By Mike Rocha
“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche.
A MATTER OF TRUST
Trust will continue to be the most pressing issue for financial services brands in 2013, in particular, of course, for banks, the most tarnished group of all. Public distrust makes banks, and potentially other financial services brands, an easy target for government. With regulation and taxation measures threatening returns, independence and business models, re-building trust with consumers and customers should be a key priority for most brands in most markets.
At present, many brands have decided to “lie low,” hunkering down as they are buffeted by a seemingly endless stream of bad news stories, LIBOR being the most recent and, potentially, the most damaging yet. For those directly involved in LIBOR, it may make sense to wait a little longer for the storms to pass. For the rest, 2013 is the year to draw a line in the sand and say “we have changed,” “we are different now.”
INTEGRITY: WALKING THE WALK
Credible? Perhaps not immediately, but over time, and combined with actions not just words, banking brands can take their first steps on the long road to redemption and a restoration of trust.
The “Trust Equation”1 suggests that:
This equation was developed in the context of professional service advisors, but can be applied more generally to brands. The Trust Equation also reflects Interbrand’s Brand Strength, the ten factors that we believe are required to build a strong and valuable brand.
"Making good on promises and staying true to core values, consistently over time, is the only way to be perceived as authentic, credible, reliable: more trustworthy."
ESSENTIAL PILLARS OF A TRUSTWORTHY BRAND
Authenticity, as our Brand Strength factors indicate, is one of the hallmarks of a strong brand. For us, authenticity is about having clear and well-grounded values and delivering on expectations. Authentic brands have a firm identity, communicate their core values and prove through their culture, their day-to-day business practices and their relationships with customers, that they actually put their values into practice. Making good on promises and staying true to core values, consistently over time, is the only way to be perceived as authentic, credible, reliable: more trustworthy.
Understanding is another important Brand Strength factor—and it’s a two-way street. Customers want to know they’re being heard and brands have to work to ensure customers have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of a brand’s distinctive qualities and characteristics. Customers who understand what a brand stands for—and feel that a company understands their needs and values their input—are more likely to feel a level of intimacy, and therefore trust, in their service provider.
To foster understanding, focus must shift from self-orientation to client-orientation. Self-orientation is not selfishness, but a preoccupation with our own needs and goals that prevents us from hearing others. If we cannot hear what others really want and need, we can’t deliver for them. But if we tune into what our customers need, rather than what we need from them, our customers will feel like we care about them and will be more likely to consider us trustworthy.
In Brand Strength terms, listening is the key to delivering solutions that are relevant (meeting the actual needs of specific customers) and being genuinely responsive (adapting quickly—and appropriately—to emerging needs and trends). Legitimate client focus, combined with relevance and responsiveness, will minimize the prevailing sense of self-orientation and begin to grow trust.
"It’s wonderful to speak of values like integrity, honesty and superior client service, but it’s even more important to live them."
WHERE TO START
As always, start from the top. The effort to rebuild trust must start with the CEO and executive leadership team. There must be clarity about what the brand stands for, what purpose it serves, and a commitment to ensuring that this clarity flows from the leadership to employees, customers and the broader public. There must also be alignment between what the company says and what the company does. It’s wonderful to speak of values like integrity, honesty and superior client service, but it’s even more important to live them.
Employees are also critical in helping to build the integrity of an organization. Their trust is an essential precursor to rebuilding trust with customers. They should be involved in a thorough review of the purpose and values of the organization and engaged and motivated behind a new promise. Further, their commitment should be tracked over time. Are employees really relating to clients in accordance with the company’s values, or are they cutting corners and promising things they can’t deliver? In large part, reforming an organization’s culture alone should lead to improved client outcomes, an improved reputation and, eventually, a restored public image.
Greater support for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular can also be a strong catalyst for rebuilding trust. SMEs are recognized as being the engines of job creation and economic recovery, yet banks have been reluctant to lend to them. Starved of funds, small and medium sized businesses have been left behind—and that is not helping to turn around the popular notion that banks are “the bad guys” and “only out for themselves.” However, supporting SMEs and creating success stories in this area, despite the risks of doing so, will help show that banks are acting for the good of society, not just their own pockets.
With trust at an all time low, these steps must be taken very carefully: Listen to customers, lower self- orientation, be authentic, foster mutual understanding, be relevant and responsive. Realize that leadership sets the tone and the example for the entire organization, and that broader social and organizational changes can begin with the actions of one person: you. Granted, the higher your position in an organization, the greater your potential impact. But whether you’re a CEO or a sales representative, start with your own actions and work on improving your own interactions with customers. Live your company’s brand values every day and encourage your colleagues and employees to do the same. You may be surprised to see what a difference small, but steady steps in this direction will make.
Ultimately, business is about exchanging things of value. In order to get value from your client relationships, you need to give them something of value first, which involves really hearing them and responding to their needs. Financial services brands that put renewed effort into rebuilding strained relationships and tarnished images will differentiate themselves from brands that are still practicing business as usual—and further alienating clients (and disappointing the public) in the process. In 2013 and beyond, it will be the brands that change voluntarily, transforming cultures of greed into cultures of cooperation and mutual benefit, that will survive in the long-term, withstand the vicissitudes of our uncertain times and build enduring business and brand value.
1From “The Trusted Advisor” by David Maister.