Many articles we read online teach us about trust in the context of conversion. While conversion is essential, trust has other implications for online businesses that go beyond in-the-moment sales. In this article, we move deeper into the multidimensional topic of trust and how it supports the building of online stores on a larger scale. Real trust, backed by a massively loyal customer base, can significantly aid your vision and build a strong foundation for years to come.

Why is trust so important

Trust creates stability in our daily lives in all types of relationships. We trust our parents to keep us safe and help us grow during the most critical years of our lives. We trust our friends to keep our confidence and support us when we need a pick-me-up. We even trust the bus driver to keep his/her eyes on the road, and the barista to get our morning coffee just right. We trust people in every facet of our lives, both personal and transactional.

In fact, trust may be even more critical in transactional relationships, partly because its easier to quantify trust in a commercial setting, but also because transactional relationships are inherently low-trust.

So, while quantifying a customer’s trust in your brand and business is simple, through measuring repeat purchases, customer referrals, and positive reviews, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build trust.

Trust develops over time, through repeated interactions that build confidence and a feeling of safety. And when customers feel safe and confident, they repeat their behaviors with less hesitation, creating a new foundation for your customer-to-business relationship.

You can think of this foundation as multi-layered. Each layer of trust builds the foundation deeper and stronger, creating more staying power for your customer’s relationship with your business. With each new layer, switching to the competition gets harder as your customer is more and more emotionally invested in your brand.

The stronger you build the foundation the bigger your building can be. Replace foundation with trust, and building with business, and there you have it.

So we see that this foundation is the primary source of a business’s long-term growth.

Trust is multidimensional

Back in 2002, the dinosaur days of ecommerce, D. Harrison McKnight, Vivek Choudhury, and Charles Kacmar conducted a super-cool study on trust for ecommerce brands. This was the "wild, wild, West" days of ecommerce, as the publishers put it. During their research, they were able to discern four high-level constructs of trust from their data which result in trusting behavior:

  • disposition to trust,
  • institution-based trust,
  • trusting beliefs,
  • and trusting intentions.

Put a different way we can say that customers enter into trusting behavior based upon:

  • how likely they are to trust others in the first place;
  • trusting the institution through which the transaction is taking place (e.g., the internet, your website, any third-party payment processors);
  • what their beliefs are about your brand in regards to competence (the ability of your brand to do what the customer needs), benevolence (your brand’s caring and motivation to act in the customer’s best interests), and integrity (your brand’s honesty and promise keeping);
  • and finally, by the customer’s willingness to rely upon or depend on your brand.

That allows us to look at trust-building within our businesses from four perspectives. To build trust as an asset, we must:

  • seek out and choose to serve customers that are inherently predispositioned to trust;
  • display meaningful certifications, provide guarantees & safety nets, offer generous return policies, and have top-notch customer support;
  • continuously develop better competencies within our business, care deeply and sincerely about our customers and what they dream of achieving, and always act with the utmost of integrity;
  • and finally, offer expert advice, sell quality products, and make it easy for customers to come back for more.

Framing For The Right Customers

In the world of ecommerce, it can feel like we don't pick our customers, but that they choose us. That is partly true.

Customers may very well be the ones who decide to purchase some gadget or service to fulfill their needs or desires. However, it is us who choose what to sell, where to sell it, and how the transaction will be fulfilled.

For example, our prices and how we choose to display them has the effect of targeting the right customers. In an article by Roger Dooley, he states “Tiffany cleverly delays showing you the price for as long as possible. When they do show the price, it’s in small, understated type… [The] research shows that if you change the point at which the price of a product is seen, you can control the frame the consumer uses to evaluate the offer.” And if you control the frame, you control who’s liable to purchase.

Add to that the price tag of $5K+, and you're highly likely to attract a very particular type of customer.

Narrow your target customer as much as possible. This will amplify your trust building with them.

This pricing strategy is a trust signal. It gives potential customers a preview of the type of experience they are likely to have.

By narrowing your frame as much as possible, we attract the customers that are more likely to trust our brand and offer and then make a purchase.

Displaying Trust Signals

When a potential customer arrives on your site, they are looking for trust signals. In other words, they are seeking proof that you are a trustworthy brand and that they aren't going to have a bad experience, whether that be as low-key as late delivery or as significant as being scammed.

These days, many trust signals are required by payment processors regardless of your desire to implement them. Things like SSL certificates and PCI compliance come to mind. You typically can't run an ecommerce site without SSL, and at a particular scale your payment processor will require something akin to PCI compliance to ensure you're handling sensitive customer data with the utmost care.

But there are other signals you can employ.

You can show off badges that advertise a money-back guarantee or free shipping. You can seek other badges of honor like industry-level certifications or a Free Trade certification.

And trust signaling isn't only about honors bestowed upon you by third parties. It's also internal.

For example, think about the initial interaction that customers have with your sales and support staff. Is support immediately available? Do they seem knowledgeable? Do they have the power to help customers with problems without layers of bureaucracy?

Exceptional customer support, at the pre-sale and post-sale stages, is a critical trust signal that helps customers develop a deeper relationship with your brand.

Convey Competency, Benevolence, and Integrity

Competency

In all likelihood, you are competent at what you do. Your store probably works, transactions get processed safely, and goods are shipped on time and intact. But your prospects don't know that.

Competency can be a difficult thing to convey, but it is possible. Do you display customer testimonials prominently on your website? What about reviews? Perhaps you can show the number of fulfilled orders or amount of happy customers on your homepage.

The language you use on your site is also a form of competency signaling. Do you know the lingo? Can you explain the intricacies of complex products? Do you have a detailed FAQ?

All of these things help show prospects that you probably know what you’re doing. The only thing to do after that is to show that you know what you're doing by doing it correctly.

Benevolence

In the study mentioned at the start of this article, benevolence was the most specified characteristic of an online business that caused users to feel a sense of trust.

That's because it's so rare that companies have their customers' best interests in mind. Instead, most businesses think only about increasing revenue and decreasing expenses. So unique is it that a company actually cares about us, that those who do so can earn evangelical support.

A great example of this is Trader Joe’s. Almost nothing they do makes any sense from a traditional perspective. They:

  • have far fewer SKUs than typical grocery chains,
  • remove and replace SKUs all the time,
  • restock during the day instead of at night,
  • have an army of staff at each store,
  • offer employees above average wages and benefits,
  • don’t use automated checkout machines, and
  • spend as much time with each customer as the customer needs.

The result of this? Trader Joe’s customers are in for life. So much so that people create petitions with hundreds and thousands of participants to get a Trader Joe’s to open in their town.

All this is possible because Trader Joe’s knows their customer.

So, for you to convey benevolence, it’s critical that you also understand your customers to an extreme degree. What are their goals, desires, dreams, or fears? How much money do they make? What do they do for work? What other brands do they trust?

After that, you must make the content on your store reflect those attributes. Your copy and design should convey how your product helps your customer achieve their goals or alleviate their fears and everything in between. Anything that doesn't must go.

Integrity

While we can attempt to display artifacts of past integrity with testimonials, reviews, and customer referrals, integrity is something more. Integrity must be practiced.

What’s more, we can only practice integrity in those critical moments when a promise is on the verge of being broken.

Are you behind on fulfilling orders for customers? Don't merely hope for the best and pray nobody leaves you a negative review because of the matter.

Instead, go above and beyond to correct the problem. Pick up your phone, call each of your customers, and let them know the bad news. Ask them what you can do to help re-establish trust. That might be a discount, a gift, a bouquet of flowers, or maybe all three.

Re-establishing trust might mean driving a low-value order to a customer’s house so that it’s fulfilled on time, as was the case for Gary Vaynerchuk.

“One of my favorite stories from the Wine Library days,” Gary writes, “is when I went out of my way in the middle of a snowstorm to deliver a case of low-end wine during the holidays. Now, did I have to do it? Did I really need that one-bottle sale? From a profit standpoint, no. But I valued my customer, wanted to show my appreciation, and also wanted to show my employees how we should be approaching our customer relations. And so, that’s what I decided to do.”

To what lengths would you go to ensure your customers are not only satisfied, but ecstatic with your brand?

Whatever the issue and whatever the rectification process, it's what you do at this moment that defines your integrity.

Drop the ball once, and that customer will never trust you. But take responsibility, interact like a human, and make it right? That's what causes customers to love you forever.

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Trust is about more than conversion.

It’s about long-term growth. It’s about building a fanatical customer base that sings your praises, forgives your mistakes, and looks forward to your next product release.

At their height, Apple was the master of this strategy, and to some extent they still are. But we now see that, over the years, the trust and love of their brand are dwindling, replaced by worries about quarterly numbers and stock valuations.

As you build up trust in your own brand, don't fall into that trap. If you want your brand to stand the test of time, then trust is the most important thing.