not match the expectations of the customer, or are at worst half hearted on the part of the company, then I can see how the trust would be difficult to repair. A sincere effort on the part of any company looking to right a wrong can turn that dissatisfied customer into a raving fan if it so chooses.

    PJ Mullens last blog post..Agave, it’s not just for tequila anymore!

  • http://www.realmendriveminivans.com PJ Mullen

    I think in general a break in trust can be repaired, but it depends on how deep the fracture. If, as in Mike Villar’s example in the previous comment, the management steps in to correct dishonesty on the part of an employee, sends the customer the correct part, apologizes for any inconvenience and maybe sends them an incentive to order again, I’d say that I as a consumer would certainly give them a second shot. But if the actions taken do not match the expectations of the customer, or are at worst half hearted on the part of the company, then I can see how the trust would be difficult to repair. A sincere effort on the part of any company looking to right a wrong can turn that dissatisfied customer into a raving fan if it so chooses.

    PJ Mullens last blog post..Agave, it’s not just for tequila anymore!

  • http://twitter.com/trevorrotzien Trevor Rotzien

    Reminds me of the industrial workplace sign: “X days of operation since work-stoppage accident”.

    I think trust can be re-won, but only if there is a history of reliability of some duration, and the breakage was of a defensible kind.

    Errors in execution in spite of best intentions and a solid track record are exponentially easier to forgive than blatant “forethought and malice” suddenly exposed.

    That’s why it is a great investment in oneself to do what @Charity did, and a great investment in a company for the leadership to root out ethical compromises at any level. The money simply isn’t worth it, and not only in ethical terms:

    The cost of acquiring customers is 10 times the cost of keeping them. Rescuing defected customers costs 100 times more than keeping existing customers. Breaking trust is the most efficient way to lose customers.

  • http://twitter.com/trevorrotzien Trevor Rotzien

    Reminds me of the industrial workplace sign: “X days of operation since work-stoppage accident”.

    I think trust can be re-won, but only if there is a history of reliability of some duration, and the breakage was of a defensible kind.

    Errors in execution in spite of best intentions and a solid track record are exponentially easier to forgive than blatant “forethought and malice” suddenly exposed.

    That’s why it is a great investment in oneself to do what @Charity did, and a great investment in a company for the leadership to root out ethical compromises at any level. The money simply isn’t worth it, and not only in ethical terms:

    The cost of acquiring customers is 10 times the cost of keeping them. Rescuing defected customers costs 100 times more than keeping existing customers. Breaking trust is the most efficient way to lose customers.

  • http://dandashnaw.com Dan Dashnaw

    I think that although trust *can* be repaired, it is much harder for a business to recover from a slip then it is for individuals within the context direct personal relationships. Brands in this day and age seem to enter the public consciousness with a few inherent strikes against them, primarily based on the obvious presumptions that color the exchange from day one.

    If I’m thinking that you have any motive whatsoever to ‘sell’ me something, you will likely need to work pretty hard to establish trust with me just to combat my pre-existing hesitations about being ‘sold’. Once I have something to go on that justifies my hesitations about a company’s financially-driven motives (however cleanly they may be presented), it’s very easy for me (the customer) to affirm this ‘brand prejudice’ into my perceptions as correct.

    So, can trust be repaired? Yes – but usually not without time, effort and a few gleaming acts of flawless, post-flub execution coming from the trust offender. However, we the people tend to make quick, lasting, and potentially fatal decisions about brands almost unconsciously these days, and our perceptions can be easily tarnished by even the slightest of smudges. Our expectations regarding transparency and well-angled intent tend to set the bar rather high, and this should ultimately serve us well as both consumers and businesses. ;-)

    Dan Dashnaws last blog post..Something to Tweet About: Social Media Posts of the Week

  • http://dandashnaw.com Dan Dashnaw

    I think that although trust *can* be repaired, it is much harder for a business to recover from a slip then it is for individuals within the context direct personal relationships. Brands in this day and age seem to enter the public consciousness with a few inherent strikes against them, primarily based on the obvious presumptions that color the exchange from day one.

    If I’m thinking that you have any motive whatsoever to ‘sell’ me something, you will likely need to work pretty hard to establish trust with me just to combat my pre-existing hesitations about being ‘sold’. Once I have something to go on that justifies my hesitations about a company’s financially-driven motives (however cleanly they may be presented), it’s very easy for me (the customer) to affirm this ‘brand prejudice’ into my perceptions as correct.

    So, can trust be repaired? Yes – but usually not without time, effort and a few gleaming acts of flawless, post-flub execution coming from the trust offender. However, we the people tend to make quick, lasting, and potentially fatal decisions about brands almost unconsciously these days, and our perceptions can be easily tarnished by even the slightest of smudges. Our expectations regarding transparency and well-angled intent tend to set the bar rather high, and this should ultimately serve us well as both consumers and businesses. ;-)

    Dan Dashnaws last blog post..Something to Tweet About: Social Media Posts of the Week

  • http://www.onbrands.wordpress.com/ David Cameron

    Great discussion!

    Trust can come back, but PJ’s point that this depends on the severity of the lie is a good one. To repair broken trust, one must first be honest about lying and explain your reasons. One must acknowledge what one has done wrong.

    Next, don’t expect trust to come swimming back right away. Your stakeholders will warm back up to you… but it will take some time. Don’t expect everything to go back to normal.

    This reminds me of what Allen Adamson says about “business as usual”… Speaking on winning back consumer trust/confidence, he says there’s only one way:

    “Forget everything but this: deeds, not words. The only way to rebuild consumer confidence in times like these is to make a simple brand promise and keep it. Determine what you want your brand to stand for in the minds of consumers, and support it day in and day out through actions and behaviors.”

    One earns trust back through actions, not words. The best way to earn trust back is to be trustworthy. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And I think it’s true… it’s what you do that counts in the end, not what you say. High say, low do = low trust; High say, high do = high trust.

    David Camerons last blog post..St. Paddy’s Day = Powerful Brand

  • http://www.onbrands.wordpress.com/ David Cameron

    Great discussion!

    Trust can come back, but PJ’s point that this depends on the severity of the lie is a good one. To repair broken trust, one must first be honest about lying and explain your reasons. One must acknowledge what one has done wrong.

    Next, don’t expect trust to come swimming back right away. Your stakeholders will warm back up to you… but it will take some time. Don’t expect everything to go back to normal.

    This reminds me of what Allen Adamson says about “business as usual”… Speaking on winning back consumer trust/confidence, he says there’s only one way:

    “Forget everything but this: deeds, not words. The only way to rebuild consumer confidence in times like these is to make a simple brand promise and keep it. Determine what you want your brand to stand for in the minds of consumers, and support it day in and day out through actions and behaviors.”

    One earns trust back through actions, not words. The best way to earn trust back is to be trustworthy. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And I think it’s true… it’s what you do that counts in the end, not what you say. High say, low do = low trust; High say, high do = high trust.

    David Camerons last blog post..St. Paddy’s Day = Powerful Brand

  • http://GlobalPatriot.com Global Patriot

    While breaches of trust can sometimes be repaired, I find that it occurs in less than 10% of cases. Even in those situations where customers continue to deal with a company – they may have a technology or price point that is unique in the marketplace – customers become more cautious with their interactions and rarely come back to a position of true loyalty.

    Global Patriots last blog post..The Advent of Philanthropic Travel

  • http://GlobalPatriot.com Global Patriot

    While breaches of trust can sometimes be repaired, I find that it occurs in less than 10% of cases. Even in those situations where customers continue to deal with a company – they may have a technology or price point that is unique in the marketplace – customers become more cautious with their interactions and rarely come back to a position of true loyalty.

    Global Patriots last blog post..The Advent of Philanthropic Travel

  • http://www.bassodesigngroup.com David Lingholm

    Trust is such a personal issue that it takes time to build, maintain and rebuild. I enjoy this discussion because trust is so highly personal. There is no real metric for measuring it yet it is the most valuable commodity businesses trade in.

    I think trust can be established in any relationship given the party trying to re-establish it is patient. The big key, regardless of company size, is to allow the customer to vent frustration then adopt an appropriate response. My experience has been that companies have a standard response that should fix it in their minds, but comes off as cold and/or inappropriate to their customers.

    I do wonder how industry impacts a company’s ability to build trust. Does the legacy of other, less scrupulous service providers forever damage your trust regardless of your integrity? If so, what have you found works for establishing trust with that customer?

  • http://www.bassodesigngroup.com David Lingholm

    Trust is such a personal issue that it takes time to build, maintain and rebuild. I enjoy this discussion because trust is so highly personal. There is no real metric for measuring it yet it is the most valuable commodity businesses trade in.

    I think trust can be established in any relationship given the party trying to re-establish it is patient. The big key, regardless of company size, is to allow the customer to vent frustration then adopt an appropriate response. My experience has been that companies have a standard response that should fix it in their minds, but comes off as cold and/or inappropriate to their customers.

    I do wonder how industry impacts a company’s ability to build trust. Does the legacy of other, less scrupulous service providers forever damage your trust regardless of your integrity? If so, what have you found works for establishing trust with that customer?

  • Quintis Venter

    Perhaps in the context of trust we all suffer to some degree at the insidious hand of the entitlement mentality. There seems to exist a strong negative correlation between a sense of entitlement and accountability.

    We should not assume that trust is there to begin with – and then losing points like a driver’s license penalty system.

    That said, all is not lost. If trust was established and then broken, surely it can be re-established. Maybe we *should* learn from experience, but as long as the human brain is a system of rational patches on top of an emotional, irrational framework, there’s room for forgiveness.

  • Quintis Venter

    Perhaps in the context of trust we all suffer to some degree at the insidious hand of the entitlement mentality. There seems to exist a strong negative correlation between a sense of entitlement and accountability.

    We should not assume that trust is there to begin with – and then losing points like a driver’s license penalty system.

    That said, all is not lost. If trust was established and then broken, surely it can be re-established. Maybe we *should* learn from experience, but as long as the human brain is a system of rational patches on top of an emotional, irrational framework, there’s room for forgiveness.

  • http://davidbressler.com David Bressler

    Amber,

    Nice post. Though, I didn’t discuss your article in a recent post I wrote (http://davidbressler.com/?p=94), it influenced me greatly.

    I believe you can recover, even from dishonesty, though it takes an apology. An authentic one. And, that includes acknowledgment of the mistake, and a true effort to make sure it’s not repeated.

    David

    David Bresslers last blog post..The Difficulty of Leadership

  • http://davidbressler.com David Bressler

    Amber,

    Nice post. Though, I didn’t discuss your article in a recent post I wrote (http://davidbressler.com/?p=94), it influenced me greatly.

    I believe you can recover, even from dishonesty, though it takes an apology. An authentic one. And, that includes acknowledgment of the mistake, and a true effort to make sure it’s not repeated.

    David

    David Bresslers last blog post..The Difficulty of Leadership

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