Is Trust The New Competitive Advantage?

There is an interview on Open Forum in which Seth Godin interviews Richard Branson. The question is: Why is small business is better than big business?

Branson explains how he structures Virgin so that it is a series of small companies. People know each other by first name. People need to know each others strengths and weakness, and collaborate, and be responsible for the work they do. Branson believes this open small company results in a better service to clients.

Check out this article on Harvard Business:

In the worst economy we've seen in decades, Passlogix, a privately owned 100-person software development company, just received over a million dollars in prepaid commitments for the next three to five years of service....Now, how do you explain that? The bigger companies aren't getting similar deals.....I think it's a trend. And understanding it might just be the difference between failing and thriving in this economy.

The difference, the article goes on to suggest, is the trust factor.

People need to be able to trust companies to deliver. And in the current climate, where big companies are just as likely to go to the wall as small ones, big companies no longer have the advantage of being trusted to deliver by virtue of their size.

Small companies can build trust quickly in ways that big companies cannot.

How To Establish Trust

SEOs and marketers spend a lot of time trying to get traffic to sites. This is a difficult task, but it's a task that only solves half the problem.
The problem is how do you get traffic to you site and get it to do what you want.

If my traffic dropped by 50% tomorrow, I couldn't care less, so long as conversions stayed the same or increased. Traffic, like ranking, is is not a good metric of success, unless you're selling advertising by the page view, and even then it can be seriously misleading. i.e. how many people acted on the ads?

What makes people engage? Underlying all transactions, is that the buyer trusts the seller to deliver.

In order to help establish trust, consider these factors, especially if you're operating in an area where you're looking to sell an ongoing relationship:

Familiarity & Personality

It's never been easier to build a personal, trusted brand. Twitter, social networks, e-mail lists, blogs and other personal communication channels all make it easy for people to see how you think and act before they engage with you.

If you're seen often enough, in the right places, doing good things, people will come to you, because the known feels safe. The unknown is risky.

This is why PR and networking are critical. They help establish familiarity, which leads to trust, especially if the same person customers see writing articles/Twittering/networking is the same person who answers the phone.

Let customers to know you before you know them.


Do you have markers on your site that show you have earned a good reputation? Credible media mentions? Recommendations from satisfied customers? Proof you've got customers?

Again, a quick search is likely to reveal the state of your reputation.


With companies going to the wall left right and center, stability is a major factor for any long term engagement.

Ever worked with a colleague who is inconsistent and unpredictable? Is that trustworthy? Consistency and predictability build trust.

Respond to emails and inquiries promptly. Say what you'll do, do it, and then tell people you've done it. If you've been operating for a while, make a point of saying it - anything that screams "consistency and predictability".


Do you trust that web site with (c) 2004 at the bottom? Is it still going? Google is chock full of outdated search results from companies, that, on face value, show no sign of life. That's not a good look in the current economic climate.

Staying up to date and engaged is important, especially if the real time web becomes more established, which I strongly suspect it will. Customers will expect companies to communicate using the same method and channels they do, and these channels increasingly favor the immediate and frequent over the slow and infrequent.


Big companies have long indulged in being secretive, unapproachable and oblique. It isn't very appealing.

Why on earth would a small company follow this model? Plenty of them do, presumably to create the illusion they're just like a big company. But big no longer means better like it used to.

Open people and companies build trust. If a company is transparent in it's operations, people are more likely to trust them. Show people who you are, what you're about, and what problems you can solve for them. It's often a good idea to say if you can't solve someone's problem, you'll tell them, and recommend to them someone who can. By doing so, you'll even build trust with non-customers, and you never know who they'll talk to. Every engagement is an opportunity.

There is nothing worse, from a trust point of view, in a company saying they'll do something, and then not do it.

Big companies often fall into this trap because their sales force are separated from their operations divisions, and the sales people are working on commission. Sales people can promise the world in order to get the signature, knowing they're not the ones who have to deliver. That's some other faceless divisions problem.

Small companies seldom have this problem, a problem Branson also tries to counter by organizing small.

Got any ideas on how to build trust? How have you built trust with your customers?

Published: May 21, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


May 21, 2009 - 7:09am

Any time you can add a testimonials page or an about us page with pictures, etc. to a site then that will go a long way to build trust quickly.

May 21, 2009 - 11:26am

To my mind it isn't that small companies can build more trust, it's that they can move quick enough to show it. A small company can implement twitter in a day, they can allow their staff to interact with potential customers and can add a new testimonial to their site in minutes. In a large company, by the time all of the red tape has been gone through, and the work scheduled in, that testimonial from January is put live on the site in July, a reference to a newspaper article is put on the site 3 months after publication, and individuals are not allowed to communicate on behalf of the company.

It's a shame that many large organisations can't put the systems in place to allow faster interactions with their customers, especially online, but when directors of marketing have been used to the speed of traditional marketing for so long, it seems to be difficult for them to come to terms with the idea that if they want to be trusted in their market they have to be able to move in minutes, not weeks or months.

May 21, 2009 - 9:12pm

I think the actual underlying issue is the inverse law of business ethics: the larger a business grows the more hypocritical it must be to sustain its growth and please its stakeholders.

Google recently helped promote a hit piece against paid links and fake reviews in blogs on BusinessWeek. That BusinessWeek article was wrapped in Google AdSense ads promoting ***fake review sites*** promoting scams like automated wealth systems.

May 21, 2009 - 2:11pm

Small words, spoken in truth, can sway the minds of nations. But I don't care who you are, keep talking long enough and you will say something stupid.

I made up that quote almost 10 years ago and I have had it hanging on my wall ever since.I do that to remind myself that I firmly believe it is more about what you say, how and to whom than it is about using all the tools available.

The underlying factor, in my opinion is stopping to think about the purpose of speaking in the first place. Is it to spam one more click, to try to shout loud enough to be heard over the din or is it really about trying to add value
to THEIR experience and offer something deserving of trust in the first place?

Do you have the faith in your own service and/or ability to
to be brutally honest with yourself and admit when you are trying to serve only you or really trying to offer something of value to them? Are you able to even tell the difference? Can you find a way when it is only you to NOT speak and wait until you can honestly contribute?

To do that takes something that Twitter can not help with. It takes character.

To me, trust is more about character and quality than about covering all the available outlets to reach eyeballs, even when it is clear those eyeballs were not looking for your offer in the first place.

So, where does one acquire character?

Do the best job you can do
Be proud of what you do
Do what you say you will do -- ALWAYS

and charge accordingly.

I believe trust is about more than just being seen and people getting to know you. I think it is about getting to know you as trustworthy regardless of where they see you. You don't do that by spamming twitter. That just makes you look like every other spammer.

Do you see all the places Aaron and PeterD post self promoting commercial messages in social settings where it's not on topic? Hmmmmm, they don't spam twitter yet they have built quite a little business here. Hmmmmmm


May 21, 2009 - 1:55pm

I can often build trust in the first emailed response, when following up with a new prospect. It is often more effective than a phone call, because I can take my time and be very deliberate about how I state things. I will many times do a very quick review of a site or a project's specs, and then respond with an email outlining a few key details that show I understand the main points and intended direction. Brief, but keenly focused works really well. I also build trust over time by paving the road to customer self-sufficiency...not making the dollar I could be earning the underlying goal of every decision.

May 21, 2009 - 3:04pm

"SEOs and marketers spend a lot of time trying to get traffic to sites. This is a difficult task, but it's a task that only solves half the problem."

Great line, Peter. This is a concept that often goes over the head of both SEOs and the marketers that they work for. P...
May 21, 2009 - 6:50pm

Is Trust The New Competitive Advantage?

No! Trust has always been a competitive advantage--for those who have been able to create it and keep it. Within hours of taking the helm of SpeedyPin's Internet presence in 2003, I pushed hard for displaying critical trust factors and it has paid off BIG time (i.e. the company's 100% guarantee policy was formerly buried deep within the FAQs page).

We have since very prominently displayed our trust factors above the fold, while others continue to feel that it is OK to place them in the footer. [Shout out to Jill Whalen for the inspiration to move these symbols to a more prominent place on our home page, many years ago. We did. It worked.]

- Eric Itzkowitz

May 21, 2009 - 6:00pm

Trust has been always a Competitive Advantage, but now, with the global competition between companies on Internet, it is a more critical factor.

For example: One day I visited this site: It captured my attention by offering 100 business cards for free (only paying the shipping and handling). It is a French company. I never have been in France. But I asked for my 100 free business cards, just to see if they are serious about its promotion... and I received them in my home, even when I live in another continent. That created trust in my mind. Besides, its prices are really competitive and the quality of the business cards is really good.

Now, they are my official printing company for my business cards... even when there are a lot printing companies in my own country. Why? Because they captured my trust, even if they are in another continent.

May 21, 2009 - 11:40pm

Hey Omar -- what a GREAT story about some really cool business cards. Thank God you didn't forget to drop a link.

Thanks for that perfect illustration of gaining and losing trust in one post. Makes me feel like I tried way too hard to help with my post.


May 22, 2009 - 3:36am

Peter, by the way, I have re-published one post of you ( in my personal blog (a translation in Spanish). The link is:

Aaron wrote me that there is no problem with doing this if I give you the credit and link back to SEO Book. Thanks for your excellent posts. I can learn a lot.

May 22, 2009 - 1:08pm

"...Big companies often fall into this trap because their sales force are separated from their operations divisions, and the sales people are working on commission. Sales people can promise the world in order to get the signature, knowing they're not the ones who have to deliver. That's some other faceless divisions problem."

Counter point:

It's not necessarily the sales people and/or their greed for commissions that hurts big companies. *Good sales people* understand the value of good clients and long term relationship... so they work hard to qualify and establish them.

Often management is far removed from the client. If so, they will - inevitably - undermine the trust created by good sales people. Often, by being so far removed, management can create pressures that support bringing on bad clients...

*Good sales people* are good client advocates, which should in theory serve the companies best interests. Yet, regardless of how well they've done their jobs, the sales people and their clients can be compromised by management decisions that change course or that undermine value.

In small companies, it's less likely management will be removed from the clients interest and from value.

Companies, management and salespeople need to be - above all things - client advocates.


May 22, 2009 - 3:19pm

It's not necessarily the sales people and/or their greed for commissions that hurts big companies. *Good sales people* understand the value of good clients and long term relationship... so they work hard to qualify and establish them.

A lot of companies have bonuses & compensation structures for sale staff not based on lifetime value of customers, but number of sales made lass quarter. That in and of itself causes a lot of issues.

If a salesman does not do any of the client services then it is easy for them to over-promise, particularly when considering the above point. Advocacy does not matter when the salesman sells deals that are unrealistic and/or unprofitable.

Salesmen that also do client services are much less likely to over-promise and under-deliver.

And, as you said, a lot of it goes right back to management, who is often based on hitting quarterly numbers.

May 22, 2009 - 3:33pm

Agreed :-)

May 23, 2009 - 5:47am

Trust has been a huge factor in our success as a document scanning company. In just two years, Scan Monkeys has successfully competed against nation-wide companies. We care about customers before numbers and if our services can't help, we're not going to force a sale just to meet numbers.

One of the ways we build trust is by being transparent with our pricing and processes. Early on, we learned that people wanted to know how much it's going to cost (in addition to benefits). We thought it would be best to value their time and provide them with an opportunity to make and informed decision. Once a company has decided to use our services, they are shocked to find out that the pricing we advertise is actually the price they pay.

As an owner, we can personally solve any issues that arise and keep our customers happy.

Honoring your promises to your customers no matter what will earn you trust and make your company synonymous with trustworthy.

May 27, 2009 - 4:37am

I am a freelance flash web developer and to be honest with you I actually prefer keeping my clientele low. 100% of my work has been handed to me by word of mouth. I have spent $0.00 on advertising and it's working for me. I'm not saying that advertising is a bad thing, it can be very beneficial if done correctly but why not get work from clients who are happy v.s paying for your clients.

Everyone at SEO Book keep up the great work guys!!!

-Brent Morse

May 28, 2009 - 12:06am

Organic is the best way to grow Brent, but in many cases there is a small difference between being provider #1 (top of mind) and being #10 or #20. I like to view a strategic advertising campaign as another employee, which either helps close that gap, or helps broaden the lead between you and others. :)

June 5, 2009 - 5:08pm

Thank you for your thoughts on Credibility.

There is a great deal that goes into the Credibility of a product, from the people that hype it, to its visual presentation. However, there are a few basic elements that go directly to the foundational aspects of product Credibility upon which the rest of the product's truthfulness is built.

Take a look at my recent evaluation (links to others provided at the bottom of the article) of web product via Quick-UX...

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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