Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 288
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Restoring Trust

New research offers guidance to business owners who have lost the trust of their customers.

"A bad day: Your store opens in 5 minutes, and you can see people sitting in cars watching the door. The bin near the entrance with the advertised special for the day stands nearly empty. The truck did not come in overnight as expected. Soon after opening, people begin occupying your time expressing their anger over a wasted trip, and you apologize and promise an adequate supply the following day.

A worse day: Your store opens in 5 minutes. The same people are back again, waiting outside, and your specials bin stands completely empty. Your apology and promise are well rehearsed, but on this day you have few opportunities to use them. People walk to the empty bin, shake their heads, and walk out of the store without a word. When you see this, you have the unsettled feeling that you will never see them again.

Some would say this is hopeless. These customers have lost their trust, and it can�t be restored. However, Maurice Schweitzer, from the University of Pennsylvania would disagree. He conducted an elaborate experiment that examined the process of restoring lost trust, and what he learned will guide and encourage business owners.

Schweitzer defined trust as �the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another�s behavior.� The customers in the above example traveled to the merchant�s store, giving up both time and money to get there. They trusted the merchant, and they were let down. Schweitzer placed 262 young adults in a very similar situation, and then he tested the efficacy of several ways of restoring their trust.

First, he measured the harm to trust by adding a lie to the initial untrustworthy actions. He defined the lie from the perspective of the victim of the untrustworthy behavior, rather than the intentions of the person committing the untrustworthy act. The lie was a statement that the victim could expect certain behavior and then actually delivering contradictory behavior. The resulting action turned the statement into a lie. The merchant did the same thing by promising an adequate supply the next day and then failing to deliver on this promise. In this situation, Schweitzer discovered that trust was permanently harmed. Although subsequent trustworthy actions did moderately restore trust, trust never reached the initial high level before any untrustworthy actions occurred.

Next, Schweitzer examined a situation that did not include the lie and measured the effect of subsequent trustworthy actions alone in restoring lost trust. In this situation, initial trust recovery was slow, but with repeated trustworthy actions, long term trust was completely restored.

Next, Schweitzer tested the effect of a promise. The merchant in the above example made a promise, but subsequent events proved the promise to be a lie. Schweitzer examined the effect of a promise when the statement was not a lie. When the promise was actually kept, then initial trust recovery was very fast, and full trust was quickly restored. Subsequent trustworthy actions maintained full trust.

Finally, Schweitzer measured the effect of an apology, and found that it failed to influence the trust recovery process at all. Indeed, he detected evidence that apologies actually harmed the process, especially when there had been deception � a lie. Customers suspected another deception, he reasoned, and it only deepened their distrust.

The most important question on customers� minds when they experience an action that violates their trust is this: �Did the business owner mean to deceive me?� When promises are immediately broken, customers typically believe the promise was a lie, and the business owner�s intent was to deceive. When customers believe the deception was deliberate, then trust is permanently harmed. Schweitzer most emphatically recommends that business owners avoid this unpleasant conclusion by following the rule to never make promises they can�t keep.

The next most important question on customers� minds is this: �What happens next?� A promise speaks directly to this question, while an apology does not. Once again, Schweitzer�s research leads back to the promise.

Being in business means taking risks, and sometimes, when we ourselves are disappointed, we find that we have lost the trust of others. We recognize that we must recover this trust quickly or find something else to do. A business doesn�t long survive without trusting customers. Fortunately, it is possible to recover trust, and Professor Schweitzer has given us guidance on how to do it.

Reference: Schweitzer, Maurice, John Hershey, and Eric Bradlow (2006) Promises and lies: Restoring violated trust. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101 (2006), 1-19.

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