Thursday, March 27, 2014

It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust

As retail goes, so goes the world. 

The everyday interactions we have with cashiers, waitresses, taxi drivers, front desk attendants, customer service reps and sales associates are perfect microcosms of our society, both good and bad. 

One day we walk into a store whose employees never let us forget how it feels to be good people. They act as if it’s an honor to spend time with their customers. And it restores our faith in humanity, adding lightness to the rest of the morning. 

Money well spent. 

The next day, we spend an hour on the phone with a call center agent who treats us like an inconvenient interruption to their redundant system of efficient operation. They act as if we’re interfering with them trying to run a business. And it crushes our spirits, souring the entire afternoon. 

Thanks for caring. 

And so, retail is one of those societal institutions that becomes the great mood changer, the ultimate barometer of humanity.

Especially when it comes to trust.

In my neighborhood, for example, most of the bodegas are cash only. Or they have a minimum credit card balance.

But since I don’t always carry cash to buy my many snacks, shopping can actually become a stressful experience. Sometimes I have to run across the street to get money. Sometimes I have to buy a bunch of groceries to hike up the bill. Sometimes I just walk out and buy food at a bigger chain store that accepts credit card.

Either way, it’s hassle. 

But every once in a while, I encounter a shop owner who suggests another option. An easier, friendlier, more memorable exchange. And an approach to business that restores my faith in humanity.

You come back tomorrow, you pay me then, he says. 

That’s trust. That’s service. That’s human. In fact, that’s way business was done long before credit cards were invented. And so, I always come back to those kinds of stores the next, even if it’s only to repay fifty cents.

Because it’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

Cash only policies are great for that reason. They give people a chance to be people. They give businesses a chance to, as my mentor used to say, be ten cents more trusted, not ten cents less expensive.

The result is, when you trust people, they become what you tell them you expect. That’s how we’re wired. It’s not magic, it’s a psychological primer for future performance. When you trust someone, their brain releases the hormone oxytocin, which causes a sense of well being and a desire to reciprocate.

Consider the following reviews on Yelp:

San Francisco – “The deli owner let me borrow his own wine opener for a night because they didn’t have any in stock, and trusted me to bring it back.”

Portland –“I placed an order over the phone, and they actually trusted me to send a check in the mail even after they delivered the balloons.”

Chicago – “Instead of canceling my order, they loaned me the quesadilla and trusted me to pay them back the next day.”

And it’s interesting to note, all of the reviewers gave the retailers five stars.

It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

I was watching recent interview with Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter. He was discussing issue of trust as it pertained to their platform’s massive organizing power, making the following observation: “People are basically good, and if we give them the right tools, they’ll prove it to us every day.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Better to be occasionally disappointed than walk around with your guard up. Better to approach others as already being trustworthy, until they’ve given you reasons not to. Better to think the best of people, to see everyone as good until proven otherwise, in the hopes that your belief will encourage them reveal their best selves.

It’s just easier. And cheaper. Trust burns fewer calories.

I’m reminded of the first time I traveled to Sydney.

I stumbled into a cupcake shop one morning. When the cashier rang me up, I clumsily grabbed all the coins in my pocket, took one look at their confusing shapes and colors, noticed the long line behind me, and then turned to cashier and said, “Oh, here, can you just do it?”

She smiled back, picked out the coins she needed and completed the transaction.

“No worries,” she said.

Don’t you just love that? I’ve traveled all around the world, and it always works. Because everybody is the same everywhere. The expectation of trust psychologically primes people respond in manner that’s honorable. Next time you go abroad, try holding out a hand full of money. It’s fascinating social experiment and a beautiful way to connect with a complete stranger in very human, vulnerable way.

Because it’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

The exciting part is, now that we’re officially entered into the sharing economy, we’re starting to see entire business models and technology platforms and retail operating built on top of this very type of trust.

We’re letting complete strangers sleep and eat and bathe in our homes, loaning our bikes and cars to people we’ve never met before, delegating mundane tasks to microfreelancers from across the globe, sharing and trusting our secrets with thousands of people we hardly know and leaning on existing customers of a brand to tell us whether or not we should become one ourselves.

It appears that depositing and withdrawing from our social capital accounts has become a way of life and a way of business.

Perhaps trust isn’t the endangered species we thought it was.

If it’s good enough for retail, it’s good enough for me.