A queen bestows knighthood

Do you believe in trust at first sight?

Winning customers’ trust is a top prize for brands. And when that trust is lost, it’s very difficult to regain. So how can you get ahead of the competition with your trust-building strategy? In an interview with Fraser Allen, Dr. Charles Spinosa offers a fresh perspective.

Illustration: Islay Brown

Like love at first sight, the idea of trust at first sight is not very fashionable. We like to believe that trust comes from repeated, reliable performance. But we’ve all experienced a sense of trustworthiness from certain people and certain brands at our first encounter. It’s not because their reputations preceded them but because something just clicked. Intellectual fashion dictates that it was a cognitive bias that clicked. Or perhaps you like certain behaviours or personality types. These suppositions are simply not right. We still have an awareness of virtues, and we see virtues in people quickly. We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight. We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire.

“We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight.”

In fact, we trust at first sight frequently. Recall walking into a store for the first time, and it feels great. Consider retailers who encourage customers to try on the products and who have showrooms for testing the products. Consider other retailers whose employees are clearly having a great time when you walk into the store. In the first case, the retailer appeals to the virtue of exploration. If you admire this virtue, you trust the store. In the second, the virtues on display are those of an entertaining host or hostess. If you want your brand to become trustworthy, your team needs to cultivate admirable virtues in your employees and business and make them visible.




Building customer trust is also about anticipating customer anxiety. The best brands are very good at anticipating that anxiety and doing everything they can to remove it.

Take Amazon. It’s an ‘everything store’. You can find anything there, and its prices are low. But while that’s fine if you want to buy books or CDs, it’s not so good if you’re buying clothes or diamond necklaces because you want to try the clothes on or see the jewellery for yourself. That creates anxiety – an anxiety that springs directly from the very successful business model. Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to change his business model, but he does want to remove that anxiety. So he spends a lot of money making sure that things get to customers very quickly, communication is strong, and everything is very easy to return if the customer isn’t happy. I’ve been polling clients and asking them: “What do you find so cool about Amazon?” And they say it’s the convenience with which they can return things, which is sort of crazy. They overlook the selection and the prices, which are what got them to Amazon in the first place. But customers appreciate brands that work to overcome the anxiety bred by their successful business model.



This is particularly true of banking. Most bankers are financial optimisers, and a considerable portion of their customers are not. As a result, bankers have no idea about the anxiety they create. A while back, I was working with a bank in the UK to help it sell mortgages. Bankers see a mortgage as a useful financial instrument, but most of their customers regarded it as a harrowing obligation they have to go through to get a home. Indeed, a huge segment see a mortgage as a ball and chain around their neck, and they don’t feel they own the sacred space of their home until they’re free from the mortgage.

I’ve carried out many thought experiments with these customers. Consider this: “Suppose you have a mortgage for £500,000 and you’re paying 3% interest on it. Then suppose you also have a very wealthy relative who dies and leaves you £500,000 invested in a way that is producing 10% interest. What do you do?” Most people said: ‘It’s obvious! I would take the money out those investments and pay off my mortgage!”

Keep in mind, if you genuinely value owning things outright, then your decision to forego the higher revenue you would gain from the interest on the inheritance is not an emotional one; it’s a rational one.

“The bankers struggled with the concept. The idea of taking money from the credit card balance to pay off the mortgage didn’t fit with their way of thinking about the flow of money within their business.”

With this particular banking client, we came up with an idea whereby customers were helped to pay off their mortgage if they used the bank’s credit card. Each month, the bank would take 1% off the customer’s credit card balance and remove that from their mortgage balance. It was a product that would enormously mitigate the anxiety they felt about their mortgage. The hyper-responsible customers who wanted outright ownership would exclaim, “I almost never use my credit card, but if it were paying off my mortgage, I’d use it for everything!”

But the bankers struggled with the concept. Those in marketing came around to the idea. But the banking product accountants suffered. The idea of taking money from the credit card balance to pay off the mortgage didn’t fit with their way of thinking about the flow of money within their business. In the end, the product was watered down considerably. The accountants couldn’t get themselves inside the head of their customers. They wanted their customers to think about their products the way they thought about them. But customers are different. And you don’t build trust when you do not listen out for that difference and accommodate it.



If you don’t assume that your customers are different from you in interesting and valuable ways, you’d better just take the big data approach. That satisfies our fantasies that everybody is like us. It gets us in touch with customers at the moment that they happen to be most like people who run the business.

Many brands take the big data approach, even great brands. But the best brands also think about their customers as different from those running the business.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the desire to see your customers as like you.”

Don’t underestimate the power of the desire to see your customers as like you. We worked with a large cement manufacturer for more than 20 years. It wanted to sell more cement to poorer Mexicans living in the grey economy. These Mexicans generally don’t have enough money to purchase bags of cement. The obvious idea was to extend credit to them, but that didn’t work because they didn’t feel obliged to pay the money back to a large company. We realised that we could encourage them to form groups in which they pooled their money together, and one person every month got to buy cement. That created a bond, and everyone in the group felt honour-bound to pay their share. It worked really well. The company sold three times more cement, and the customers were happy because they were adding rooms to their houses much faster and at a lower cost because they received the cement just in time, and it did not spoil.

But then a new CEO came in and decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He wanted his customers to think like him and buy cement as he would. The upshot? The customers were disappointed, the company sold less cement; trust was lost.

Book cover: Chaucer - The Franklin's Tale



Organisations can be very imaginative when it comes to data profiling. They’ll come up with different types of customers and draw pictures of them and list their personality types. But it’s interesting how often these profiles look very similar to the marketing people who have drawn them. They’re usually just five different versions of the marketing manager at five stages in his or her life. It’s very difficult to create meaningful profiles of customers from data without projecting our own assumptions and preferences onto them.

One way of helping to develop the skill of seeing a radical difference is to read literature from moments in history when people were different from us. I remember getting students to read Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”. In the story, a knight falls in love with a lady, and she puts him through various courtship ordeals to prove his love. I would ask students: “Why, ultimately, does she fall in love with him and marry him?” And they would say: “Well the guy was doing all these things for her, and she saw he would make a good partner. Deep down he must really have loved her.”

But there is a clear line in the poem where the narrator says; she fell in love with him because she “pitied” him. I would point out that line and the students would say: “You can’t take that line seriously. That’s not what love is about.” I would say: “Well how about if you do take it seriously? How about if you think that there is now a huge difference between how we see love and how people did in the Middle Ages. Then you begin to see that love in the Middle Ages was a quite different animal from what we have today. In those days, a woman was made to feel like a goddess, and the knight, as a lover, would have to humiliate himself before the goddess. There were strong hierarchical and religious aspects to love, and those aspects are gone today. If you see that difference between then and now, you also begin to see there are various versions of love, even now. That is essential if you want to sell something to lovers. There are partnership lovers, companionate lovers, convenience lovers, and even a few romantic lovers left.

I have just recounted the three most counterintuitive steps to building customer trust: exhibiting virtues to enable trust, at first sight, taking care of anxieties created by your business running at its best, and listening for the radical differences between your customers and you. Except for the last two, the remaining 6 steps for building trust are widely accepted.


Charles Spinosa

Charles Spinosa, Ph.D., is Group Director at VISION Consulting. For 20 years he has helped clients deploy trust-building customer experiences that drive profitable increases in market share. UK financial services clients have included RSA, UK Post Office Financial Services, Deutsche Bank and ABN AMRO. In addition to trust, Charles writes on issues such as corporate politics, transformational leadership, innovation and promise-based management.

We see the wise person quickly – likewise, the courageous, the just, the hopeful, the loving. We are sometimes deceived, but we do trust at first sight. We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire.



  1. Make sure your employees and business exhibit the virtues you and your customers admire. Go full force here if you want trust at first sight.
  2. Figure out what it is about your business model running at its best that makes your customers anxious, and create a customer promise to take care of the anxiety.
  3. Be humble and always be willing to listen and to learn what your customers think and how they are radically different from you.
  4. Build a culture of trust by extending some trust to employees and suppliers.
  5. A little vulnerability is better than no risk — risk-free means trust-free.
  6. Make your business a visible, active part of the community. Draw other businesses in and create your own community missionaries. Pay your employees for days off doing charitable work in the community.
  7. Create an improvisational space for having open and genuine conversations with your customers so that you can really get to know them. Ask unusual questions. Share ideas. Give away stuff for free.
  8. Judge your success on the mood of your customers. Go out and ask customers what they think and feel about your business.
    Trust is reciprocal. Demonstrate that you genuinely trust your customers, and they are likely to trust you.
  9. Consider how much would you have to change things so that you could lend your customer the key to your business and trust that they would act responsibly? The high trust bankers at Umpqua Bank do that. Make whatever changes you need to build that trust.

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