Trust: the new currency for business

How trust impacts business and how companies can cultivate it

Businesses believe they are much more trusted than they actually are, especially when it comes to consumers’ trust

When it comes to trust, the C-suite may be patting themselves on the back for a job not yet done. PwC’s 2022 Consumer Intelligence Series Survey on Trust shows a jarring gap in trust between businesses and their customers and employees.

Almost nine in 10 (87%) business executives think consumers have a high level of trust in their business. But only 30% of consumers say they do. That said, the gap between how much businesses think their employees trust them and how much employees say they do is much narrower: 84% of business leaders say employee trust is high, compared to 69% of employees. This big gap between the perceptions of the level of trust is important because employees and consumers are business leaders’ two most important stakeholder groups.

When we examine how consumer trust has changed since last year, our survey shows most industries have managed to maintain the trust they worked so hard to earn during the pandemic. Government, along with tech, media and telecom are somewhat more likely to have lost consumer trust in the past year. This is likely due to increasingly polarized political views in the United States. The health industry built on the trust earned early in the COVID-19 pandemic when it produced tests, treatments and vaccines.

Businesses need to repair fractures and move closer to stakeholders’ inner circle of trust. So even if top stakeholder priorities appear misaligned and variable, it’s on company leadership to continually build trust by using open communication. Trust — or the loss of it — can affect customer revenue and employee loyalty. Leaders should invest in active strategies to foster trust and listen carefully to stakeholders, while understanding it requires an ongoing, open dialogue.

Business leaders overestimate how much consumers and employees trust them

Qs: On a scale of 1-10, how much do you think your customers trust your company? On a scale of 1-10, how much do you trust companies in the following industries? On a scale of 1-10, how much do you think your employees trust your company? On a scale of 1-10, how much do you trust your employer?
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Business leaders 503; Employees 2,002; Consumers 2,508


The inner circle of trust is hard to reach: Know what matters — and start with the basics

Opinions on trust vary greatly across employees and consumers. Several key areas of alignment include believing that trust must be a priority for organizations, that organizations have a responsibility to build trust and that trust is essential to innovation. However, our survey shows continued misalignment on a number of trust-related topics between business leaders and their customers and employees. For example, in our Trust in US Business Survey from August 2021, consumers, employees and business leaders agreed on several fundamental elements of trust but diverged in their views beyond the top four.

In our current survey, 47% of executives say trust is more bottom-up than top-down, built from customers, employees and other stakeholders rather than senior leadership. Only 27% of customers and 35% of employees say the same, indicating that they are looking to the C-suite to lead more on trust.  

In addition, business leaders are focusing on social issues like diversity, equity and inclusion and environmental, social and governance (ESG) as drivers of trust, with 50% of executives strongly agreeing that their companies invest in and stand up for social and racial equity. And 43% of business leaders say companies should not operate in markets where there is geopolitical/social unrest.

But these issues are not resonating with consumers and employees at the moment. Day-to-day realities — rising prices for essential goods and pandemic fatigue — are demanding more of their attention and are helping to determine whether they trust a company and its leadership. This is consistent with our previous survey that showed 45% of business leaders had implemented transparent ESG reporting — but only 19% of consumers listed it among the top five drivers of trust. So while consumers may appreciate that companies are making ESG investments, they’re less likely to say that these actions build their trust right now.

This underscores the disconnect we saw in PwC’s Trust In US Business Survey: a continued discrepancy between what business leaders think will move the needle on trust and what consumers and employees say is most important. Until business leaders address this tension, they will have fewer opportunities to be aligned and build trust with key stakeholders.

[There is] a continued discrepancy between what business leaders think will move the needle on trust and what consumers and employees say is important.

For customers, affordable products and services rank as the top priority, with 34% selecting it as a top-three important step to earn their trust. In a rising inflationary environment with continued supply chain disruptions, this is no surprise: Consumers are focused on stretching their dollars. Another top priority for consumers is treating employees well. This customer-employee connection is something executives should consider because many consumers are also employees. And as these two important stakeholders become more interchangeable, businesses should recognize that they may be making decisions with dual perspectives in mind.

Not surprisingly, treating employees well is overwhelmingly the No. 1 factor for employees, with 47% of them picking it as a top-three important step to earn their trust.

Businesses are not typically prioritizing what customers and employees find important: 45% of executives are focusing on transparent communications to build trust with both stakeholder groups, but only 13% of consumers and 19% of employees rank this as a priority. And while executives are focusing on being good corporate citizens to build trust, customers and employees rank it low in importance. In other words, when it comes to trust, start with the basics and be sure to get them right. Then build from there.

When it comes to trust, start with the basics and be sure to get them right.

Executives and consumers are not aligned on many issues related to trust

Q: Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements? (% of respondents indicating that they strongly agree).
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Business leaders 503; Consumers 2,508


But executives are slightly more aligned with employees

Q: Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements? (% of respondents indicating that they strongly agree).
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Business leaders 503; Employees 2,002


Build trust with customers by focusing on affordability, employee treatment and variety


Important steps to earn trust as a customer
Affordable products/services
%
Treats employees well
%
Variety of high-quality products/services
%
Quick response and resolution to customer concerns
%
Responds to feedback and provides a reliable experience
%
Good corporate citizen
%
Leadership admits to mistakes quickly and honestly
%

Q: In your opinion, which of the following are the most important steps a company can take to earn your trust as a customer? (Select up to 3). Note: Only top 7 selected shown.
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Consumers 2,508

Employees overwhelmingly say trust is tied to how they’re treated


Important steps to earn trust as an employee
Treats employees well
%
Provides a variety of high-quality products/services
%
Leadership admits to mistakes quickly and honestly
%
Is a good corporate citizen
%
Has transparent communications
%
Demonstrates a strong financial performance
%
Responds to and acts on customer feedback and provides a reliable customer experience
%

Q: In your opinion, which of the following are the most important steps your company can take to earn your trust as an employee? (Select up to 3). Note: Only top 7 selected shown.
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Employees 2,002

The potential cost of losing trust far outweighs the benefit of actively building it

Trust can be viewed as a currency, altering loyalty and buying decisions for customers, as well as employee retention. And in a sound-bite world — where social media can move politics and markets — recognizing and respecting issues that could push business outside the circle of trust with stakeholders can be especially helpful.

The positives of customer trust-building can directly impact your bottom line. Our previous research showed that 33% of customers have paid a premium for companies because they trust them. In this survey, nine out of 10 (91%) customers say they would buy from a company that gained their trust. Of that group, 14% say they would buy significantly more. On the other hand, of the 71% of customers who say they would buy less if a company lost their trust, a whopping 73% say they would spend significantly less. This highlights the potentially dire consequences of mistakes or missteps when it comes to stakeholder trust. It also aligns with earlier data on the ramifications of losing trust, where 44% of respondents said that they had stopped buying from a company due to a lack of trust. The saying that “trust is hard to earn and easy to lose” holds true, especially if your company needs to manage the fallout from a data breach, product recall or other trust-crisis event. A solid foundation of earned trust is the leading defense against having to rebuild it.

Practices that maintain a company culture of trust can also translate into action when it comes to employee loyalty. According to employees, if their company does something to gain their trust, 93% would be likely to remain loyal to their company and 90% are likely to defend their company to others. Again, this highlights how trust becomes a manageable currency, where your company can influence both its value and buying power with talent, critical in today’s Great Resignation environment.

This may go a long way for talent acquisition and retention, especially when there’s a breach of trust — employees will hold your company accountable. A staggering 71% of employees say that they’re likely to leave if your company does something to lose their trust. Younger generations are even more likely to head out the door: 75% of GenZ and Millennials, 70% GenX and 53% Boomers +. Clearly, not all employees value the same things. Our previous research shows that 22% of workers have left an organization because of issues related to trust.

The benefits of gaining trust…

Qs: If a company does something to gain your trust how likely are you to…? If your company does something to gain your trust how likely are you to…? (Percent of consumers/employees saying “very likely” or “likely”)
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Consumers 2,508; Employees 2,002


…And the costs of losing it

Qs: If a company does something to lose your trust, how likely are you to…? If your company does something to lose your trust, how likely are you to…? (Percent of consumers/employees saying 'very unlikely” or “unlikely”)
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Consumers 2,508; Employees 2,002

Looking at trust across stakeholders

As business executives look to build trust, diverse stakeholder perspectives continue to be a challenge. In our previous survey, when we asked what’s getting in the way of building that trust, diverse stakeholder perspectives topped the list, cited by 43% of business leaders as a top-three challenge.

Given the turbulent labor market over the past two years, employees have commanded the C-suite’s attention — with many executives saying employees are their No. 1 focus. According to our current survey, however, consumers are top priority. While this may be perceived as a tension point, it could also indicate a blurring of the line between customer and employee. This could point to a shift in workers becoming more customer and client than employee. Business executives are working to build authentic relationships with top stakeholders: 48% have already begun working with consumers, and 47% have implemented a trust-building plan with employees.

With affordable and available goods as drivers of trust combined with supply chain issues across all industries, suppliers — which were near the bottom of the C-suite priority list — are now more important. In our January Pulse Survey, 50% of executives told us that increasing resilience to supply chain disruptions was very important. In our current survey, 43% of executives say they have a plan focused on building trust with suppliers. 

And with good reason. A number of factors that help build trust with consumers relate to the supply chain: businesses offering a variety of affordable products/services, prioritizing domestic talent and resources for their supply chains, and responding to customer concerns such as stock shortages. Suppliers also want a lot of the same things that employees do — confirmation that contracts will be honored and that they will be treated fairly. Without careful strategies that build authentic relationships with key suppliers in a disruptive environment of ongoing supply chain snarls, your business can suffer.

Business leader priorities and challenges with stakeholder groups


Stakeholder group
Customers
%
Employees
%
Investors
%
Suppliers
%
Policymakers and regulators
%
Community (including NGOs)
%
Media/industry analysts
%

Qs: Please rank (where 1 is the most important and 7 is the least important) the stakeholder groups in terms of importance to your company as they relate to trust. (Percent picked in top 3).
Source: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series on Trust, June 2022
Base: Business leaders 503

Moving from ideas to action: How to start managing trust to make it work for you

PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey looked at the state of trust at a high level. Our current survey digs deeper to provide insights that allow business executives to take concrete steps forward. These strategies can help translate trust into behaviors that can improve the bottom line.

1. Define what trust means to your company and establish a framework for trust

  • Align your trust strategy with your corporate philosophy. 

  • Stay the course in creating a societal foundation of trust within your business. A supportive, trusted environment on societal issues paves the way for social equity and economic advancement. Businesses can provide both to a larger pool of stakeholders. 

  • Establish a framework of intentional trust-building to help move your organization forward in a strategic fashion. This is especially important in the event of a trust crisis: An interactive cycle — of purpose, intent backed with action and a shared scorecard of what you got right or wrong — can help rebuild trust.

  • View trust as a currency. Our survey shows how changing attitudes toward trust impact consumer and employee behavior. Viewed this way, trust can become a tangible asset.

2. Treat employees like customers

  • Pay close attention to employee priorities and create a culture of trust within your organization. If leadership doesn't capture the values and minds of employees, how can they translate your strategic vision to your customers? This most-prized stakeholder is the steward of your organization and brand. 

  • Offer employees customized experiences that help bring meaning to their work and understand the contributions they are making to the company and society.

  • Provide employees choices that add purpose to work. Since earning trust in business is critical for innovation and growth, and missteps are easy to make, actively cultivate employee loyalty.

3. Don’t try to be all things to all stakeholders

  • Listen to your stakeholders to understand their priorities and identify tension points. Continue to address top stakeholders while working to narrow any gaps between others with innovative strategies that help build trust.

  • Businesses can’t stand for everything. A part of building trust is picking the areas you will lead in and the areas you will support in and following through on those commitments.

  • Keep an open dialogue about consumers’ in-the-moment priorities. Businesses try to act responsibly with a long-term view, but employee and consumer priorities can be fickle. Trust may sometimes mean acting in stakeholders’ best long-term interest whether they care at the moment or not.

4. Recognize that maintaining trust takes effort

  • Recognize the importance of maintaining trust and work to build beyond table stakes. Don’t risk losing trust with stakeholders by not backing words with action.

  • Treat employees and those in local communities well because it matters to all stakeholders.

  • Invest in finding out what matters to stakeholders as well as what’s in the best long-term interest of the organization and society.

5. Acknowledge that you’re standing on moving ground and trust is fluid

  • Establish an ongoing strategy of investment in active and continuous listening to understand your stakeholders and be ready to shift when necessary. 

  • Be vigilant and nimble when it comes to implementing trust strategies.

  • Implement risk management strategies to anticipate a breach in trust — and prevent a whipsaw effect on revenue. Invite board oversight and governance to help achieve goals.

  • Prioritize supplier trust, as domestic workers could benefit from higher wages and access to healthcare, leading to greater economic mobility.

About the survey 

In May 2022, PwC conducted a survey of 503 business executives, 2,508 consumers and 2,002 employees in the United States. Building on our previous Trust in US Business Survey, this survey explores what moves the needle on trust for both consumers and employees and how much, as well as the impact of gaining or losing that trust on the bottom line.

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