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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