How to rebuild trust in distrusted sectors

Customers tend to go on a brand-by-brand basis when they decide which businesses to trust. But what happens when consumers think the whole sector is rotten?
illustration of rebuilding trust

For any business, building trust takes time, vision and good leadership but some organisations face extra challenges. Brands within distrusted sectors, from cryptocurrencies and energy providers to airlines and pharmaceutical firms, can struggle to change public perception. It is, though, possible for any company to build up trust and key examples offer up valuable insights. 

High prices, low accountability: why people don’t trust pharma

According to market research company Ipsos, while trust in the pharmaceutical industry has increased, moving from just 25% in 2018 to 31% this year, the public still has concerns about the sector. Dr George Magrath is the CEO of Lexitas, an organisation that partners with pharmaceutical firms to run clinical trials. He believes that there are two main ways in which any company can break trust. The first is failing to meet the expectations it has set and the second is when it stops living up to its mission, vision and values.

When it comes to failing to meet expectations, “There are two reasons why the pharmaceutical industry loses trust,” says Magrath. “One is occasions where prices get out of control. The second is when a potential medicine does not deliver as promised, or may have side effects.” 

The first of these is what tends to hit the headlines. One notable case arose in 2017 when the start-up company Turing Pharmaceuticals, run by hedge-fund-manager-turned-pharma-tycoon Martin Shkreli, acquired the rights to Daraprim, a drug which had become a lifeline for those living with Aids. When he acquired the rights, a tablet cost around $13.50 (£11.16), but Shkreli announced he was increasing the price (by more than 5,000%) to $750 a pill. 

More recently, one of the victims of Elon Musk’s new Twitter verification system was pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. Under Musk’s new rules, any account can earn the ‘blue tick’ verification checkmark simply by paying a subscription fee. A parody account posing as Eli Lilly tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The lifesaving drug is, of course, not free and the organisation has come under attack in recent years for upping its price, meaning it costs some patients more than $1,000 a month to access it. 

“Pharma is a high-stakes industry that touches people’s lives. To do that, you require a lot of trust,” says Magrath. Developing drugs is expensive, he explains. To get a new medicine on the market could cost more than a billion dollars, with many medicines ultimately failing. This will have ramifications for the prices that consumers pay. “But there is an expectation from the public that there will be a reasonable price tag that allows the people who took the risk to develop medicines to be rewarded, without taking advantage of the system.”

Magrath believes trust levels are so low because “companies have forgotten the mission of the pharmaceutical company, which is to develop wonderful medicines that treat diseases. And in some cases the profit motive has outweighed this. Those instances where the system has been taken advantage of really erodes trust in the entire industry.”

Is poor data management breaking trust in energy providers?

It is not just drug prices which have soared in recent months. Many Britons face this winter with apprehension as the cost of heating homes remains prohibitively high. As a result, public trust in energy providers has taken a nosedive. 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s public attitudes tracker makes this clear. Asked who they would trust for advice about choosing a heating system, just 19% of UK citizens said they would go to their energy supplier, while 17% said they wouldn’t switch to a dynamic electricity tariff because they don’t trust energy companies. And, when asked how much they trusted energy companies to be open and honest in their financial reporting, 45% said “not much” or “not at all”. 

The biggest thing that breaks trust with customers is data.” So says Anita Dougall, CEO and a co-founder of energy data expert Sagacity. The company works with suppliers such as British Gas and E.On, so Dougall has a front-row seat to how simple mistakes can have huge implications on consumer trust.

Without the right, clean data, she says, you get a lot of bad billing. “Companies don’t know when a customer moved in, or moved out. There might be bad billing because some people have meters and some don’t, so they may be billed on estimated not actual use. You have people on different tariffs and those tariffs aren’t always aligned to what people think they are.” 

What this means, says Dougall, is that customers receive bills that seem to have dramatically increased and without any discernible reason. “Even in our company, we’ve had a few people with bills that have gone from £300 a month to £1,500. And you can see that isn’t just energy prices. Someone’s put in a calculation that simply hasn’t worked.”

Perhaps a greater issue is that if a customer receives an incorrect bill it is rarely a straightforward process to amend it. In most cases, it will require the customer to call a contact centre where, says Dougall, they could be waiting for up to an hour as more companies are flooded with queries and complaints about bills. And once a call gets through, the lack of clean data often means the agent on the end of the phone can’t resolve the query. 

Can sectors with low trust really reverse their reputations?

It is possible, though, for organisations to rebuild trust even after catastrophic events. One example of this is software company SolarWinds. In December 2020, the organisation suffered one of the largest hacks in history. Nearly 18,000 of its customers, including several US federal agencies, had their security compromised in a stunning blow to the company’s trustworthy reputation. 

For some organisations, particularly in the technology sector, a breach of this magnitude could have sounded the death knell. And yet, just two years after the incident, SolarWind’s customer retention rates are at historic highs of 90%. It still provides software to nearly every Fortune 500 company and many organisations involved in UK and US national security. 

Three ways companies can start to rebuild trust

The first step towards recovery is transparency, says SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna. “You have to be transparent, especially when it relates to the security of your software,” he says. “That is directly to do with the trust in your company. Customers rely on your service based on a foundation of trust, and trust and transparency go together.” 

The second is to be proactive. When an issue arises, a trustworthy brand will acknowledge the issue and reach out to customers as a first resort, not a last one, says Dougall. “Don’t wait for customers to call. When you’ve had a few queries you see a pattern, so reach out to customers proactively to address it.” 

And, thirdly, this proactivity must be combined with clear, open communication – and action, wherever possibly – Dougall continues. “Customers don’t want to hear scripts read out to them, they want their problems listened to and addressed,” she says. “What really builds trust is when organisations listen to the customer and address queries quickly and accurately.” Dougall suggests that in the energy sector’s case, addressing problems could mean cleaning up usage data so that customers don’t receive unexpectedly high bills. It could also mean more practical support, such as helping customers with budget plans, letting people pay in instalments, educating those who are financially vulnerable about the government support available to them. But most important in building trust is how organisations communicate.

Ramakrishna agrees. “We didn’t have the luxury [after the breach] to fix things, not communicate those and then get back to business as usual,” he says. “We were talking to customers all the time.” 

Long-lasting trust is built on a foundation of purpose

These three steps should certainly be the first taken after trust has been lost but to become a highly trusted organisation in the long term, companies must have a deeper purpose. This purpose acts as a standard and a vision that can inspire customers. 

Ramakrishna believes that purpose is so important to reputation in business that he has crafted a new one for SolarWinds. “Many companies have strategies and mission statements. We build a purpose statement. And the purpose of SolarWinds is to enrich the lives of the people we serve,” he says. These people can be customers, employees or shareholders and the concept of “enriching” their lives will be different in each case but it is a commitment to something beyond providing software, jobs and returns. 

This higher purpose, in Ramakrishna’s view, is what could help any company build trust. “This is one of the key ways to build trust because you are trying to project that you care. When you do that and are sincere and consistent, trust builds automatically over time.” 

And it is losing sight of this purpose which has broken trust in the pharmaceutical industry, believes Magrath. “Companies lose trust when they lose their ‘true north’, when they lose the ability to execute against the mission and vision and values of their company.” 

Magrath believes that the industry needs its own version of Tech for Good, the movement which applies technology to global problems to bring about social and environmental change. In Magrath’s view, championing Pharma for Good could remind the industry of its power and its purpose and provide a perfect platform for rebuilding trust. 

“Most of the work in this industry is for noble reasons and done by good people,” he says. “People don’t associate medicines with the kind of scientific miracle that most of them are, in reality. It starts with taking a good look at what we’re doing to make sure we are staying true to our core purpose – which is to put patients first and create medicines which can save lives.”

The Ipsos survey highlights some of the top attributes that consumers consider when they are deciding whether to trust an institution. Top of the list, said 43% of global consumers, is whether a company is reliable and keeps its promises. For 42% of those who took part in the survey, trust is built on openness and transparency, while 33% said they look to see whether a company behaves responsibly. Whatever the industry, good business requires trust and reliability and transparency and purpose are the building blocks for that.