The Complexity of Trust: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey

Trust is complicated, but customers and employees have clear priorities — which companies often miss.

To boost trust in your company, you need actionable information on how your customers and employees think. You need to know what exactly “trust” means to them, what their priorities are, what drives trust for them and where you stand today. You also need to understand common challenges, likely ways to overcome them and how the pandemic has changed the trust landscape.

To explore these and other key themes around trust, PwC surveyed more than 500 business leaders and 1,000 consumers in the US, the majority of whom are employed by US companies, in August 2021. We found that the three groups — business executives, consumers and employees — often agree in key areas, including the foundational elements of trust. But jarring disconnects exist too. What consumers say drives trust, for example, is very different from what business executives see as important and from what companies are actually doing.

Efforts to build trust appear to be paying off. Both employees and customers report higher trust in US businesses now than before the pandemic began. Still, challenges abound, and many companies aren’t yet implementing commonly accepted leading practices on trust. Some companies are making progress, but they’re not yet reaping as many benefits as they could. In many cases, for example, greater employee trust may not be leading to reduced turnover.

There is a path forward. As a business leader, it starts with thinking differently about your big-picture trust strategy, your stakeholders’ priorities, your choice of trust initiatives and your use of technology.

Agreement on the foundations — and little else

As a business executive, when you think about trust, you’re likely thinking many of the same things as your employees and customers. When asked what comes to mind when they think of trust, all three groups agreed on the top four items: data protection and cybersecurity, treating employees well, ethical business practices and admitting mistakes.

But past these top four elements, divergences grow. Business leaders tend to take a broader view of trust. They’re more likely to include both responsible artificial intelligence (AI) and several elements that relate to broader social impact (such as sustainable value chain management and ESG reporting) in their definition of trust. Employees, however, are more likely than the other groups to emphasize holding leadership accountable. These disconnects can also be opportunities. Businesses can better communicate how their disparate priorities collectively tie into trust. They can also lead with true accountability. That includes both transparency for mistakes and sustained, equally transparent efforts to make things right.

What defines trust?
Data protection and cybersecurity, treating employees well, ethical business practices and admitting mistakes top the list for consumers, employees and business executives

Consumers, employees and business leaders agree on foundational elements of trust

Q: When you think about trust, which of the following comes to mind?
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 1,001 consumers, 873 employees and 503 business executives

The pandemic’s impact on consumer and employee trust

It’s been a rough stretch for business with COVID-19, but there’s a bright spot: Consumers and employees both say they trust business more now than before the pandemic. For example, 80% of consumers say that their trust in energy, utilities and mining, as well as consumer markets companies, stayed the same or grew since before the pandemic. This rise in trust was hard earned, as many companies pulled through for consumers during a time of crisis. Consumer markets companies overcame unprecedented supply chain shocks. Healthcare companies produced tests, treatments and vaccines. Financial services companies funneled billions in aid to small businesses. Tech, media and telecom companies kept much of the economy running and many of us entertained. Today, over half of consumers have at least “a fair amount of trust” in companies in every industry. Consumer markets (68%) and healthcare (65%) lead the pack, while private equity (56%) and government (54%) rank lowest.

Employees also report gains in trust. An impressive four out of five (80%) employees report trusting their company the same or more now than before the pandemic. A slightly higher number, 84% report trusting their direct manager the same or more now.

When asked who in their company they trust the most, trust levels seem to rise with proximity. Employees cited the highest levels of trust (either trusting them completely or a fair amount) in their direct managers, coworkers and companies (all 77%) compared to 71% for their CEOs, 67% for their company’s board and 59% for other companies in the industry.

Unfortunately, considering that 88% of executives in our recent Next in work survey report higher turnover than normal, many companies may not be taking the right actions to turn employee trust into employee loyalty. To create that loyalty is challenging, since that same research indicates that employee expectations are shifting. They want not just competitive pay and perks but schedule flexibility and expanded benefits such as career growth and upskilling opportunities. The good news is that, since treating employees well is so high on consumer definitions of trust, more loyal employees may make your customers trust you more too.

What drives trust?
Accountability, clear communications and admitting to mistakes top the list for consumers and employees.

Consumers trust industries the same or more now than they did before the pandemic

Q: As consumers, to what extent do you trust the following now compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic? (Responses to ‘Trust more now’ and ‘Trust about the same’)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 1,001 consumers

Employee trust has increased since before the pandemic

Q: As an employee, to what extent do you trust the following now compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic started? (Responses to ‘Trust more now’ and ‘Trust about the same’)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 873 employees

Too much talk and little ownership: disconnects and consequences

Consumers are voting on trust with their pocketbooks — and employees are voting with their feet. Almost half (49%) of consumers have started or increased purchases from a company because they trust it, and 33% have paid a premium for trust. On the flip side, 44% have stopped buying from a company due to a lack of trust. When we look at employees, 22% have left a company because of trust issues and 19% have chosen to work at one because they trusted it highly. In other words, one out of five of your employees who leave don’t do so primarily for a better salary or position. They leave because they don’t trust your company.

How to build trust that will win over consumers and employees? Top choices for drivers of trust among consumers were accountability, clear communications and admitting mistakes. In a sign that trust in theory and trust in practice aren’t the same, data protection (their top definition of trust) came in at sixth. That doesn’t mean that consumers don’t care about their data. On the contrary, we think they consider data protection a basic necessity, and you don’t get extra points for simply doing what’s expected.

In another break between theory and practice, business leader actions on trust often don’t match what they deem “extremely important” — and these actions often don’t address consumer priorities. For consumers, the top trust driver is accountability, but only 56% of business leaders deem it “extremely important.” Only 46% say that their companies have implemented it.

When it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG), 45% of business leaders have implemented transparent ESG reporting — but only 19% of consumers list it among the top five drivers of trust. This disconnect between consumers and businesses may be more complex than it first appears. Consumers care deeply about ESG initiatives such as climate change. But they may not fully understand what ESG reporting entails, or they may consider it as part of their top two trust drivers: accountability and clear communications. ESG skepticism may also be a problem. Only 24% of consumers say the main reason for ESG pledges is to do good. Far more (39%) say that the motive for companies is self-interest: to build trust with them, the consumers.

Are businesses doing what it takes?
Business actions on trust sometimes don’t match what business executives deem important. We found significant gaps in accountability, customer experience and clear communications.

What builds trust in business for consumers and employees

Q: In your opinion, which of the following are the most important drivers of trust in a company? (Pick up to 5)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 1,001 consumers, including 873 employees

What business leaders believe drives trust and whether they’re backing it up with action

Q: How important are the following when it comes to building trust in your company with your stakeholders, including customers and employees? (Responses to ‘Extremely important’)
Q: To what extent is your company doing the following to build trust with your stakeholders? (Response to ‘Have implemented’)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 503 business executives

Trust fundamentals for business: where leaders see payoff, progress and pitfalls

If you want loyal customers, trust may be your superpower. Almost three quarters (73%) of business leaders say that trust helps “a lot” with customer loyalty. Most see other payoffs too. Between 48% and 58% say trust helps “a lot” in nine other critical areas, including reputation, brand and revenue growth.

What’s getting in the way of building that trust? Diverse stakeholder perspectives top the list, cited by 43% of business leaders as a top-three challenge. Everyone, after all, has a stake in trust — and trust has many leaders. Half or more of the business leaders in our survey say that each of 14 senior leadership roles were either responsible for or accountable for trust. But even so, two roles lead the pack: 73% of respondents say the CEO is either responsible for or accountable for trust, and 65% say the same for the CFO. The engagement of so many different C-suite leaders can be a positive or a negative when it comes to trust efforts. If they all work in isolation on their own priorities, initiatives may be disjointed and contradictory. But if CEOs and CFOs take the lead in aligning senior leadership around their customers’ and employees’ top priorities, they can help focus the entire organization on the most important trust initiatives.

What’s getting in the way?
Diverse stakeholder perspectives and current company culture top the list of challenges for business executives

How trust bolsters the business

Q: To what extent does building trust in your company, internally and externally, help improve the following? (Response to ‘A lot’)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 503 business executives

Top challenges to building trust in business

Q: Which of the following are the biggest challenges for your company as you build trust with your stakeholders? (Select up to 3)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 503 business executives

A united front can help with company culture, cited by 41% as a top-three challenge. Culture is critical because trust depends on everyone in your company. Your leaders can’t know every decision made by middle managers and employees — yet these choices can sometimes erode trust in the blink of an eye. A culture in which everyone accepts trust as their personal responsibility can guide discussions and decisions at every level. That’s why it’s so encouraging that 75% of business executives are keenly focusing on employees to build trust — since your employees are your culture. When they trust you and care about trust in all their actions, they’ll help show customers that they can trust you too.

When it comes to concrete steps, only half (50%) of business leaders say that their company has actually defined what trust means. Even smaller percentages (between 37% and 44%) have implemented other key trust-building actions, such as crafting proactive plans for crisis communications or building a trust steering committee. Yet, even if no single effort currently enjoys widespread implementation, progress is real and some companies are standouts. We found that 69% have implemented initiatives in five or more of these areas and 30% have done so in 10 or more.

Which stakeholders company leaders are prioritizing in their trust-building efforts

Q: Which of the following groups do you focus on most in order to build trust in your company? (Select up to 3)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 503 business executives

How far along companies are with trust initiatives

Q: To what extent are you doing the actions below within your organization to build a trust initiative? (Responses to ‘We have implemented this’)
Source: PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, September 16, 2021: base of 503 business executives

Four big ideas to help build trust

Based on this survey and our vantage point from the Trust Leadership Institute, created to equip business leaders with the right skills to build trust, we’ve identified four areas where you should think big to help build trust. We’ve kept these guidelines broad, since trust is dynamic and complex. What you need today won’t be the same as what you need tomorrow.

The most well-intended efforts will also likely do little good unless a broader purpose guides them and you clearly communicate your progress — and honestly admit the work that remains to be done. That requires connecting purpose to all your actions. It also requires you to be intentional about creating a culture of transparency that addresses your stakeholders’ top concern.

1. Be deliberate about your trust strategy

Since companies are at different stages of their trust journey, start by evaluating where you are. Are you one of the 50% of companies that haven’t even defined what trust means? Is your trust strategy tied to your business strategy? Consider too how your senior leaders should work together to build trust. Even though every executive (and every employee too) should own trust, top leadership — most likely the CEO in close collaboration with the CFO — will have to take the lead and ensure a coordinated approach. With this foundation in place, you can better evaluate your customers’ and employees’ top priorities, focus your efforts on initiatives that will really move the needle and back up your words with action.

2. Consider all your stakeholders — and their conflicts

It’s not enough to focus independent trust-building efforts on employees, consumers and other stakeholders. You have to develop a plan from the start that addresses their sometimes conflicting needs. When done right, this multi-stakeholder approach creates a positive feedback loop that can be a true force multiplier. If you build trust in your employees, for example, they can become your trust ambassadors to customers and local communities. As customers see you do right by your people, they’ll be more likely to give you credit for your work on accountability, communications and a consistent customer experience. When customers and employees trust you more, you’re more likely to strengthen trust with other key stakeholders such as shareholders and regulators as well. 

Key components of this process include bridging the gap between employee trust and employee loyalty by listening to what they want: a reimagined workplacedigital upskilling and chances for employees from every background to improve their lot in life. You’ll also want to deliver a customer experience that makes your customers feel heard and inspires them to trust you with their data.

3. Deliver on a finite set of actions

Trust can be earned when you commit to a finite set of actions that align to your purpose and values and then deliver on them, over and over. Trust is built with consistency and reliability. Examine your commitments and goals on everything from taxes to financial reporting to the communities you serve. For example, be deliberate as you approach ESG initiatives. Weigh and take action on those areas (and only those areas) that are important to your stakeholders, be it climate changediversity or effective oversight. Make sure too that you tell your ESG story in a credible way.

To overcome business leaders’ two top challenges — diverse stakeholder interests and culture — consider nine key enablers that can make organizational culture your ally, and plan on taking concrete steps to help align all your stakeholders’ interests. 

4. Deploy technology in ways that truly build trust

Consider trust aspects in all the ways you use technology — with employees, customers, business partners and other stakeholders. If you don’t provide top-notch cybersecurity and data privacy that meets your customers’ and employees’ unique needs, or if you fail to mitigate bias in artificial intelligence (AI) or address common risks of cloud initiatives, your technology could quickly become a liability. Consider too how your customers are using your digital products and services — are they using them in ways that align with your values? Collaborating more with others in your industry, community or the public sector on responsible, ethical technology and data use can help spread trust further.

When used strategically and responsibly, technology can power growth, innovation, more efficient operations and better experiences — all while increasing trust. Intelligent automation, for example, can enhance audits, tax modeling and ESG reporting. Responsible AI can help you make more trustworthy decisions, if you adopt ethical AI principlesreduce AI bias and use AI in appropriate places. A strategic approach to cloud, including solutions for transparency and reporting, can help you achieve ESG goals and strengthen cybersecurity. The right technology can also make nearly every part of your operations more trusted — if you weave in trust at the start.

About the survey

In August 2021, PwC conducted a survey of 503 business executives and 1,001 consumers in the United States. Of the latter, 873 work for companies and are referred to as “employees,” while the remaining 128 are self-employed and are included together with employees as “consumers.” Our goal was to gain insights into concepts of trust in business from the consumer, employee and executive perspectives and to determine how trust levels have been shifted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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J.C. Lapierre

J.C. Lapierre

Chief Strategy and Communications Officer, PwC US