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Can I trust you if you do not trust me?

Trust Many years ago a Japanese friend of mine was dining in Tokyo with her mother in a famous five-star hotel. After they paid and lingered a bit in the elegant lobby, they began walking out the front door when the assistant manager came and stopped them asking them if they had paid for their meal, subtly implying that they had not. They were taken aback by this and shocked that they had to explain that they had of course paid. After some conversation the assistant manager accepted their word. But it was too late. The joy of the mother-daughter birthday lunch was now replaced by a very bad taste indeed. Later the hotel would try to apologies by phone (but only after the daughter wrote a formal letter of complaint), but even screwed that up by "appearing insincere," she said. Today my friend will not only never enter that hotel again (in any country) but has since influenced many of her friends with her story. "They didn't trust me and my mother," she said "so why should I give them my business ever again? I hate the very thought of that place." Trust is a big deal, and what a fragile thing it is.

What got me thinking about this, of all things, was the anti-Vista protests by Defective by Design and Bad Vista activists in New York City today. Take a look at this related short animated video presentation below by Lutz Vogel and Benjamin Stephan where they present their general point with words, graphics, and narration. The video presentation is not perfect (and there is a least one typo), but it provides at least a compelling introduction to the DRM/TPM issues. It may even give you some ideas for presenting your own story with words and graphics. (Original source of the video.)
Defective by design?

Drm_protestMy point here is not to comment on the DRM issue specifically (that's a bit outside the scope of this website). However, the work by the Defective By Design group is a good reminder for all of us to ask ourselves how our own services, processes, designs, etc. may be fundamentally "defective by design" in ways we had not realized. Trust is one very important feature we sometimes over look. Yet it's paramount. Sometimes we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers (or students, etc.) to see the fragility of the relationship vis-à-vis trust. Trust is such a fundamental aspect of design and simplicity, for example, that John Maeda devoted an entire chapter to trust (Law 8: In Simplicity we Trust) in his book The Laws of Simplicity which I talked about before.

All the services you offer, all the hours spent on employee training, and all the details your business or organization sweats can all be for naught if people sense you do not trust them. Trust is not everything in a relationship, but it's the first thing. Interpersonal relationships without trust fade away pretty quickly. Can not this apply even to teachers and professors? Will not even the best lesson plan fail if a student feels that the teacher does not trust the student. If you don't trust me, how can I trust you?

Your trust (in me) is inspiring
When I was in college a local tennis shop let me take out 3-4 new rackets at a time over night for my girlfriend and me to "test drive" on the courts near our dorm on the OSU campus, an hour's drive from the shop. No deposit, just trust. I ended up being an evangelist for this pro shop almost entirely because of the way he treated me and the trust he showed in me. Of course we brought the rackets back and of course we purchased all equipment from them. This was over twenty years ago and I have never forgotten that shop or the way he put trust in his customers, all tennis enthusiasts. My default is to trust, yet this is a risky and fragile thing. As John Maeda points out in his book, "[I] trust unquestionably...but I am open to UNDO-ing that trust whenever deserved."

Update: A reader suggested I mention the name of the shop. To be honest I was not sure if they were still in business since I left Oregon so many years ago. How ironic, then, that I find that not only are they (Courtside Tennis) still in business but that they have grown and they even mention "trust" and "friendship before business" as being a big part of who they are. I swear I found that tidbit after I wrote the post. Just underscores my point: trust is big. For many customers like me, it was an emotional differentiator that said everything about that business I needed to know (and it was remarkable). I might mention that I remember them not charging for shipping and throwing things in free like socks and wrist bands, etc. This is when they were small in the '80s. Were they the cheapest? I had no idea, didn't matter even though I was a "poor student." I trusted them because they trusted me. Today they are "big" but seem to adhere to "John Moore's Law" of "acting small."


John Mayer

I always enjoy your posts, but you could have mentioned the name of the pro shop you so highly trust. ;-)


There is a great quote on trust that I remember from the US Secretary of War in the 1940's (can't remember the exact name)

"The surest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. The surest way to make a man untrustworty is to not trust him"


A good point about trust.

I suggest reading David Maister's "The Trusted Advisor" to find more on how to establish trust with your clients.

David talks about ways to establish trust, advantages you gain & possible problems/drawback you face.

Niko Neugebauer

Great video and very interesting story, made me think a lot about the issues of the trust. In todays business, i feel that trust becomes the main issue, as the most people fear of being lied to and stolen from.

Chris M

I walked into my local mini-mart the other day to get an energy drink on a particularly drowsy morning. I'd made it up to the counter, with the friendly clerk ringing up my purchase, when I realized that I only had about half of the cost on me.

"That's okay," she said, "just bring it in next time."

...and I was sold. I stop in and make a purchase whenever I can find the excuse to. =)

Alex Blaas

In God we trust... does that makes us all trustworthy?

Just some simple thougths from a spaniard...

BTW - I'd love to create those animations, ¿any tips? ¿what tools have they used?

Jon V

I like the sentiment of your post, but it just feels too oversimplified. Personally, I would love to live in a world where everyone trusts each other, but I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I don't.

Your tennis shop example is perfect: you remember the trust relationship so clearly -- precisely BECAUSE it's so rare. My guess is that the vast majority of corporate/customer relationships you're in are not based on mutual trust; either are mine.

I trust the companies to do their job, and they trust me about as far as they can throw me. Not Utopia, but there it is -- I still buy their products.

Jon V

One other quick thought: did the 5-star restaurant ever really trust your friend? I think it might be more accurate to say that the "illusion of trust" was broken in that scenario -- an illusion that folks are willing to pay extra for.

Tom O'Leary

Trust is perception. In business, I perceive others to be trustworthy if simple things like the inclusion of an actual address and telephone number in correspondence, a recognizable brand, etc, are provided. Of course, real trust takes time to develop and requires effort to be sustained. I may not know one single person personally in the company I am dealing with, but I might still trust them initially if they represent a brand that I am familiar with. In order for my trust to continue though, my perceptions must continue to be validated over time by the representatives of that brand with whom I am in contact.

And you can always trust that there will be disappointments, let-downs and negative experiences along the way. That is, if you trust in the law of averages and human nature. Nothing and nobody is perfect, even if the intentions are. Trust me.

Charles H. Green

As co-author of The Trusted Advisor (along with David Maister, mentioned above), I really enjoyed this post. I want to highlight just a couple things.

A trust relationship is reciprocal, but not mirrored. We can cause trust in others by being trustworthy, which Tom Leary talks about; we can also cause trust in others by trusting them first, as Brian notes. In other words, we have a whole lot of leverage available to us to influence others to trust us.

The amazing thing is how little we do this. After all, the benefits are obvious, as everyone is pointing out. The basic reason boils down to self-centered fear.

We all tend to overstate short-term risk, to want the other person to take the first move, to worry about getting cheated, or about looking silly. If we can get over that, and reach out across the 50/50 line, there is enormous economic power (and other kinds as well) unleashed by trust.

Raj Dutta

To Jon V's point, i'd like to add a possible scenario: put yourself in the restaurant manager's shoes. maybe just maybe there had been a prior case where some customer had indeed walked out without paying. in which case the 'circle of trust' was already been broken.

Howver, the biggest 'trust exposure' i fear everyday is at the supermarket. who's to trust that the cashier isn't going to note down your last 3 digits (HPin? Tpin?) and not use your card to buy online?

Bob Hassett

Years ago, I worked as a maitre d' in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel in Virginia. I can say with confidence that the assistant manager you describe was most likely not at this job very long. It would have taken only a few seconds to check with the waiter or walk by the table to see whether the check had been paid. And that should have been done without thinking about it. Trust in that context is not smiling and thinking, "I wonder if they paid. Oh, well, no matter"; trust is assuming the guest is honest and checking it out to be sure before insulting her. Unfortunately that probably is considered premium service, but it is neither difficult to provide nor costly in the long run.

There's a measure of cynicism in some of the other comments which I find surprising. Of course "real" trust with anyone but a social intimate is something of an illusion or a pose. You can't truly invest something emotional in every stranger you meet. The question is whether you're willing to take the risk of assuming the pose as a default. As Tom says, trust is perception. Perceptions have to be created and maintained.

Occasionally I would be required to spend the weekend in the hotel (not such a bad requirement -- I otherwise could not have afforded to stay or even eat there) and act as manager on duty for the whole site. Any time anybody complained about anything, at any time of the day or night, they'd get me. I'd begin with as sincere an apology as I could muster (many complaints are in fact inane, though many times I was genuinely sorry) and try to resolve the issue to the guest's satisfaction. If necessary, I'd offer them a return visit on the house, for a meal if it was in the restaurant, a room if this was a hotel guest. We had a standard that we'd follow up within 20 minutes to be sure the guest was satisfied. When they returned, everybody in the hotel would know in advance that these were "VIP" or "opportunity" guests and would make sure nothing bad happened this time. I found that most people who complain about service aren't out for something free, they just want to be listened to and taken seriously. They want to be trusted.

I'm a librarian now, but the lessons I learned about service in the fine dining business are invaluable to me every single day.

Charles Gordon

Alas, if you look at the policy of their equipment tryout now it DOES involve a credit card and a signed form, plus stipulations of time restrictions, etc. Time moves on, and it seems that the answer to one bad person is a new policy which then effects all people, honest or not, forever afterwards.

I think our ethics measurably decline each decade, and how will we ever get it back?

Matthew Stibbe (Bad Language)

Ultimately, trust is the by-product of consistent actions. The hotel manager's gaffe was reinforced by an insincere and forced apology (instead, for example, an invitation to return for tea with the manager). Similarly, when software consistently works well and does what you want, then you trust it. And vice versa. It's the same with people. I guess what I'm saying is that there is no such thing as instant trust.

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