Lesson 7: Rebuilding Trust

What You’ll Learn: People may be less trustworthy than they once were. This lesson will examine some strategies to rebuild trust with your employees and your customers.

Rebuilding Trust (continued)

Re-establishing Employee Trust

Employees have been through the wringer. When the pandemic hit, revenues plunged, stay-at-home orders went into place, many industries – hospitality, tourism, live entertainment venues, bars and restaurants in particular – shut down virtually overnight or, at the very least, severely curtailed operations.

Businesses had little choice but to reduce overhead, and the highest cost center for most employers are their workers. Many companies tried valiantly to keep their workforce intact, but as weeks dragged into months and then into a year or more, even the most solvent businesses found it hard to keep things going. Sadly, lifelong employees suddenly found themselves in the unemployment line.

It’s not hard to see why employees feel expendable and undervalued as we enter the recovery phase. Many will be reluctant to return to their old jobs, fearing they will be let go again if the company can’t turn the corner financially. Some have found higher-paying positions with other companies during the pandemic. Others may be considering changing careers after doing some soul searching about what they want their life to be.

Building trust may be difficult, in large part because every employee will have had a different journey. Trust won’t return overnight, and it’s not something you can create with a catchy slogan or a t-shirt. It takes time, consistency, transparency and honesty.

Honesty is the basis of any relationship. Admitting your mistakes and imperfections can be a catalyst for transformation going forward. You can’t just sweep what happened under the carpet and pretend everything is normal again. If you are going to rebuild trust with employees old and new, you need to make sure that your staff is part of the journey, not an afterthought.

As you rebuild your business, keep your workers in the loop and be willing to share challenges as they arise. This doesn’t mean that you have to share financials or give huge updates every week. But you do want your team to understand where you’re going and how they can help you get there, even if there is some uncertainty.

Encourage open communication. To move forward, encourage your employees to provide feedback. This will help them feel safe and part of the solution. If employees seem reluctant, put a box in the breakroom where staff can leave suggestions, comments and questions anonymously. Opening communication channels will build lasting trust, even when the comments aren’t all sunshine and lollipops.

Be transparent. Start by listening to your employees and respond to their concerns or questions in a timely fashion. Avoid holding what appear to be secretive meetings or bringing new people on without introducing them and explaining what their role is. If possible, invite staff to apply for new positions, especially ones that are an advancement opportunity. Encourage everyone to act with transparency in their internal dealings and, when appropriate, externally.

Delegate whenever possible. Giving staff more responsibility shows that you have faith in their abilities and recognizes hard work. This doesn’t mean giving them carte blanche. With the increase in responsibility comes additional accountability for actions and results. Inviting key staff to be involved in decisions will increase loyalty and buy-in. It will also help lighten the load, especially if you’ve been making all the decisions yourself.

Promote individuality when possible. Yes, it can be tough to relax standards, but realize that people are emerging from a historical event. If we’ve learned one thing through it all, it’s that not everyone is the same. As you restart or rebuild your business, see where you can show more flexibility. Employees may take more sick leave than they used to or want to take a full two weeks off of vacation that has accrued. They may not want to wear a tie every day or want more freedom to personalize their workstations.

Show trust to get trust. To earn trust, you have to give it first. This can include flexible work schedules, increased teleworking or less supervision of daily work. Many of your workers were trusted to work remotely in the pandemic. Suddenly micro-managing their every move isn’t going to build trust or keep positions filled. If you don’t have faith in the people who work for you, is it a problem with the worker or your management style?

Encourage collaboration. As you rebuild your business, encourage collaboration between employees and departments. No one can possibly have the best idea all the time. Tap the intellectual wealth of your staff to find new solutions to old problems, open new markets or add new products and services. To do this successfully, you need to allow individuals and teams to take risks and not punish failure. Use these failures as learning opportunities for the whole company. Workers are anxious to be part of something. Give them that chance. If you don’t, they will go to work for someone else.

Physical safety. In the wake of a global pandemic, employees will want to feel safe. This means keeping your place spotless, following best practices and ensuring that your workers feel safe coming to work and leaving, especially when it’s extremely early or late. Workers may still be shy about being too close to others, including their fellow team members. You may have to send a worker home that has what were once minor cold symptoms to reassure workers and the public. Be patient with the need to feel safe as employees return to work and navigate a new world.

Financial security. After months of unemployment or reduced hours, employees want financial security. If you aren’t back to normal yet in terms of revenue or traffic, share the information with your staff. You’d be surprised that your team members will understand; we’ve all been through the wringer financially over the past year or so. If you need to defer raises or increase premiums for benefits because your costs increased, be honest about it. The same is true if you’re having problems with your supply chain because the terms have changed or you had to find a new supplier. This may cause periodic shortages of products or supplies that your staff will have to explain to customers. Information is a powerful thing, and rather than thinking you’re just cheap, they may offer up some new ideas to help solve the problems you’re facing.

Rebuilding Customer Trust

The pandemic has taught us a great deal about customers, loyalty and best practices. One thing is for sure. Customers are less loyal than they have ever been, and while forgiving, they have less patience than they did for lackluster service, poor quality and high prices. The daily rhythms of most small businesses have fallen apart. It will take time to create smooth shift changes, ensure that there isn’t too much or too little product, that customers aren’t waiting forever to make a purchase and re-establish a connection with customers old and new.

A new barometer of success will be satisfying a customer by delivering experiences and services that meet their needs while showing empathy, care and concern. The days of indifferent customer services are gone. People have lost their patience for it.

Here are some ways you can build trust and create engagement with customers.

Personalize experiences. After being on lockdown and a statistic in news cycles, customers want to feel special. You want to reduce their anxiety at every turn. Some people won’t remember the cultural norms that were once second nature. For example, a lot of people surveyed said they don’t want to shake hands anymore, which used to be the norm. Customers may continue to want to pay via contactless payment systems or seat themselves. Learning these preferences and institutionalizing them on each return visit will increase loyalty and strengthen brand preferences.

Bring back the personal touch. Customers may be a bit more demanding than they used to be. Customers have endured months of being anonymous to those who serve them. They have been wearing masks, stuck in their cars waiting for an employee to drop their order in the back or stuck in endless customer service loops on the phone. As they make their way back into the world, make sure they are welcomed with a friendly smile and, if possible, use their name if you know it. Focus on them as an individual. Even as you add a personal touch, don’t be overly anxious to eliminate alternate business models that they may have come to appreciate, such as curbside pickups, takeout or delivery.

Safety first. Even with a vaccine, customers may still be skittish, especially since it’s still not understood how long the vaccine maintains its effectiveness or whether it will work against future mutations. You will want to reassure customers that you are following best practices for sanitation and cleaning. No one is going to complain that you’re being too clean or cautious. This goes for your public-facing employees. A seemingly innocent cough from a cold or allergy could be perceived as a public health threat.

Communicate clearly. Customers need clear communications about your practices. Don’t leave customers guessing, or worse, cause them to feel embarrassed because they showed up at 7:45 and you close at 8. As things change, be sure you let people know. This not only shows respect, but creates anticipation as you announce longer hours, a new menu or the pending arrival of new products.

Be transparent. As business returns to normal, there will be inevitable hiccups. There will be supply chain disruptions or order shortages; you may experience higher turnover or increased absenteeism that leaves you short-staffed. Let your customers know what’s going on. If their favorite product is out of stock or not on the menu, explain why. If service is slow, tell your customers that you’re doing your best but finding good employees is still a challenge. Customers will understand. What they won’t understand is poor service, quality or lack of availability if they are left to their own imaginations. They may just go elsewhere.

The key is to be flexible, let go of the way things you did in the past, think entrepreneurially and listen intently to your employees and customers so that you can build and earn trust.