Honesty: The Foundation of Trust


By Dr. Rubens Pessanha, PMP, GPHR, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Results of the 2017 BBB Trust Sentiment IndexSM show how trust drives consumers’ marketplace decisions, reinforcing author’s lessons learned from Grandma.

To celebrate my grandma turning 90, I decided to share some of the lessons I learned (or am still learning) from her in a series of posts on LinkedIn, which I eventually turned into an e-book in 2017. As a professor in practice and at heart, Grandma has always inspired my brothers and me to be better by sharing her favorite quotes. These quotes became part of my life and have served as inspiration in difficult times, value-based decision-making, and day-to-day behaviors. None of them are new, and the novelty is not in the quotes themselves but in the conscious choice to live by them. This act is not simple or easy. It will probably not help you make more money or even be successful. My only hope is to inspire and remind you that character matters for leadership and that how (and why) we do things can be as important as the results we get.

Grandma frequently quoted author George MacDonald, who once wrote that “to be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved” (Pessanha, 2017). This quotation, one of my favorites, inspired me to start thinking of trust through an emotional lens, which led to the creation of the 2017 BBB Trust Sentiment IndexSM (Pessanha, Phinn, & Chng-Castor).

BBB, in collaboration with Nielsen, created the BBB Trust Sentiment Index to better understand how consumers feel about trust. We began with a simple question: Do people start with trust when engaging with a business for the first time, or does their trust need to be earned? We found that some people start with trust. Others are more skeptical, and businesses must earn their trust.

We collected data in June 2017 from 1,024 consumers in the United States. The sample was selected from a national panel of consumers who were 18 years or older and represents the U.S. adult population. Respondents were recruited via the internet using a custom email invitation with a link to a survey.

With the 2017 BBB Trust Sentiment Index, we aim to advance marketplace trust for all and help businesses by examining the topic of trust and how it is earned and lost. Here is a snapshot of our findings.

Measuring Consumer Trust 

What is the overall trust sentiment in the United States? And how does trust change throughout the customer experience? To measure the trust sentiment, BBB and Nielsen asked the following question and normalized the results on a 0 to 100 basis: “On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being MORE SKEPTICAL and 5 being MORE TRUSTING, how would you describe yourself when it comes to working with a company for the first time?” (Pessanha et al., 2017).

As Figure 1 shows, the overall trust sentiment in the United States rated 67.5 on a scale of 0 (more skeptical) to 100 (more trusting), which means most consumers start with trust when dealing with a business for the first time. The trust sentiment varies by gender, age, and household income, with males, younger consumers, and those with higher incomes more likely to be more trusting.

Earning Trust

Earning consumers’ trust is not easy and takes time. We assessed how consumers and businesses build trust using both an aided (i.e., multiple-choice) and an unaided (i.e., fill-in-the-blank) question (Pessanha et al., 2017). As Figure 2 shows, the top factors appearing in both sets of answers were reputation, competitive prices, and customer service. Also among the top five responses to the aided question were reviews, ratings, and recommendations from family and friends. In the top five responses to the unaided question were honesty, integrity, ethics, and quality.

Losing Trust

While earning trust takes time, losing trust can happen fast. As Figure 3 shows, a bad word-of-mouth reputation, higher-than-expected prices, poor online ratings and reviews, bad customer service, and poor handling of complaints are the top five factors that contribute to a decline in trust among customers (Pessanha et al., 2017).

Losing trust impacts a business’s bottom line and long-term prospects. Customers, when unhappy with a business, typically do not patronize it again. They also may contact the business to complain and tell their friends and family about their negative experience. They also are likely to post a bad review online, share the experience on social media, and contact a third-party organization to help them resolve a complaint.

Building a More Trusted Marketplace

When consumers begin researching and evaluating options for products or services, trust is an essential factor in determining which businesses they consider — and which they reject (Pessanha et al., 2017).

While some consumers start with trust, others expect businesses to earn their trust. To build and keep that trust, businesses should approach every customer interaction as if it were that person’s first experience with the business and as if that experience will determine whether it will be a long, successful relationship. In doing so, businesses can gain not only the customer standing in front of them but also dozens of other potential customers who will learn from that person’s experience.

Applying Grandma’s Lessons

During our research for the BBB Trust Sentiment Index, we found that honesty, integrity, and ethics can help businesses earn trust (Pessanha et al., 2017). Honesty is the top factor in building trust. We also learned that being honest helps companies retain customers, even if something goes wrong.

John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are” (Gregory, 2010). My grandma’s lessons are all about building character, and, similar to Wooden’s sentiment, they hold true for businesses as much as for individuals. My grandma’s wisdom also ties into our findings from the BBB Trust Sentiment Index, and I hope it serves you as it has served me thus far — as an inspiration to try to be better every day.

I start with trust in all aspects of my life. Instead of another quote from my grandma, I leave you with what I wrote about honesty and trust in my book:

The most valuable asset you have is your credibility. Value it. Believe in the power of trust. Live with principles. Be known as someone solid, honest, truthful, and firm. Be honest with your values. Do not wait for praise, recognition, or any type of awards. Just do what is right, no matter what. Try to be an example in everything you do. Aim high in your ethical conduct. Do not compare yourself with others. Establish the bar yourself. And keep raising it. Only promise what you can deliver. And overdeliver it every time you can. Be transparent. Say the truth, no matter what. Be boring if that is what is required to be truthful. Share the truth with kindness though at times it can hurt. Remember that there is more than one truth. Respect others’ points of view. Agree to disagree when needed, but with respect. Do not try to change others; that is a waste of time. Let others change themselves when they are ready. Just keep conveying your message. Do not try to be loved; aim to be respected and trusted. Trust others. Give them chances, when they prove you wrong. Think about your legacy and what you want to be remembered for. Think about future generations, and remember that it is not about you. It is about the cause you care about. Be humbled and honored to be trusted. (Pessanha, 2017, p. 21)

Download the 2017 BBB Trust Sentiment Index.

To learn more about how to strengthen your business’s character, visit the BBB Center for Character Ethics.

Grandma’s Favorite Quotes and Their Lessons

As I mentioned, Grandma taught me values by sharing quotes. I list some of my favorites below with the key lesson I learned from each. This exercise is definitely not scientific, but hopefully these quotes can contribute to building character, shaping your values, and developing trust with the people in your life, including your customers.

GENEROSITY: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.” — Mother Teresa

AUTHENTICITY: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

COURAGE: “Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” — J.K. Rowling

ENTHUSIASM: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

HUMILITY: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t know but need to know. Learn from them.” — Carl Jung

SELF-CONFIDENCE: “Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” — Aristotle

PATIENCE: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln

HONESTY: “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” — George MacDonald

FAITH: “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” — Henry Ford

GRATITUDE: “Life is too short to be little.” — Benjamin Disraeli

(Pessanha, 2017)

Gregory, S. (2010, June 5). Remembering John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1995858,00.html
Pessanha, R. (2017). Leadership lessons from Grandma Cydhelia: Building character for life. [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1RUw0Qc74ImWpWfrSEp6FXd6gzH8vesSi/view
Pessanha, R., Phinn, N., & Chng-Castor, A. (2017). BBB Trust Sentiment Index. Retrieved from https://www.bbb.org/TRUSTINDEX
Dr. Rubens Pessanha, PMP, GPHR, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the Senior Director of Market Research, Insights, and Strategy for Council of Better Business Bureaus. He has more than 25 years of global experience in the interfaces of marketing, strategic organizational development, and market research and insights. He is passionate about seeing connections in data and telling stories from them. As a hobby, he teaches project risk management and business ethics at Strayer University.