You can’t shake hands through Skype: How can you build trust online?

Our favourite Brand philosopher, Simon Sinek, has suggested that trust requires a uniquely personal touch that cannot be replicated through technology. His firmly held belief in the need for in-person interactions led Sinek to assert that the video call would never replace the business trip.

In 2021 this is not our reality. With all travel more or less cancelled, not only has the video call replaced the business trip but also the 9 am office meeting.  Which makes now the perfect time to revisit his argument and ask ourselves some difficult questions about trust:

  • What do we need to know about someone to trust them?
  • Can you trust someone you’ve never met?
  • Do we have the same trust with people as with businesses?
  • Is Sinek right to suggest that as a society we trust less than we used to?

What is ‘trust’?

For the sake of simplicity, we will use Sinek’s own definition of trust: a feeling that comes from a set of mutual values and beliefs which allows us to be able to be vulnerable and take risks.

From a branding perspective, trusting a brand often means choosing to spend your money with them over the competition. The risk you take is financial, and you are vulnerable until the company has completed their part of the transaction, hopefully to the standard you expected.

Is it like Simon says?

Sinek’s definition is built on the idea that shared values bring about trust. He talks about trust as if it is simple. Something that, if all the conditions are correct, almost naturally occurs. However, the truth is that trust is not as rational as he makes it sound. 

People make subconscious decisions about whether to trust others based on irrational signals. Psychology experiments have shown that people tend to agree on whether others look trustworthy. But there is no evidence to suggest that those who ‘look trustworthy’ are more trustworthy than average. Read more here

Source: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00160/full

 

And, Sinek underestimates the amount of underlying trust people have in the world around them. Without even thinking about it, we trust pilots to be sober and alert, drivers to stay in their lanes, and your alarm to wake you up in the morning. It is often not until this trust is broken that we start to question what, why, and who we trust.

Think about it, when you were a child trusted implicitly; you had no reason not to – and it suited your parents and teachers if you believed everything they said! It’s not until people begin to let you down or betray your trust you became wary and sceptical about where to place your trust.

Can we influence trust?

Even if trust is illogical, there are still ways to influence it. The psychology behind trust is evolving, but one theory suggests that possessing particular attributes make it more likely that others will trust you, such as:

Ability; can you do what you are promising? This is situation-specific; you might trust your accountant to do your tax return but not to babysit. 

Benevolence; do you have our best interests at heart? This attribute might explain why you keep trusting unreliable friends.

Integrity; do you have a set of values you live by? And do we share these values with you? 

We don’t explicitly ask ourselves these questions when deciding whether to trust someone. We do not often consciously consider trust at all. Instead, we pick up subconscious signals that result in the gut feeling we can choose to act on.

You can’t shake hands through Skype

If we accept that these attributes can encourage trust, then we need to look at the situations in which they can arise. For example, can you get a sense of someone’s integrity through a video call, and can we sense them in non-human things such as businesses?

There will always be some element of human interaction that doesn’t come across online. Although, as we get more used to online calls, we will improve our ability to be authentic online. This will help us to read the people we are talking to and build relationships with them.

Besides, you don’t need in-person interactions to pick up on attributes that influence trust. Ability, benevolence and integrity can come through in actions as well as conversations.

In brands, we trust

Just as with people, we get a feeling from brands about whether we can trust them.  Strong brands, guided by purpose, have distinctive personalities, tone of voice and values. If their marketing and communications teams are doing a good job, their audiences will pick up on these and build closer relationships with them. 

Patagonia is an excellent example of a strong brand. Visit their website or scroll through their Instagram and it’s immediately clear, sustainability is at the heart of what they do. Their whole brand is built around letting people enjoy natural environments in a way that doesn’t hurt them. They talk about this more than they do their clothes and, importantly, sustainability is something that they practice as well as preach. 

Source: https://eu.patagonia.com/gb/en/home/

 

The importance of following through

Both brands’ rhetoric and their actions contribute to trusting relationships with their customers. Saying ‘you can trust us’ is not enough. Companies need to demonstrate their values and allow them to guide their decisions. If their actions do not match up with what they say, it can damage their reputation and the level of trust their customers have in them

Take McDonald’s as an example of this not going to plan – when people learned that their recyclable straws weren’t in fact recyclable, they lost that trust from their audience that they were trying to ‘do good’. Though they talked about reducing their environmental impact, McDonald’s’ actions showed this was not something they truly cared about, which damaged their integrity. However, other brands have been more successful in demonstrating the characteristics required to encourage trust.

Who does this well?

The finance sector is reliant on trust. Unless you’ve channelled your inner pirate, and have buried your valuables, your money is looked after by financial institutions. This is a risk because the decisions they make could cause you to lose a lot of money: you are extremely vulnerable to them. The level of trust required to deposit your life savings with a bank is much higher than that needed to try a new restaurant or buy a new TV. This means that businesses in this sector need to put more work into being trustworthy.

When Cashflows’, the payment solution company, asked us to develop their new identity, we knew that we had to build a brand that their customers would trust. A brand that shows they can deliver the simplified solutions they advertise. And that clearly explains the benefits of their services to their customers. The visual identity we created, focused around creating business flow, helps to develop this. Read the full case study here.

It’s up to Cashflows to maintain their brands’ integrity. They can do this by being consistent in their offering, putting their customers first, and continuing to let their purpose guide their actions.

Our verdict 

It’s not as simple as Simon says. Trust is a complicated concept, many factors influence it, some of which are out of our control. Having said that there are things you can do to make it more likely that others will trust you. 

Sinek’s suggestion that business will never move online has been disproved – in a way none of us predicted. But decreased human interaction doesn’t have to result in a decrease in trust. People, and brands, who continue to demonstrate ability, benevolence and integrity in a manner that is authentic to them can maintain trust without in-person communication.