Trust in Personal Relationships
Assessing the degree to which we can trust other people is fundamental to every human relationship, and a necessary survival skill: we assess whether another creature poses a threat before we begin to consider if there is any possible value in interaction. While we are drawn to others because we recognize the efficiencies gained by collaborative effort, and while we must often depend on others due to the differentiation and specialization of labor, our first question is merely "will this person do me harm?" That is, we are distrustful immediately, and develop trust afterward.
At this point, intelligence works both for and against our willingness to trust in others. We feel confident that the outcome of cooperation is positive if the other party has the intelligence to formulate a sound plan (though realistically, this is more in terms of insightfulness - their ability to perceive something we do not - rather than intelligence, because it is our own intellect that is used to assess the plan they are proposing). On the other hand, we have the distinct sense that clever people use their intelligence to deceive others, which causes us to question the confidence we have in a plan that seems intelligent, but may merely be clever. It is for that reason that we value intelligent people, but are reluctant to trust them.
After the initial encounter, trust has less to do with our gut reaction to a person, and more to do with our experience dealing with that individual. If previous engagements have, indeed, been mutually beneficial then it is out expectation that future engagements will follow in the same line - and we spend less time scrutinizing the person and their plan and place greater faith that this time will turn out like the last time. Even so, we remain apprehensive to some degree, until we have had sufficient experience with a person to take it for granted that they are likely to be fair with others.
Trust in Brand Relationships
The way in which we relate to brands and companies is entirely analogous to the way in which we relate to people and groups (respectively), with one marked difference: we are well aware of our interests and theirs. The customer has a need or aspiration that he wishes to address, the brand or company offers him a promise to serve that interest while meanwhile having its own interest in receiving money in exchange.
The customer is well aware of the primary risk that he is taking on - that the product he is being offered will fail to meet his needs, and that in spite of consumer protectionism and any guarantee or warranty the seller might intimate, he stands to lose the amount of money he gave to the seller - which is significant only in that its loss will prevent him from purchasing an alternative product that would have been successful. In certain instances there are secondary risks, such as having to take on the disposal cost to rid himself of the product or the damage that may be done to him or his property in the course of using it, but these tend in most instances to be relatively minor.
Germane to this topic, however, the problem is not that companies are unable to convince their intended customers that their products are capable of addressing their needs in a cost-effective manner. This has been the thrust of advertising and sales promotion all along, and while its success rate is dismal, this is likely the best that can be done given that most of these messages take the intelligent approach and fail to build trust.
That is to say that customers are aware that, in order to get money out of them, companies wish to give them the impression that their products are capable of meeting their needs at a price that's comparable to or less than other alternatives. But until trust is established, these claims are not regarded as being truthful or reliable, but instead as subterfuge offered by a party whose primary interest is in getting what it wants from others, and doing as little as possible for them in return.
While companies often engage in "brand marketing" or public relations campaigns in order to build trust, it is with some sense of irony that it can be observed how little of the marketing budget is devoted to these initiatives - the majority is spent on promulgating claims that no-one will believe rather than investing in developing the trustworthiness for those claims to be believed. Hence, the dismal success rate for promotional and product advertising.
A few topics came to mind during this meditation, but I set them aside to avoid clouding the fundamental issue:
- Experience - The degree to which past interactions cause us to give trust to someone without as much consideration of their present proposal
- Reputation - The degree to which we grant trust to an unknown person because other people have positive opinions and share anecdotal evidence
- Groups - The degree to which the behavior of some members of a group causes us to regard the entire group
- Cross-Wiring - The degree to which a person is similar in incidental ways (they have a similar appearance, voice, etc.) to another whom we have positive or negative experience
There are likely other topics as well, as trust is a very complex issue, but a critical one for customer engagement.