Your New Year’s resolution: Trust no one

Tom Wang/Shutterstock
Tom Wang/Shutterstock
With the irrational holiday shopping season now in your rear-view mirror, this is a good time to consider how you feel about the companies to which you’ve just given half your life savings.

Maybe you don’t trust them. Maybe you don’t believe anything their executives say.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

I was reminded of how little customers trust companies when I participated in a recent panel discussion at a public relations conference in Miami. The panel host, from the PR agency Edelman, had released a survey that suggested only 15 percent of American consumers trust the words that come from an executive’s mouth. Only half trust business as an institution.

Other polls, I was not surprised to learn, put the trust figures in the single digits.

A dive into my database of consumer complaints, which goes all the way back to 1998, reveals thousands of mentions of the word “trust,” usually in the negative context of: “I trusted this business to do the right thing, but it didn’t.”

That’s why I’m not surprised to learn businesses aren’t trusted. But why is that good?

Suspicious consumers don’t get burned.
If you don’t trust a company, then you will not believe anything it says or does. If you see a price, you double check it. If it makes a claim, you look at the fine print for “gotchas.” If it offers a refund, you get it in writing. These consumer behaviors are not normal. In a world of trust, we wouldn’t need to verify every promise. But in a world of distrust, you can — and you must. Alright, folks, how do you feel about all those holiday purchases now? Did you get everything in writing? I hope so.

Un-trusting customers look for trustworthy businesses.
Thank goodness for skeptical consumers because they point the way to companies that are worth trusting. And who are they? You can find a list of winners and losers at the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Now, just because they get high rankings doesn’t mean they’re wildly profitable or successful. The reason: Some of these industries have limited competition, so consumers don’t always have a choice about the company they patronize (airlines, cable TV and cell phones, for example). But even there, we have some standouts that are clearly better than the rest.

The disbelieving consumers can make businesses better.
In almost every case where customers turn away from a business they don’t trust, the outcome is good — both for the business and the customer. When customers walk away, taking their hard-earned money with them, bad businesses will go out of business, while the good businesses flourish. The only time that doesn’t work is when the businesses have an oligopolistic stranglehold on their industry, if not a de facto monopoly. And that, even free-marketers will usually concede, is when a little government regulation can come in handy.

As is often the case, the lack of trust shown by customers is a good news/bad news thing. The bad news is, consumers don’t trust a word businesses say, no matter what they’re saying.

Over the long term, that lack of confidence in a company is no foundation upon which to build a relationship. It goes a long way to explaining why we’re not brand-loyal, unless you devise a gimmicky loyalty program that takes away from the disloyal customers and gives a little back to the folks who swear their allegiance to a business. But I’m not going there today.

The good news? Well, the skeptics make it better for the rest of us. They’re slowly but surely putting the bad businesses out of business, while rewarding the good ones with profits.

Maybe we should all be a little more distrusting in 2014.

In 2014, I will ...

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • AJPeabody

    Some businesses have earned my trust. They have stood behind their products, so I am naming names.

    I bought a few cheap electric space heaters to help out in my less than adequately heated office suite. One didn’t work. The customer service person at Big Lots exchanged it for another, and tested it to assure it worked before handing it to me. With a smile.

    I bought a TV at P C Richards with a huge Black Friday discount. Four weeks later they advertised the same set for $10 less. I brought them my receipt and they immediately credited $10 plus tax to my credit card. With a smile.

    Of course, when my cell phone started running some of Verizon’s own software without me having asked or downloaded anything, using up my data plan, it took three calls and a lot of hold time to get through the voice recognition software to a person who gave the problem to another person who asked another person to find out how to deactivate their own software. It only took me an hour. No apologies were given, and no explanation of what happened.

    Let’s see. Verizon Wireless is the only cell phone carrier that works both at my home and at work, so they have an effective monopoly, at least for me, and they probably know it. There are many stores around here that sell discounted general merchandise, and many stores that sell TV’s, and those stores know it, too.

  • Gerald Vineberg

    Corporate America is unworthy of the public’s trust based on it’s actions of the past few years. An unfortunate truth.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I am mature (old?) Enough to remember when a verbal agreement/contract was binding, specially when it was followed by a handshake. I regret the demise of those days when you could trust businesses etc. However, there are many improvements in other areas of life since those then.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    YUP, trust only those businesses that have EARNED your trust.

  • TonyA_says

    Very funny. I would be stupid to trust any PR person including Edelman. They all work for the 1% and are part of it.

  • Annie M

    Not trusting a business is not necessarily a bad thing if you are wise enough to read the fine print before doing business with that company before doing business with them. If most of the consumers who write to Chris did that before they felt they were ripped off Chris wouldn’t have a job.

    The majority of issues posted here are from people who didn’t read or want to be an exception to the rules.

    I know the companies I trust and don’t have to do that with those but for all others I make sure I read the terms before I buy. Just today I canceled a hotel room due to an impending storm and I fully understood I was already beyond the cancellation period but decided my safety and not having to worry about how I was going to get there was worth the one night cancellation fee. No whining from me.

  • TMMao

    If Verizon is the only carrier that covers your region, then there are still 3rd party alternatives like Page Plus that resell Verizon’s airtime for less.