Define Trust. Not So Easy, Is It?

Yesterday I presented at the Social Media & Community 2.0 Strategies Conference in Boston, where I was lucky enough to have some great folks attend my session. They asked thought-provoking questions and provided insightful feedback – which is always appreciated. One of my industry friends, Michael Pace, asked me a question at the end of my presentation, and it sparked a longer discussion among some of us after the event.

What is trust?

Michael said that he keeps hearing all the social media “gurus” at conferences like this, SXSW and others, talk about “trust” in their presentations, but no one seems to define it. He has a “three-pronged” idea of trust – which if we’re lucky, he’ll post in the comments here – but no one in the room could agree on one solid definition of trust, and how brands build it. Do people really trust brands? What does that entail? How is it earned, and how is it lost? Michael is focused on customer service and support at work, and thus, it’s a question he ponders on an ongoing basis. The topic definitely made for a lively discussion around branding, marketing, customer service, customer care and social business.

I said that I thought trust was sincere intent followed by consistent, related action. If a brand tells me something, and consistently backs it up, I trust them. It’s not so different from my personal relationships, really. You can make all the promises in the world, and say all the sweetest things, but if your actions don’t reflect your words, I won’t trust you.

Chris Brogan wrote a lot about trust in his book, “Trust Agents.” He uses phrases and words like sincerity, adding value and being truthful in regards to trust. I don’t know if he answers “what is trust” specifically, rather he and his co-author Julien Smith, seem to define its attributes. But what is its definition? Chris, if you’re reading (which would make my day), Michael and I thought you’d be the perfect person to ask … uses words such as reliance, which I thought was interesting, as well as confident expectation.

So what is trust? Is it sincerity? Action? Commitment? Faith? How do you earn it? Better yet, how do you keep it? For something that is so often discussed, so hard to earn, so easy to lose, and really super hard to gain back once you’ve done so, you’d think we’d all have a pretty definitive answer.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, readers. Thanks, as always, for visiting and commenting.

9 thoughts on “Define Trust. Not So Easy, Is It?

  1. SO interesting, Chris. Especially when I think about phrases like “I trust you’ll do x.” In this case it’s not so much a matter of intent as much as it is my confidence that I believe I know how you’ll act. But, at the end of the day, isn’t trust just an illusion? It’s a “fact” based on my experience with someone’s previous actions…and that’s all it is.

  2. First of all, I *love* your third paragraph, very well put! ;-)

    My thoughts on this topic are just as you have said, regarding “trust”. However, I would add a few things (please excuse the ‘rambling’):

    We also tend to trust certain ‘authority/mentor’ figures without necessarily having a prolonged exposure to them on an _individual_ level. Children, for example, trust their teachers. The general population trusts what they hear on the news to be, at least, partially correct. Most people trust their doctors’ knowledge, etc. Sometimes, our ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ in those figures is dashed and we are devastated – actors, athletes and the Catholic church, most noticeably.

    Trust is also lost, not only by inconsistencies or broken promises/ agreements/expectations but also by extreme hurt (in a relationship) or misrepresentation (in a product/service). Specifically, I can buy a product and use it for a while — it builds up trust in both the brand name and even the company producing it. However, if it significantly doesn’t work/makes me ill/ruins my belongings I would lose trust after one (really bad) incident. If we have a favorite restaurant, on the other hand, that we’ve gone to several times and built up trust, we might have _a_ bad dish but still be willing to go back under the premise that it might just have been a bad day. But if we got violently ill, or had a couple of bad dishes, one would probably no go back.

    I think, another aspect of trust that hasn’t been mentioned is safety and/or security. These feelings are also very important in a trusting relationship between either a company/product or person and an individual. It only takes one violent outburst to forever damage a relationship between people or animals.

    Additionally, the notion, to a certain degree, of honor — there needs to be a sense of moral or ethical need or desire to keep the trust by both parties and not violate it.

    Regarding getting, keeping and losing… Again, certain ‘authority’ figures get it ‘automatically’ from the general population because they’ve built up a reputation over the course of time and therefore a certain amount of trust. But in most circumstances, between individuals or an individual and a company/product/service it takes a while to build for the reasons you mentioned, consistency, action, etc. As I said earlier, some ‘minor’ infractions in the trust might occur and based on the history, we ‘let it slide’. However, if there are either many small or one large violation/s of trust, then it can either be totally lost or severely damaged. I do believe that it can, very often, be ‘rebuilt’ — sincerity and consistent action are most important here. However, sometimes the damage is too great and it is forever lost.

    If I had to explain the concept of trust to my kids, I would probably sum it up something like this (and then add on as above, as needed)…

    Trust is a major part of a relationship between two things — either people or any other objects. It’s often based on certain knowledge or expectations and the faith you have in those, and the person or thing itself — that they’ll do what they say, keep working the way we expect, every time we need it or them to do so. When things don’t work out the way we trust them to, then our trust is often damaged or broken.

    I would also probably give them examples like, the sun rising every day, a chair supporting our weight, relationships between people they know and products or services we’ve used.

  3. Thanks, Jennifer. Confidence – a big part of trusting, definitely. I hope it’s not an illusion – maybe just a temporary and fleeting thing, and that’s why it is difficult to capture eloquently.

  4. Wow, thank you! This is a blog post in and of itself. I love your view of the implicit trust we give automatically vs the trust we expect to be earned. Very interesting element to the discussion… because who/what are we really trusting in those scenarios? Teachers, for example – it’s not even that the individual has earned it so much as we trust those who put this person in the position that they’re in – and the position they’re in implies a trusting relationship.

    Hmmmm…. great feedback, thank you so very much for reading and taking the time to share. I love this topic!

  5. Christine and readers,

    Thank you Chris for taking the time to write down the thoughts from the end of your session at #socialc20. Actually, you beat me to the punch, as I was going to use this topic as the first post of my new blog The Pace of Service ( – I still may.

    The topic of TRUST has been a personal soapbox item recently. I read 30-40 blog posts daily and attend a number of social business/media events each year, and just about every day I hear how important trust/building trust/earning trust/maintaining trust is to relationships with our customers and communities. However, nobody ever defines trust; it’s a subjective term like love or truth. If you don’t have a firm grasp of what it is, how are you ever going to be able to measure it. And everyone knows, if you are not measuring it, you are not actively managing it. Finally, I come full circle; if you are not managing it, it’s either not important or you are missing something BIG.

    I am assuming it’s the latter.

    Just like I tell my reports, identification of an issue is good, bringing solutions to the party is great. So here is my take:

    Definition: (similar to what Chris says above) Trust is the confidence that a party/company/person/group is sincere, competent and reliable to meet the customer/person affected/group’s expectations.

    How can you measure trust? The simplest answer is probably to just survey and ask your customers directly. This sounds a bit uncomfortable (for both surveyor and recipient), and may or may not lead to biased results. Net Promoter Score (NPS) is also a viable option. Asking the question “How likely are you to refer Company X to your friends, family and colleagues?” implicitly asks for the level of trust in a party. However, the core NPS question can be interpretted to mean your product, your service, your price, or your value, and still will not let you know if you are a trusted partner.

    Another way to measure trust might be through the measurement of its core drivers, as I defined earlier – sincerity, competency and reliability. I like to think this methodology is analogous to a 3 legged stool. If one of the “legs” is broken, the stool is going to rock or come crashing down (just like your trust).

    Sincerity: Asking your customers if they believe you care about them, are not deceitful, honest or have their interest at heart. You may ask them to review your site, materials, products, etc.. to learn if they believe you have their interests top of mind or even if you understand them. Audit yourself as well. Drug and Oil companies seem to consistently fall short on this driver.

    Competency: Do you or your company have the ability (or compentency) to deliver as expected? I am sure we all run across someone or a company that has the best intentions and is always available but their end product or service is just lacking. Sometimes lacking in this driver is due to poor operational processes, training, general knowledge or expertise. I see consultants and inexperienced people/companies falling down on this attribute most often.

    Reliability: Do you deliver on time, per spec, within budget of your customer’s expectations consistently? This key driver is probably the easiest for you or your customer to measure, because it is very tangible. Did the delivery company show up on time? Has a company given you the right product? Did it cost more than the sticker on the box? Internally, companies can ask it they met their SLA’s (service level agreements) and how often. They can look at their uptime/downtime of their website. They can monitor and track billing issues.

    Yes, I understand there may not be a silver bullet metric for trust. The customer service world as a whole is the same, no one metric can provide the clearest indication if you are doing it well. However, we do have proxies, and we do understand what drives exceptional service. In the conference, Chris refers to earlier, it was clear the wave of social media talk (within our social media bubble) is ending, and the discussion is clearly moving to the question of “How do you operationalize and manage this space well?” We will need to stop saying things like “You need to build trust with your customers”, and move to “How are you defining and measuring the trust your customers have of you.”

    This is clearly only my perspective. I would love to understand if anyone else is questioning the TRUST verbiage, how do they define trust, how are they measuring or planning on measuring, and/or maybe this is just a personal rabbit hole that does not have an answer.

    Thanks again Chris for getting the question out there.

  6. Pingback: Stop Yapping about Trust – Measure it

  7. Christine: I’ve been pondering your question about What is Trust? I’m so glad you retweeted the post, and asked the question on PPR. Like many others, I needed to think about how I would describe it. As sure as I’m breathing I believe Trust to be sacred ground, whether its Trust between family or friends, Trust in a Brand, Trust in someone’s word, Trust in oneself, Trust in an employee or coworker, Trust in God. So sacred is Trust that it needs to be constantly nurtured and watered to ensure that it isn’t damaged or worse, completely broken by a careless word, action or complete neglect. Hundreds of actions and words a day build or damage Trust.

    I read that in Dr. Duane C. Tway, Jr’s. 1993 dissertation, A Construct of Trust, that he defines trust as, “the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something.” Tway’s model of trust includes includes three components: “the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence, and the perception of intentions.”

    I like this definition because at it’s very core it tells me that the person or thing in which I trust already has my best interests at heart, and I can safely proceed without fear of rejection or injury.

    I also like Liz Strauss’ blog post on the subject. To see the full post visit

    Here is an excerpt:

    “…Trust is a decision, a commitment, a pact and a bond that builds and connects. Trust is shared values. Trust empowers by the questions it removes.
    Trust is brave and vulnerable. Trust is not sparing my feelings. Trust is the hard truth spoken gently.

    Trust is knowing and believing, giving and receiving without hesitation. Trust is not wondering whether what I say is true, whether I will follow through, whether my thoughts and feelings will change when I’m talking to someone other. Trust is knowing you are safely invested and protected.

    We can lose it before we have it or find where we least expect it. Trust can be given, but not invented, stolen, or demanded.

    Trust is a delicate sculpture we build through relationship, communication, thoughts, and behaviors. Once it’s shattered we can’t glue it back together. The only replacement is remaking the sculpture. Like wellness, generosity, or kindness, we’re most reminded of its value when it’s gone.

    In the end trust is knowing you are the same when I’m not there … Trust is keeping promises, even the unspoken promises. Not every trust relationship is that of two life-long friends who communicate with or without words. But imagine if that were so.

    Trust is a risk, venture capital. It’s a gamble with a friend, a lover, or a business. Trust is us leading and leaning on each other when the outcome isn’t clear.

    When I don’t ask, when I’m not present, when I don’t even know that your actions might have been different, when the reality is consistently …I bet on you and I won. trust is…”

    In the end, I’m sure we can all agree that Trust is essential to solid character, healthy relationships and true leadership and being Trustworthy is something we should live out every day.

  8. Lisa, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I really enjoyed your comments and appreciate the links that you shared as well. I completely agree with you, especially your last line. Thanks for reading and for stopping by – it’s good to reconnect with you.

  9. Pingback: Stop talking about TRUST, measure it - The Pace of Service

Leave a Reply