One of the best parts of being a Forrester analyst is having the time, space, and data to wrestle with abstract, complex concepts that inevitably influence business today and in the near future. For the past several months, I’ve been chipping away at a topic that is on the minds of leaders in just about every industry but has almost no simplified, operational, consistent framework: trust, and, specifically, consumer trust. After culling decades of consumer and business data, academic papers, and case studies, I’ve just published a Forrester report that synthesizes the most important aspects of consumer trust necessary to growing a business. Before ascending to the big-picture conceptual thinking, it’s crucial to start by syncing up on the fundamentals.

What Is Consumer Trust?

We all know that consumer trust is important, but it’s extremely challenging for companies to know when they have it, when they violate it, and how to cultivate it. Our research reveals that human beings are born to trust — trust is hardwired within us rationally and viscerally, and we trust instinctively. This means that we can measure both logical and chemical reactions to explain when, where, and how trust triggers behavior. Forrester defines consumer trust as:

Trust is confidence in the high probability that a person or organization will spark a certain outcome in a relationship.

A few key points:

  • Trust is confidence. Hope and optimism are the foundation of trust. The trust you place in your spouse to do the dishes while you’re away stems from your optimism; when you see the dishes done, optimism turns into trust. The same hopefulness fuels consumers to experiment with new devices and experiences.
  • Trust is about a certain outcome. Marketers scramble to etch their brand into publications’ “most trusted” lists, but apart from industry recognition, this ranking means little to consumers. Consumers don’t abstractly trust brands — they constantly evaluate specific outcomes in relation to their expectations. For example, you will trust your healthcare provider to prescribe useful medication when you’re ill — this doesn’t mean you’d trust the same provider to offer product recommendations when you’re upgrading your wardrobe.
  • Trust occurs in a relationship. Trust requires a two-way, humanlike relationship. For example, an employer making promises, providing opportunities, or assigning responsibilities to employees signals trust in the teams and directly drives employee performance. On the other hand, devices, cars, or computers behave no differently whether they are trusted or not — rather than trustworthy, devices are reliable.

Do Consumers Really Need To Trust You?

The answer may seem obvious — no company wants to be untrustworthy. But the question gets complicated when you consider brands that seem to inadvertently violate trust — sometimes repeatedly — and still manage to boast thriving revenues, an impressive market cap, or lightning-speed growth (many social media sites and online marketplaces, for example). Such cases tempt you to believe that businesses can get away with ringing success even if trust isn’t part of the equation. Except that it is — in every one of these cases, despite what they might vent on social media, consumers do in fact trust the companies. Because trust is only partially about perception — brand; social, moral, or political values; and reputation can convince consumers that the business is worthy of earning their trust. Experience is more powerful than perception — consistent customer experience quality, frequency of interaction, and intimacy of interaction engender consumer trust in the company and buffer the brand against reputational blunders.

Find out what else business leaders must know to define their consumer trust strategy in the age of the customer by reading the full report or by connecting with me via Forrester inquiry.