THE BLOG

What Do Companies Need to Do to Regain Trust? Be More Than Ethical

03/06/2013 17:07 BST | Updated 31/07/2013 10:12 BST

The 12th annual Responsible Business Summit took place earlier this month in London, and one of the sessions on its agenda asked how the banking sector could win back the public's trust and avoid what they called 'Ivory Tower Syndrome' in the light of a YouGov poll showing that nearly half of people believe high street banks to be dishonest and incompetent, and 60% of people don't trust them to look after their money.

The issue of trust is something I feel strongly about. As a businessman and the owner of an ethical company, The Clean Space, I hear a lot of talk about building trust in terms of ethical credentials. It can be frustrating, and I find that the way some businesses talk about their ethics can be overly emotive, off-putting and disconnected from the products and services they provide. In short, companies can often seem insincere.

A good example of this is the reaction of some high street fashion chains to the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothes manufacturing factory in Bangladesh. Many companies have refused to sign the safety accord drafted in the wake of the disaster, and yet some of these companies, such as Arcadia (which own Top Shop), still claim to have ethical programmes in place. Concerned consumers are presumably supposed to take their word for it.

Trust is about more than just ethics, however. This Guardian article about social enterprise made the point that people are unlikely to buy from a company with solid ethical credentials when the product itself is not up to scratch. This is why I believe that when it comes to building trust, ethics and competence should go hand in hand.

So how does a company build a coherent approach to trust?

The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, published earlier this year, is the result of a survey of 26,000 people into their trust of businesses and government. The slideshow contains a fantastic breakdown, reproduced here, of attributes which build trust in businesses. Integrity, ethics, quality of products and services and treatment of customers and employees are all included.

Most important to me from that list however is 'transparent and open business practices', because without that, none of the other things carry any weight. Clients and consumers may not choose to look closely into every product or service they buy, but just knowing that the information is there should they want it fosters trust. This post, citing research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), makes the additional point that transparent businesses perform more effectively.

Edelman's research confirms my view that it's important to connect the dots between everything you do as a business if you want customers and clients to trust you, making transparency your foundation. At The Clean Space, we achieve this by looking at four principles - and I'd argue that all businesses should think about how these apply to their company:

Transparency: Clients and customers understand businesses need to make money, but want to know that everything is above board and they're not getting ripped off.

Visibility: Be proud of your behaviour and your staff - trust and empower people at all levels of the business to be ambassadors for your company and your industry.

Communication: Good communication breeds relationships and relationships breed trust.

Delivery: The greatest source of trust is a track-record of delivery. If a company understands what is expected of it and delivers on that expectation, then clients and customers will trust it. Of course it's impossible to be 100% perfect, so when companies make mistakes they should hold their hands up, put things right swiftly and get it right next time.

Being a small business also helps - the Trust Barometer found that in developed economies such as the UK, small businesses are trusted more than large corporations. This study shows that small businesses are even trusted to provide economic growth more effectively than large organisations.

In my view, building the trust of clients and consumers is a vital part of the emotional intelligence of organisations and a responsible approach to business. In the current economic climate, business owners can't afford to ignore it. It has to be comprehensive, however. It takes more effort to build trust and transparency into every part of a business rather than make vague and emotive promises, but it's worth it when your employees and your clients reward you with their loyalty.