building customer trust online photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/drewbiedoo/

building customer trust online photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/drewbiedoo/

Building trust online is essential to developing a great reputation, whether you’re a corporation, small business, or ecommerce website. When customers know they can trust you, they believe that you’re credible, that you’ll do the right thing, protect your customers, and deliver on your promises. Without trust, customers may question your reputation and feel unsure about doing business with you.

But in today’s online environment, building trust can be difficult. With the prevalence of online scams and without the advantage of face to face interaction, customers may doubt your credibility before they even do business with you. By working to develop trust signals like authenticity and transparency, you can show customers that they can trust you and your company’s great reputation.

We asked customer service experts to recommend their best tips for building trust online. They shared that showing your human side, being accessible, showing social proof, and building a great website are all good places to start developing a more credible reputation — and there’s more. Read on for a complete guide to building trust online and bolstering your reputation.

Be a Real Person

Whether you’re part of a corporation, small business, or an online merchant, it’s easy to lose sight of the human equation. So often, business is executed without a human touch: with online shopping carts, automated emails, and impersonal websites. But to gain customer trust, it’s important to show authenticity.

“People want to do business with people,” says Disneyways.com owner Krista Joy.

This customer desire to do business with real people, not anonymous corporations or automated phone trees means that businesses must go out of their way to connect with customers, especially online. You have to get personal to build trust.

“The success of any business is the ability to connect with people,” explains Gayle Nowak, founder of TheStoryStylist.com. “We bond & build trust with people in our everyday lives by getting intimate & personal, and it’s no different in business.”

How to Really Connect

  • Develop a video for your About page: Nowak often advises her clients to share the personal story behind their business, ideally as a video on an About page. Her suggestion works well because, as she explains, online visitors will typically go to the About page to connect with the person or people behind the company. A personal story humanizes your business, and it offers an opportunity to engage with people on a deeper level, even when you can’t meet in person.
  • Get real on your About page: “Don’t talk about the high-level stuff people won’t connect with,” says Bacon Business Management‘s Shalon Ironroad. “Talk about the human stuff and tell them how you’re going to help them (as a fellow human).” This is much more effective than corporate speak or ideas that might go over a customer’s head.
  • Share photos: Posting photos of yourself is a great way to build customer trust. “People like to see who they are dealing with and being able to put a face with the company helps create a bond,” explains Cullen Hardy, CEO and founder of The Hardy Group. Consulting with therapists, he’s seen that websites with a photo can really help to build rapport and your customer base. In his experience, simply adding a photo helps his therapist clients increase patient inquiries by an average of 35%.
  • Don’t fake it: If you’re trying to be real, gaming the system by posing as customers on forums or in blog comments it a very bad idea: and it has great potential to backfire on you. “Through all things online be transparent about who you are and why you are interacting with the consumer,” encourages Satterfield Group director Michael Satterfield.
  • Be transparent: Explain what your team is all about and the values that you stand for. Toronto Vaporizer PR associate Holly Jane shares that the Toronto Vaporizer website reflects the company’s personality and culture, with personal touches that explain what makes each team member unique. They’ve also outlined their story and commitment to customers.

Be Accessible

If you really want customers to trust you, be there when you’re needed. And not as an automated response, either: customers want to know that they’ll be able to connect with a real person that can offer assistance with their concerns.

LawyerReviews.com CEO Matthew Reischer encourages businesses to prominently display a contact mechanism managed by real people. Using a direct message chat system or Contact Us form are effective, but he says that displaying a phone number is ideal. “Customers appreciate being able to quickly reach a customer support representative without the buffer of technology, and a well displayed telephone number is a great signal for building online trust,” says Reischer.

Customer service expert Shep Hyken adds that customer communication should be prompt and accessible through multiple channels. That means there’s minimal hold time on the phone, and social outreach is responded to in minutes — not hours or days.

It also helps for customers to know that there’s a real person listening on the other end, and the best way to do assure them of this fact is to follow up with every single communication, says Joy. “Email, snail mail, social media are equally important. No matter if it’s a complaint or accolade. Be sure to respond in a kind, personable manner – and do it quickly!”

Online companies should be especially sensitive to communication accessibility, says Eric Cawley. He points to research indicating that:

  • 83% of consumers need some kind of customer support when making an online purchase
  • 45% of customers abandon an online transaction if their questions or concerns are not addressed quickly

Cawley offers live chat widgets as a solution to this challenge. The widgets can be used to interact with potential customers online in real time and answer questions. He reports that several clients who’ve installed chat widgets have seen it dramatically boost website conversion rates.

Highlight Social Proof with Reviews

Customers want to know that they’re not the only ones to trust your company. They need to see social proof that show you have a successful track record of satisfied customers. Namely, they’re looking for online reviews.

Think potential customers aren’t checking out online reviews? Think again. A 2013 Nielsen study revealed that 93% of the time, consumers who look up reviews on Yelp occasionally, frequently or always make a purchase from a local business. But in a Woodbury University study sponsored by ReviewInc, we see that only 75 percent of businesses surveyed said they are monitoring customer satisfaction, only 20 percent are actually doing something about it. This is clearly a point where many businesses can work to improve trust.

Woodbury University’s Dr. Kristen Schiele encourages businesses to participate in the conversation that’s happening online. She says that participating can help foster loyalty. And encouraging reviews is always a good thing. “While it’s certainly beneficial for companies to get positive reviews, it’s even more important to get lots of reviews, period,” says Schiele.

Reviews are the most influential social proof a business can offer. Review Trackers chief tracking officer Chris Campbell shares a study from The New York Times and Latitude that reveals online reviews inspire twice as much consumer/client trust than Facebook likes, tweets, or follower counts. And customer reviews on sites like Yelp, Google+ Local, Angie’s List, etc. have been proven to influence 79% percent of consumers’ decisions, he says.

Hyken says that your social proof (testimonials and reviews from happy customers) should be easily found, on your website and otherwise. If you don’t have reviews yet, ask for them. Asking for reviews not only builds your social proof online, but it also shows you have confidence and that you plan to take care of your customers, says Hyken.

Of course, review collection should be an ongoing effort. Review Concierge Jeff Shaffer stresses to his clients that they must ask for reviews frequently in order to keep them fresh — just in case a bad review from an unfairly disgruntled client or former employee pops up. This is also a great way to build a library of hundreds of reviews that shows undeniable proof that your business is trustworthy.

When soliciting reviews, remember to make it easy for customers and thank them for their consideration. Whether your feedback is good or bad, they’re doing you a favor by taking the time to weigh in. Jane shares that Toronto Vaporizer includes a hand-written thank you note with a request for a review in every single package they ship out. This has led to great success: on Google alone, the site has an average star rating of 4.8/5 with almost 200 reviews, a clear signal to potential customers that they’ve found a winner they can trust.

Though asking for reviews may invite negative feedback, it’s important for businesses to understand that every customer message is useful, whether it’s positive or negative. This is something Two Maids & A Mop VP of operations David Luke understands well. “We have found that even the negative reviews allow us an opportunity to resolve the situation and build trust for the next customer we are going to serve,” he says.

Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, encourages businesses to build customer trust by answering every negative critique and comment. “Don’t brush those comments under the rug before you hope anyone sees them,” she says. “Face them head on, and address each situation. This will let your customers know that you’re an honest company, and your main priority is to keep them happy.”

Merchant Centric CEO and cofounder Adam Leff agrees with this approach. “Good, bad or ugly: owners and managers who respond to the reviews regardless of sentiment, show integrity and a willingness to resolve customer issues, which is viewed favorably by prospects considering products or services from the business,” he says. “Businesses who fail to respond to their reviews decrease the trust level of prospects, particularly when the review is bad, because they have essentially doubled the offense: first, a situation has occurred, and second it has not (apparently) been rectified. This is the perception.”

More than just responding, businesses need to offer an action plan for resolving problems. Punchh CEO Jutendra Gupta shares an example of a great response:

“When a restaurant customer posted a review, “I love the burgers, but the bathroom floor is dirty,” the location manager got a real-time message and saw the customer’s photo. He noted that the customer was still in the restaurant and walked over to him, thanked him for the feedback, apologized and assured the customer that the problem was being taken care of as they spoke. Not only does this let the customer know they were being heard, but the manager responded with a plan to resolve the issue furthering the trust between the business and customer.”

Get Good Press

In addition to social proof with reviews, businesses need public exposure with the press. A news story from a reputable outlet featuring your business sends a signal that you’re connected and trustworthy enough to be featured in the media. Press coverage offers validation, and sends a message that you’re a “real company.”

LoveBookOnline.com‘s Chris Sonjeow encourages businesses to start small if big opportunities don’t present themselves. He suggests reaching out to local television and local newspapers, and recommends using your network and even cold calls to get connected to journalists.

“Mentions of your company and products in the press is a great way to build trust,” says Jane. “The trust of your customers will soon follow when they see genuine third party mentions in the news, on trusted blogs, or by industry influencers.”

Satterfield asserts that it’s important to be involved in the community that makes up the bulk of your demographic as well. How can you get involved? “I generally like to approach influencers that are respected by our consumers and do our best to build trust with them first,” he says. “The value of having the trust of a major blogger or influential personality can have far reaching effects. But you need to make sure that that experience is the same experience that the individuals that trust that influencer will receive.”

Develop a Community

In addition to participating in the community that connects with your business, you should develop your own. And with so many great social media tools available, there’s never been a better time to do so.

How can you develop your own community online? Prolific Marketing founder Dan Barner says it’s all about establishing yourself as an expert. “Sharing tips, industry news, relevant articles, etc. about topics related to your business can help show that you are an expert in your field,” he says. “Being viewed as an expert and being knowledgeable helps build customer trust.”

Barner suggests doing Q&A sessions via social media, featuring employees, highlighting community involvement or happenings to show that your business is aware, involved, and perhaps most important of all — real.

“We have found that by frequently engaging with our community, you can establish real, ongoing relationships, with not just customers, but potential future customers, too,” says Jane. “On Facebook alone we have almost 60,000 fans, which is quite the feat given our niche market. Establishing a strong fan base will give future customers the confidence that you are a real business who genuinely cares about more than just selling products.”

Remember to make your outreach personal. “In your marketing, think about each subscriber, follower, and fan as an individual human,” says Ironroad. “What would these people (not as a collective “audience,” but as a group of individual humans) benefit from? You can pre-schedule social media blasts, but also take 5-10 minutes, a few times per day and actually have an exchange with someone.”

Develop Partnerships

Just as great press can send a trust signal to customers, so can good partnerships with trusted brands. Working alongside an organization that customers already trust can greatly improve the trustworthiness of your own business. After all, what great company would work with others who aren’t just as good as they are?

Vandelay Web president Mark Runyon suggests reaching out to brand name products that your business might carry, and publicize this relationship online. “Customers will trust your brand more when it is associated with brands they already trust,” says Runyon. Ask the manufacturer to link back to you from their site, and issue a press release about the partnership with quotes from the other company.

Offer a Great User Experience on Your Website

Frustration and misunderstanding breeds distrust, especially online. A website that is difficult to use or navigate does not help customers understand more about you, and it certainly doesn’t encourage them to trust you. Build more trust online by creating a useful website that adequately answers questions, serves the needs of your customers, and provides direct access to communication with your business.

“Having a well designed site is a majority of the battle,” says Sonjeow. “You don’t have to bombard the user with info, you just need to keep it clean and organized. If you start getting customer contacts asking the same question, you should offer an answer before they need to contact you.”

Sonjeow offers an example of this idea at work:

“We started getting a lot of questions about the quality of our product. How will it look when it arrives? How long does it take for it to arrive? So, we solved the question by creating a shipping calculator where the customer can enter their location information and we display the correct info.”

Dan Stelter agrees that design is really important to user experience and customer trust. “Many businesses have websites that look like they’re from 5-7 years ago,” he says. “Visitors to these websites think they’re abandoned and that the company is no longer in business.”

How can you develop a website that builds trust? Try these tips:

  • Become mobile friendly: Your website should use what’s referred to as “responsive design,” which offers a good user experience on all electronic devices, be they desktops, laptops, phones, or tablets. Stelter encourages that responsive design makes your website look modern.
  • Stay active on your blog: Stelter recommends updating at least four times per month. A blog that’s not updated regularly is often a turn off for visitors, who might leave if you’re not active.
  • Use personal language: Write like you’re talking to real people — because you are. “Avoid “corporate speak,” which talks “at” people rather than conversing “with” them,” says Stelter. “Visitors to your site only get frustrated and annoyed when you talk mostly about your company, products, and services.”
  • Be customer-centric in your language: Sure, it’s your website, but it’s made for users. Stelter recommends using the word “you” rather than “we,” which makes visitors think you’re talking about yourself, not them. He also recommends talking about what you can do for customers instead of talking about the company. “The more you can give information that helps your customers, the more they trust you. It’s the whole basis for online marketing.”
  • Add logos: Stelter says to make sure you include logos from any reputable industry organizations you belong to, linking directly to your listing with the organization so your membership can be verified. You should also include logos of payment methods accepted, clients you’ve served, and awards won. “People love visual confirmation of companies they trust – and they’ll trust you by association,” says Stelter.
  • Show videos of your products: Inseev Interactive account manager Brett Bastello has seen conversion rates and trust increase with a client who did one simple thing: add video snippets of products in addition to product pictures. He says that this helps to increase trust with potential customers by replicating the “in-store experience.”
  • Be secure: We know that compromised security can really hurt customer trust, whether you’re an online business, small business, or major corporation — just ask Target how they’re doing after their highly publicized data breach. Sonjeow recommends that businesses invest in security and offer proof to customers that they’ve partnered with organizations designed to protect. “We have purchased/partnered with multiple third party “validation” companies,” he says. “The BBB for overall business practices, McAfee Secure SSL for Encrypted credit card transactions, BizRate Customer Reviews, Authorize.net Merchant Authentication. All of these are paid services that give the customer a sense of security. After all, these companies would not partner with someone who is a scammer.”
  • Display trust signals: In addition to security partnerships, Bonfire Funds chief marketing officer Kevin Penney recommends showing trust signals at the right time and place, suggesting credit card logos should be added next to the credit card number payment field. Websites should also detail how email and contact information is used during the signup process. “Adding the text “Your email address is safe with us. By creating an account, you agree to our privacy policy.” to our signup form on BonfireFunds.com netted us a +14% increase in user signups,” says Penney.
  • Offer a guarantee: Any time a customer buys a product or service, they’re taking a risk — that you won’t deliver, that it won’t be what they expected, or that it won’t work as well as they’d hoped. Quell their fears by offering a guarantee. 800razors.com cofounder Phil Masiello offered a “burn-free guarantee” to earn the trust of their customers even when the business had low brand awareness and credibility. He’s found that the guarantee has become imperative to his business model and has attracted customers who know they will either love the product or not have to pay for it.

Make Your Customers Feel Valued

Even without a brick and mortar experience, you can show your customers how much you care. Offering great customer service, following up, and staying in touch are great ways to add an extra layer of trust — and show your appreciation.

“Make your customers feel important and valued,” says Joy. “This can be done, no matter how big your corporation is. It just takes time, attention, organization and effort.” She suggests sending small gifts and letters when appropriate, and remembering birthdays and anniversaries.

Joy also encourages businesses to invest in customer service opportunities rather than more “stuff.” “Employees are your only investment that increase in value,” she says. “They will help you build trust if they have good interactions with all customers. How many dentists have hygienists that are so kind – and patients that will be loyal for life?”

Photo of Joseph Torrillo
About the Author

Born and proudly raised in Syracuse, NY, Joseph joined the team in 2008 as the Director of Reputation Management after earning his B.S. in Public Policy. He is now the Vice President of the department.

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