3rd Ingredient® Part 2: It's A Matter Of Trust

Jim Blasingame

Charles Darwin didn't have to travel to the Galapagos Islands to research the concepts of survival of the fittest and natural selection. The marketplace has always been a rude part of our world, and those two concepts were evident in the marketplace in 1837, and are still alive and well today.

Until about 1975, this rudeness was typically only among competitors. Indeed, a well-developed sense of trust - almost a contract - between companies and their employees, and businesses and their customers, existed in the marketplace, especially after WWII.

But while the value of customers to a business should always be paramount, let's be honest: An employee is not unlike other assets in which corporations invest in anticipation of a return.

As a pup, I learned this cruel lesson at the knee of an early mentor/boss who, in turning me down for a raise said, "Jim, as employees, we're only worth so much to the company."

Employment Trust In The Balance
So how has this employment trust changed since 1975? I'll use a balance sheet analogy to explain.

When you look at the assets on a corporate balance sheet, there are two kinds: current and fixed. By 1975, trust between corporation and employee was beginning to erode as the corporate attitude toward their greatest off-balance sheet asset, employees, began changing from being like a fixed asset to more like a current asset. In other words, employees were being viewed more like inventory on the shelf than like mills bolted to the concrete floor, or buildings planted in the ground.

We humans are hopeless romantics with short memories. Even though the concept of working for a major corporation for 40 years, earning a promotion and a raise on an almost predictable schedule, and enjoying a secure retirement was a relatively brief 20th century phenomenon, it had become the career paradigm for tens of millions. But when the red on this candy was licked off, the trust that had once been in evidence became increasingly only perceived by employees.

Trust And The Customer
Notwithstanding catalogues and e-commerce, most purchases are still transacted person-to-person. In his 1980s watershed book, Megatrends, John Naisbitt acknowledged that people would adopt high-tech, but predicted they would still want high-touch. I don't remember if Naisbitt touched on the concept of trust, but I think trust is to high-touch as faith is to religion. And for generations, almost religiously, consumers did business with the same businesses because they wanted to deal with the same people. Customers trusted the people first, and the company last.

As employee assets became devalued, customers found that they were losing the company representatives they trusted. High touch is more than just human contact. It's also about community. And community doesn't exist without trust.

It's A Matter Of Contrast
Where is that trusting relationship possible in the marketplace today? Sure we have our loyalties to big companies and their brands because of their excellent products and services. But over the past quarter-century, the marketplace has evolved in quantum leaps away from the long-term benefits of trust, toward short-term performance. Unfortunately we humans, as both employees and customers, aren't capable of changing that fast. We are still wired for trust.

In one of my favorite new books, Built On Trust, co-authored by my friend and Brain Trust member, Arky Ciancutti, M.D., I found this: "We are a society in search of trust. The less we find it, the more precious it becomes."

In a world where human beings still yearn for high touch, both as employees and as customers, there are places where secular high touch not only exists, but was actually born. Where, in contrast to the rest of the marketplace, trust can still be found in abundance. Those places are our small businesses.

And the good news for small business owners is that all we have to do is stop feeling and acting like marketplace ugly ducklings and take advantage of this period when, in contrast to big businesses, we actually look like the beautiful swans we have always been.

Happy Birthday Small Business
On my show recently, Arky said, "An organization in which people earn one another's trust, and that commands trust from the public, has a competitive advantage."

In the rude greater marketplace, now seemingly designed for the elimination of trust - that thing as much at the core of humanity and society as anything else - small businesses have been handed a rare gift. Happy birthday. And all we have to do is acknowledge this gift, and develop plans to turn this opportunity into a tool to create and leverage the competitive advantage Arky is talking about when he says, "The competitive advantage that trust gives your organization is there for the taking, waiting to be harvested. It's not even low-hanging fruit. It's lying on the ground."

Of course, Arky and his co-author, Thomas L. Stedling, Ph.D., are speaking to and about all sizes of businesses. But knowing that trust has become precious and being able to deliver it, as Mark Twain once said, is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I believe the organizations that are most able to bend over and pick up this "fruit", and derive a virtually immediate benefit, are ALL small.

The Trust War Is Over - Small Business Won
Your business has two significant off-balance sheet assets: trained, productive employees and the goodwill between company and customers. For the past hundred years it became increasingly difficult for small businesses to compete for either of these assets against the big companies. No more.

Now that major corporations can no longer be trusted to adopt employees for life, the benefits of working for a big company are less dramatic when compared to those of working for an entrepreneurial organization, where a culture of trust has been installed.

And if Arky is correct that trust is now precious to customers; plus if I'm correct that trust is still available in small businesses, let's build our business culture on the foundation of trust, and market ourselves that way. When I've helped small businesses put their best foot forward, one of my favorite things to do is identify long tenures of key employees, or the average tenure of their staff. When customers see that, they don't see numbers, they see T-R-U-S-T.

Walk The Talk
But you have to deliver more than lip service. You have to actually deliver trust. There are many steps to delivering trust, within and without your organization, but here are some from Built On Trust that I think are four major parts of the greater trust umbrella, followed by my comments:

1. Handle issues at the lowest possible level.
That mentor I mentioned earlier once told me, "Jim, when you get an unhappy customer, do everything you can to solve the problem. Because if they get to me, I'm going to give them whatever they want." Train your employees how to deliver trust, empower them to do so, and get out of the way.

2. Tell the truth.
Even if it's bad news. Not only is truth very moral, it's very efficient and very simple. Albert Camus once wrote, "Integrity has no need of rules." If trust were a being, integrity would be its very uncomplicated skeleton.

3. No surprises.
Surprises are for birthdays. In the marketplace, most surprises are not good. Surprises are part of the acid rain that can erode a mountain of trust.

4. Management as role model.
Trust is delivered to an organization by gravity feed. If I learned one thing as a soldier and commander in the U.S. Army, it's that if you want to see the management style, philosophy, and bearing of a commander, talk with one the privates. As you lead, so shall you perform. If you can't manage with trust, you won't enjoy the benefits of trust.

Write this on a rock... Small business doesn't have many advantages in today's marketplace. One advantage we do have is an ability to deliver one of the most valued and precious elements in our culture - trust. And the greatest gift we have ever been handed is the current contrast in the evidence of trust that now exists between small businesses and big businesses. Happy birthday.


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