UPDATED 16:37 EDT / NOVEMBER 19 2019


Trust is money in the bank, but most companies are leaving it on the table

For large technology companies, the success playbook has definitively changed. It’s not enough that these businesses win; how they win matters more. Unethical practices cost a company in many ways. A significant, but tragically underestimated cost, is damaged consumer trust

“And so, when the CEO sits there, I have to believe he feels the pain of the human consequence of what happened,” said Rachel Botsman (pictured), author of “Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart” and trust fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. “But more importantly, I have to believe it will never happen again. It’s not necessarily, ‘Do I trust the products Boeing creates?’ It’s ‘Do I trust the people?'”

Botsman, an adviser to companies around the world on how to build a trustworthy culture, spoke with Lisa Martin, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile livestreaming studio, during the Coupa Insp!re EMEA conference in London. They discuss Botsman’s provocative thinking on trust and why she encourages business leaders to view it as contextual and indispensable. Her perspective contradicts the traditional notion that trust is something built and difficult to earn (see the full interview with transcript here). (* Disclosure below.) 

This week, theCUBE spotlights Rachel Botsman in its Women in Tech feature.

Why wise business leaders see consumer trust as money in the bank

Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown … which allows us to overcome uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to try something new or do something differently.” Trust can’t be measured in the same way money can, but it still functions like money. “Money is the currency of transactions, where trust is the currency of interactions,” she said.

A diligent company reflects on their company culture and character daily, ensuring trust is considered across the organization and in key decision-making processes. The upfront time and energy investment is worthwhile because “[if] you get behaviors and culture right, like the way people behave, whether they have empathy, whether they have integrity, whether you feel like you can depend on them, trust naturally flows from that,” Botsman said.

Even when companies do value trust, their understanding of it is often counterproductive. On an episode of Botsman’s podcast, “Trust Issues, she describes this conception as her pet peeve. Addressing the distortion, Botsman shares: “when leaders and companies talk about we’re gonna ‘build trust’ … it makes it sound like it’s something hard, and it’s something physical, and it’s something you’re in control of. And, [it’s] something fixed versus something given to you.”

Leaders and businesses, she argued, would be better served in seeing trust as something to be earned and assessed on an ongoing basis. 

Why business leaders cannot afford to be trust illiterate

Not understanding trust as contextual, large technology companies can make costly decisions based on an overestimation of consumer trust. Amazon Key is an example of how this works, according to Botsman. Amazon Key  is a service that involves an Amazon employee entering a customer’s home to leave package deliveries inside. Given the convenience and reliability of Amazon Prime, users may trust Amazon as an efficient parcel delivery service. However, these same customers are not likely to trust Amazon with home access.

“I trust Amazon to deliver my parcels; I don’t trust them to [have] access to my home. So what we do with the trust and how we tap into that, it really depends on the risk that we’re asking people to take,” Botsman said.

So, how did Amazon Key even get off the ground? The rationale for launching a service that many consumers considered invasive, may suggest that Amazon leadership is making decisions based on a limited understanding of trust. Relying on data that shows consumers most value convenience, decision-makers could have surmised that Amazon Key optimizes convenience, and will be attractive to the consumer.

“[If] you’re not home, it’s inconvenient to receive a very annoying package slip, [but not the package you were hoping to receive]. So you put in an Amazon [key], and the delivery person will walk into your home,” Botsman explained. 

Amazon Key’s launch, and inherently expected success, speaks to a common disconnect between CEOs understanding of how trust works and consumer concerns. To illustrate, Botsman also cited Mattel Inc. and Facebook Inc. as companies that made similar trust gaffes. Mattel did not even launch its smart system for children called Aristotle “because people didn’t trust what it was recording and watching in people’s bedrooms.” Consumers and corporations alike are also distrustful of Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra.

Examples like these demonstrate that certain purchases require more than a compelling value proposition. They require trust.

Why recovering from a trust crisis requires companies to first recover their character

“Character is how someone behaves. Character gets to [a company’s] intentions and motives. Character gets to: Did they know about it and not tell us?,”said Botsman, sharing a simple definition of character and describing how it influences consumer behavior. 

Referencing Boeing, Theranos, Facebook, WeWork and large banks, Botsman illustrates a common tendency to overlook a trust crisis’ origin: character. “When something goes wrong, they say it was a flaw in the product; it was a flaw in the system; it’s a capability problem. And I don’t think that’s the case. Because the root cause of capability problems come from character and culture,” she said.

A company can only recover from an egregious indiscretion if they show a significant shift in corporate character. Like the above-mentioned company leadership, corporations try to regain trust by mistakenly centering the product fix they will implement, according to Botsman. Instead, it would be more effective for these corporations to explain how they will transform their culture character. As a consumer herself, she says, “Consumers won’t forgive them or we won’t start giving them our trust again until we really believe something’s changed about their character.”

Why our current era of ‘distributed trust’ is both inspiring and disturbing

We are now experiencing a cultural moment, a “trust wave” distinct from any other, according to Botsman. Big technology companies have played a key role in shifting society away from previous waves with trust models Botsman describes as “hierarchical and linear,” in which consumers looked to the CEO or expert to make the best decision for the group. Now, however, trust is distributed, as current technology has created various networks, marketplaces and platforms. 

The nature of this fourth wave “distributed trust model” seems ideal, as it represents a more egalitarian and empowering model. For example, in a distributed trust world, it is more challenging for outside forces to compromise Black Lives Matter as there is no singular figure that was seen as the official shaper and owner of the movement. Rather, there is trusted leadership and communication platforms to connect with and support leaders around the country.

While Botsman commends the network empowerment the distributed trust wave fosters, she shares concerns about the implications for technology consumers. Still, in the context of technology companies, an idealistic view of distributed trust can prove problematic.

“Distributed trust doesn’t necessarily mean distributed responsibility … when things go wrong, they need a center,” she said.

To illustrate, Botsman shares the real-world example of someone basing their vote for a particular candidate on an untrusted source. Not having a single entity or lever to pull makes it difficult to eliminate such dangerous consequences. Botsman is concerned we have not found a solution for distributed trust without distributed responsibility.

“[We’re] trying to figure out what is the role of the institution in this distributed world. [That’s] why I think things have [gotten] very messy,” she said.

Here’s the complete video interview, part of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of the Coupa Insp!re EMEA event. (* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for Coupa Insp!re. Neither Coupa Software Inc., the sponsor of theCUBE’s event coverage, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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