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Trust: the elemental force behind meaningful relationships

How many times have we associated ourselves with people or a brand because we trust and the opposite? How does it feel to be in a low-trust relationship? Do you go near brands that don’t infuse trust or refuse to touch them with a barge-pole? For a brand, the higher it features on the trust barometer of its consumers, the higher are the returns.

My user research work has always given me the wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the user’s world, know the real they, and learn about their aspirations, motivations and their needs. Often, my ethnographic research makes me revisit certain concepts repeatedly. One such concept that has always intrigued me is ‘trust’. Trust is the elemental force that underpins our decisions at both personal and professional levels 24/7. It has a direct bearing on our relationships across all walks of life.

In this article, I am sharing insights on trust that I have arrived at through my several hundreds of interactions with users and clients conducted across over a decade of my work.

When stakes are high, consumers incline towards brands they completely trust.

We all have that friend, coworker, family member or an external support we rely on during times of crisis or very important moments of our life. Similarly, when we are looking for qualities such as assurance, dependability, quick turnaround, no mistakes, or anything else that is of extreme importance to us, we automatically go to the brands that have established high trust with us or with the people in our circle of influence. During these instances, users don’t hesitate to spend extra pennies to achieve the desired experience.

While studying people’s travel purchase behaviour, it strongly emerged that most users implicitly trusted their travel agents to take care of their travel requirements even though they were fully aware of alternate options available. When stakes are high, the travellers do not want to experience any roadblocks that could sour their travel experience. They mentioned that their travel agent had developed a multi-generational trust and with his availability across all the touchpoints of the traveller’s journey, they had no reason to look elsewhere. The human touch offered by the travel agents trumped over the services offered by the bigwigs out there.

Trust creates a sense of reliability.

During one of the studies, we wanted to understand users' preferred retail platforms and the reasons for their preference. The users preferred a very popular platform over others because the brand had built high-trust with its users by being available for the user throughout their purchase and after-sales journey. To quote a user: “… their customer care is really good. Even when there have been certain issues with the product, they really helped me; the problems were solved with ease.” Another user said, “If I have to buy a premium product, for example, a watch, then I will purchase it from them only. It gives us assurance that the product will be genuine if we purchase from them. Even after 6 months, they give you an assurance that they will provide service and fix [your] issues.”

When a brand communicates with their user and shows in action that they have your back, the journey of trust begins. Lack of trust, on the other hand, creates suspicion towards a brand’s competencies, intent, and values.

Trusted relationships have a larger room for forgiveness.

We have experienced this even in our personal lives when we are upset with a person with whom we have a high-trust relationship, we often forgive them. Similarly, when your users have placed implicit trust in your brand, minor mistakes are often forgiven as the overall character of your brand is still in line with the consumer’s values and beliefs. As long as it does not turn into a pattern.

Take the example of your favorite restaurant. You are at the restaurant with your close friends and have placed the order for food. The server bungles your order and serves you something else. The likelihood of you not going back to that restaurant is pretty low although you may feel a tad bit of annoyance as you are hungry and waiting for the food that you ordered. Similarly, when a well-set system functions efficiently and meets your requirements, your chances of forgiving, overlooking or strongly reacting to mistakes are lower. When we conducted in-depth interviews with travelers who get their tickets booked and travel planned through their travel agent, the users mentioned that they often overlook the smaller mistakes committed by the travel agents in bookings such as not getting the right kind of hotel for their stay because they trust the agent to fix the problem for them. Additionally, their long-standing relationship with the agent has created a sense of trust, dependency, and assurance, so the users also do not want to sour their relationship with their agent.

Sustained culture of trust creates unparalleled success.

Trust between a brand and its users cannot be built without its presence within the four walls of the organisation. Trust is considered as one of the most important skills for great leadership and we’ve all heard stories of how internal mistrust has led to the downfall of organisations, debacles in teams and created an environment of frustration and discouragement.

A culture of trust when established within an organization right across all the nooks and crannies has a direct bearing on the employees willingness to solve problems and evolve to meet the changing consumer’s needs and expectations.

Egos, red-tapism, and insecurities lead to mistrust and in such an environment, employees lose sight of the values and beliefs of their organization and instead get more consumed in navigating through the quagmire of internal politics and saving one’s backside.

In one such instance, UCC was called by a globally leading organization to help them understand why their employees were so disengaged. Perfunctory employee surveys had been rolled out, 360° feedback was done, but to no avail. The employees were low on morale and it was evident to the supervisors and leaders. Through an intensive Design Thinking workshop conducted by UCC, it was clear as the day that there was a lack of trust between the employees and the senior leadership. We created a safe environment with the audience that comprised of the staff and function heads and encouraged participants to share their thoughts without the fear of being judged or reprimanded. A deep sense of curiosity coupled with the openness to learn opened the tightly-shut doors to free-flowing conversations. Immersive exercises that made the participants understand the problem, work towards solving it and exercising tools designed to know the ‘people’ associated and affected with the problem got the participants to traverse on the journey to finding possible solutions. The leaders, on the other hand, also came from the place of trust and not judgment and biases towards their actions as we had conducted a dedicated empathy workshop for them to understand the importance and finer nuances of empathy. They agreed and committed to following tenets of empathy all through this exercise and in their professional life, in general.

By the end of the workshop, the tension in the air had drastically reduced making way for an environment where open talk and collaboration were encouraged, and the only bias that existed was a bias towards solving the problem. Gaining employee and consumer trust is like driving on a long-winded, bumpy road; however, the drive becomes enjoyable when the travellers (a metaphor I use for the organisation leaders) maintain a keen eye on the road, observe the surroundings, and navigate accordingly. Here maintaining an eye on the road equates to constantly knowing your employees and consumers, learning what’s important to them, and acting on that knowledge.

Organisations cannot afford to think that they are invincible like Antaeus — the son of Gaia, the earth Goddess and Poseidon, the God of the seas. When Hercules had to combat him, he killed Antaeus by detaching him from the ground as Antaeus derived strength from Gaia and was invincible as long as he was in contact with the ground. At no point, should the organizations lose contact with the real world that exists around and outside the glass walls.

These were some of the insights on trust that I have arrived at and I continue to research trust. What are some of your stories and experiences in relation to trust? Keep the interaction going (you can write your comments here or e-mail me at because I’m certain we have lots to share.

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