Got Trust?

by Shonali Burke on April 26, 2010

With all this talk about “building trust” in an increasingly untrusting environment, I’ve been musing more and more about the concept of organizational empathy and how businesses are stretching to make authentic connections with customers.  These connections are more important than ever in the age of social media.

Image: Kahunapule Michael Johnson, Creative Commons

So who’s getting it right?

Ready to strap on a military helmet, heft around a 65-lb. pack, and eat the grub that soldiers eat?  That’s what employees at USAA are doing to empathetically connect with their clients.

Serving those who dedicate their lives to the protection of our country and its values, USAA is walking in the shoes of their customers—literally—and undoubtedly building trust.   For today’s companies, particularly in the era of web 2.0 technologies, value creation requires knowing as much as you can about the people you serve.

USAA is getting this right, but as a small business owner, you may not have time to walk in your client’s shoes.  So how do you learn to really understand your customer’s needs, wants, and desires?  It might be as simple as giving up what you think you already know.

Time for a good look in the mirror.

When you are a business owner and in a position of authority, it is human to make assumptions and allow self-referential thinking to dominate. Customers come to us wanting or needing something in particular, but we often fall short of understanding what exactly that is.  Here are a few assumptions business owners routinely make during customer interactions: 

Assuming customers have a complete understanding of your business solutions.

Should we, as business owners, assume our customers have a truly comprehensive picture about our business and the solutions we offer? When we make this assumption we miss the opportunity to identify a gap in knowledge.

Identifying this gap allows us to accurately determine what our customers need, how and when they need it, and what they might be missing.

Assuming your expert advice is relevant.

You might be an interesting person and well-versed about your business, but if your knowledge isn’t relevant to exactly what your customer is looking for, it isn’t worth a can of beans. For example, if I am selling cars and my customer is most interested in hearing about safety, imparting knowledge about gas mileage isn’t meeting the needs of my customer.

Assuming a need is a desire.

Huge assumption here! When you really listen to your clients, can you discern a desire from a need?  As a social media consultant and a big advocate of emerging technology, I have to remember that many of my clients find social media disruptive.

It’s disparaging to be dealt more cynicism than excitement when I counsel people on how to blog or use Facebook, but lacking empathy here can create a huge disconnect.

Assuming you are an expert at communicating.

The first step to becoming a great communicator is to not assume that you already are!  Never assume your customers understand you and the way you communicate.  Two separate brains and two unique sets of DNA are at work here!

Replace your assumptions with trust builders

  • Take the time to really listen and understand your customers, even if it’s hard.  Actually, effective listening should be hard.  Be okay with that!
  • When communicating with customers, ask more questions than you give responses.
  • When you ask questions, use clarifiers.  Examples: “Did I get that right?” “Am I missing anything?” “What does that mean to you?”
  • Strive to give clients only the information they need and only when they need it.
  • Be sensitive to what they may not know or any learning curve that might exist.
  • Focus on how customers experience life as a result of their interaction with your business; it is never about your products and services per se (that’s actually another assumption).  Customers buy results.


The more assumptions you leave behind, the more room you’ll have for building authentic relationships that are built on trust.  Connecting with customers—what more can a business owner ask for?

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Regular guest contributor Terri Holley is the owner of Creative Blog Solutions and a social media strategist, plus a certified life/business coach. A forward-thinker and relationship-centric gal, Terri supports small businesses who understand the value of using social technologies to build deeper relationships with prospects and customers.

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