‘How to be trusted’

Our recent research on honesty and how well certain industries are trusted didn’t just inspire and educate us, it prompted a range of companies to get in touch, asking for more information about how their industry performed.

The bad news is that no industry did well. The highest ranking industry, new car dealers, didn’t even reach “slightly honest”. Perhaps the most striking result of the whole survey was that of all the questions we asked, for all industries, 49.8% of them described the business as dishonest. The crude inference from this is that half of all people think that the business world is dishonest.

Let’s assume that this is true, that business is seen as largely untrustworthy. How can you company earn your customers’ trust? What can you do to make your customers think you’re an honest, decent company who will treat them fairly?

It’s actually quite simple but it takes something rare. Courage.


The first thing you should do is to commit your company to honesty. Absolute, scrupulous, 24/7 honesty. Think of the traditional oath you swear in a court of law. You put up your hand and promise to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. That’s what your company should commit to doing. Before you read on, read that oath again and see if you can spot the bit that every company forgets. The first element, “the truth”, is easy. Just tell the truth. The last bit, “nothing but the truth”, is also easy. You can’t slip a few lies in between the truthful bits, everything you say has to be true. The tricky bit is that second element, “the whole truth”. That’s where companies usually fail.

Often everything the salesperson tells the customer might be true but that doesn’t mean they’ve told the potential customer everything they should know. Did the insurance salesperson make it clear that if the customer falls behind with his premiums then any claims he makes will be rejected? Did the furniture store employee tell the customer that if the goods are ever repossessed then she’ll still owe them lots of money? Did the second-hand car dealer tell the customer that once he drives the vehicle off the premises he can expect absolutely no support if it goes wrong? Did the cellphone store really point out that the legitimate phone you think you just bought only comes with a 3-month warranty, not the 12 months promised by the manufacturer?

Some companies are afraid of telling the whole truth because they think that if the customer knew the whole truth they wouldn’t spend money there. Yes, that’s possible but what’s just as likely, perhaps even more likely, is that the customer will appreciate the honesty that the company is displaying. The company might lose one customer but they’ll gain several more who like to deal with honest people.

Honesty needs to be coupled with humility. Humility is just having a modest view of your own importance but unfortunately that’s not a common thing in business. All too often business leaders think that because they drive a nice car and have a really big chair then they’re somehow really important. That’s not always true and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve wanted to point out that they are “only the Managing Director”. They might have lots of responsibility but that does NOT make them the most important person in the company. MDs and CEOs should ask themselves this question every day: “Which will have the greatest impact on the business today: my sudden death or the sudden death of my employees?”

Most CEOs and MDs are afraid to ask that question because they know the answer already.

There needs to be some corporate humility when dealing with customers. Companies need to admit that they make mistakes. They need to admit that despite all the ostentatious IT expenditure, the useless courses they send their staff on and the expensive headquarters, the company still comprises human beings who occasionally make mistakes. It might not have been the shop-floor worker who made the mistake, it might have been the CEO, the consultant who designed their procedures or the 22-year old IT techie with no business understanding that made the mistake but one was made nevertheless and it’s time to admit it.

What so many business leaders forget (or perhaps never knew) is that even though admitting failure is a humbling experience, it’s also a very mature one. Grown-ups admit their failings. It’s only small children, the deluded and the emotionally pathetic that can’t.

A trick that can often help, once you’ve taken the leap towards humility, is to engage with your customer in finding a solution to their problem. Is your company humble and courageous enough to say something like: “How can we help fix this problem for you?”

Yes, there’s the risk that the customer will demand fortunes but they are much more likely to be perfectly reasonable and ask for just what they’re entitled to, perhaps just a replacement for their unsatisfactory product. Which, by the way, they are probably entitled to receive.

All of this, the commitment to honesty and telling the whole truth, the need to show some humility and the obligation to be mature can all be summarised in one word: respect.

If your company can show customers some respect, even when you think they probably don’t deserve it, you’ll be making a great leap forward, not just for the customer in question but for the entire company. A company that starts from a position of respecting its customers is one that will be respected back. And that’s the sort of company that we all want to buy from.

If you have any consumer issues please get in touch.  Email us at [email protected], by post to P. Box 403026, Gaborone or by phone on 3904582 or fax on 3911763.  Read the Consumer Watchdog blog at consumerwatchdogbw.blogspot.com and join our Facebook group called “Consumer Watchdog Botswana”.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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