Thursday, January 05, 2012

Trusting The Customer

The internet has brought customers to a new place. They want to be talked with, not lectured to. Slick salesmanship is out; dialogue and candor are in. Customers want to be leveled with. They really want to believe you … and they want you to trust them. There’s empirical evidence of that in a 2003 study of automotive buyers/suppliers by Professors Dyer and Chu, which found that the “least trusted” buyer incurred procurement costs six times higher than the “most trusted” buyer. No surprise, the least trusted companies were also the least profitable. According to author and consultant Dov Seidman, mutual trust between buyers and sellers “sets off an upward spiral of cooperative, value-creating behaviors.”

Every now and then one sees a sterling example of sellers trusting buyers — right where it could potentially hurt: at the point of sale. It happened to me last week when I was in Vermont visiting some friends over the New Year’s weekend.

My wife and I were tooling down a country road when we saw a barn with a big sign out front that said: “Vermont Maple Syrup.” Just what we were looking for! We drove into a little parking lot, turned off the motor, got out of the car and walked in. Much to our surprise this was the “honor system incorporated!” No sales staff. “Help yourself” was the modus operandi. Shelves of everything from jugs to tiny bottles of syrup. And there were related foods on other shelves, t-shirts and Vermont souvenirs. There was a table with a tablet, asking you to write down what you bought, the amount and the total cost, easily retrieved from the price on each item. Above the table was a round chute where you were to toss your money. And there was a box accessing change, if you needed it. We bought. We paid. And we were on to our next adventure in customer trust.

Enter the Vermont Country Store, a few miles from our previous stop. It is an emporium of the famous Vermont cheddar cheese, candies, dips, toys, clothes, robes, night shirts, and so on. You can taste your way through the store. It is really fun. So we paused at the candy department, a large section of everything from sugary junk to all the things you can’t resist. All kinds of stuff in large, open jars — possibly more than 100 of them — filled to the brim with gummy bears, malted milk balls, chocolate-covered coffee beans, cherry cordials, etc. There was no sign inviting you to taste the candies, but there were bags and scales — by implication an invitation to try and buy. There was no sales staff. The store was screaming out: “We trust you. Help yourself!” This is the honor system. The store was jammed with customers, and I found out it has been in business for years.

Trust is contagious. Trust is value. Trust is reputation.

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