Creating a Culture of Trust: When Is it OK to Break the Rules?

By Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.

For all the competition with others, the political jockeying, sandbagging, overpromising, and nest feathering that goes on among your own employees, the only reason you are still in business at all is that your people also manage to take collective actions that further your company’s mission. To encourage this you need to have an employee culture attuned to the “social” goal of your company — that is, accomplishing your company’s mission.

And the truth is, most of your employees already want to treat customers fairly, because it’s a natural human impulse to want to help others.

But before they can act on this desire, they have to know it’s a safe thing to do at your firm. By that we mean that your employees must understand and buy in to your company’s mission, and they have to trust that the management has employee interests in mind as well as customer interests.

Sometimes, your culture is toxic

They have to believe you have the plain old competence to do what you say you’ll do. You can’t tell people the mission is earning customer trust but then devote every waking hour to making the numbers at any cost.

In an organization where employer and employee don’t trust each other, they are often at odds over the simple question of what’s the right thing to do.

In the best run companies, employees and employers are aligned about what to do, so while there may be discussion and debate about how to accomplish the mission, there’s not a lot of disagreement about what the mission is. But when employer and employee don’t trust each other, or when employees don’t trust other employees, then you can’t rely on culture to help manage the organization, because your culture is toxic.

We have a friend named Fred who spends $5,000 a year on dry cleaning. The manager of the cleaners believed he was doing the right thing to give Fred, easily the firm’s most valuable customer, the best deals available without requiring him to jump through bureaucratic hoops. It seemed to be “the right thing to do” to treat this very valuable customer as somebody special and keep all Fred’s business at the firm.

Imagine what a slap in the face it must have been to this manager when the owner disagreed and insisted that Fred had to pay full price unless he abided by the coupon rules. The owner and manager did not see eye-to-eye on how to grow the value of the business, how to treat a valuable customer, how to optimize that customer’s value today and tomorrow.

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Fred left the establishment and found someplace else to put his $5,000 a year. But soon the manager also resigned, realizing it’s just not very rewarding to work for a Coupon Nazi when he had other choices where his own point of view would be better aligned with that of his employer.

Customer interests should drive decisions

So, if earning your customers’ trust is your mission, then the most effective way to accomplish the mission is to cultivate a corporate culture that celebrates customer trust. Obviously, policies and practices will be involved, but procedures by themselves won’t be sufficient. What are the indicators of a culture of customer trust?

The single most important indicator will be that the genuine interests of the customer become an important input to every decision employees or managers make.

Whenever your employees are solving a problem or undertaking an initiative, at some point they should ask themselves the question: What’s in the customer’s interest here? This doesn’t mean they should give the product away at a loss, but it does mean they should act fairly and reasonably, with openness. Perhaps they should visualize the customer sitting right there in the room with them. In the folding chair.

If being fair to customers sets up a conflict with your company’s financial goals, then your business model is broken, and you are vulnerable to being overturned by a completely new way of meeting customer needs. In the long run, you will be robbing your shareholders of the value of their investment, possibly without their knowledge, and you will be depriving your employees of their chances for bonuses and promotions, not to mention job satisfaction.

Excerpted by permission from Rules to Break & Laws to Follow — How Your Business Can Beat the Crisis of Shoet-Termism, by Don Rogers and Martha Peppers, Wiley 2008

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1 Comment on “Creating a Culture of Trust: When Is it OK to Break the Rules?

  1. Often the person making and enforcing the rules has been removed from the customer too long or has never been in a position where they have worked with the customer.   They are under the false assumption that most customers and employees are cheating the system.

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