America's trust in business declines while economy stiffens

David Yates Nov. 19, 2007, 4:29am

Americans are trusting businesses less and less, according to a recent survey conducted by the Better Business Bureau. The BBB reported that nearly one in five adults' trust in business decreased in the past year.

The news is the latest in a series of unwelcoming articles predicting that soaring gas prices, the ailing dollar, a mortgage crisis and a stagnant stock market may cool holiday spending.

Which retailers are the most sullied and least trusted in the publics' consuming eyes? – auto dealers, real estate brokers, cell phone providers and furniture stores.

According to a recent BBB/Gallup Trust in Business Index survey, nearly one in five (18 percent) adult American consumers say their trust in businesses that they regularly deal with has decreased in the past 12 months, more than twice as many who say their trust increased (8 percent).

The survey also found that less than half of American consumers (49 percent) say they have a great deal (12 percent) or quite a lot (37 percent) of trust in businesses that they regularly deal with.

The BBB commissioned the survey, which was conducted by Gallup, and underwritten by Visa Inc.

"The survey focuses on consumer trust in businesses that they regularly deal with and provides guidance to businesses, especially small businesses, about steps they can take to increase trust," said a BBB press release.

"It's alarming that about 37 million American adults trust business less now than they did last year, and that fewer than half of all Americans have a lot of trust in businesses they deal with every day," said Steven Cole, president and CEO, Council of Better Business Bureaus.

"There are many contributing reasons for this bad news – recent toy recalls, the sub-prime mortgage and foreclosure crisis, well publicized ethics lapses and criminal violations, and a long period of what many experts see as declining customer service. But whatever the causes, if we care about the health and prosperity of our nation, we had better address trust issues immediately."

When asked how important 14 reputational attributes are in determining what businesses they trust, American adult consumers rated a company's reputation for honesty and fairness most important, with 93 percent saying this is extremely or very important, the press release said.

A company's reputation for being both dependable and reliable was second with 91 percent saying it is extremely or very important, while a reputation for providing safe products is third at 89 percent. Reputation for providing good value for money and good prices ranked fourth and fifth respectively. Company advertising ranked lowest, with only 18 percent of respondents citing it as a key trust factor, the press release said.

Further, respondents were asked to consider what one company, large or small, that they regularly deal with in everyday life, do they trust most – and what does that company do to earn their trust. From unprompted, top-of-mind responses, competitive, low prices were cited as a key trust factor by 29 percent of respondents, with nice and friendly personnel at 29 percent as well.

Good customer service (non-specific) was ranked third by consumers as a core component of trust in companies at 26 percent. Consumers were also asked to consider the one company they deal with regularly that they least trust and comment on what the company does that creates the lack of trust. High charges and fees were noted by 30 percent of consumers as creating the most distrust, followed by poor service (27 percent) and failure to meet promises (16 percent), the press release said.

"Earning consumers' trust isn't simply the result of good ethics, integrity or even low prices," said Cole. "As the survey data shows, it's more – companies must keep their commitments and produce results. If they don't provide quality customer service and deliver on promises, they won't be trusted, and consumers are not likely to purchase their goods or services."

Consumers were also asked about their level of trust in 15 different types of companies they do business with regularly.

Companies that fared worst in the BBB/Gallup Trust in Business Index include auto dealers with only 16 percent of survey respondents saying they had a great deal of trust or quite a lot of trust, real estate brokers (17 percent), cell phone and wireless providers (21 percent), and furniture stores (22 percent), the press release said.

Business categories consumers trusted least are generally consistent with the volume of complaints BBB recorded from consumers last year, a record-breaking 1.2 million complaints spanning 3,900 business categories. Last year BBB received more complaints about auto dealers (new and used) and cellular telephone service and supplies than any other business categories, and the furniture retail and real estate categories were also significant complaint generators, the press release said.

By comparison, pharmacies and drug stores are most trusted by American adult consumers with 65 percent saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in these types of businesses. Grocery stores and supermarkets came in second at 59 percent, followed by banks, financial institutions and stock brokers (48 percent), and home improvement stores (46 percent), the press release said.

"One of the main objectives of the Index is to identify needs and actions that businesses can take to address customers' concerns related to trust," Cole said. "We are examining the data in the Index, and will use our findings and findings from subsequent, follow-up surveys, to help build more resources and tools to advance marketplace trust."

Other Findings

The survey found that that women are more trusting than men – with 52 percent of women, compared to 45 percent of men – saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in businesses they deal with regularly. And, older consumers are more trusting than their younger counterparts with more than 58 percent of consumers ages 65 and over saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust versus 43 percent under age 35.

When it comes to the size of businesses and consumer trust, the survey uncovered that 67 percent of consumers say when given a choice they would prefer to do business with a small company rather than a large company in their everyday life. Further, 73 percent of consumers say they trust small companies more than large companies. And by a nearly two-to-one margin, consumers employed by large companies said they would prefer doing business in their everyday lives with small companies (59 percent) than other large companies(31 percent).

In addition, only one in six American adult consumers (17 percent) say they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in companies that only do business online, while 42 percent say they have some trust; 22 percent say they have very little trust, and 12 percent say they have no trust at all. Younger consumers say they have more trust in online only companies than do older consumers with 23 percent of consumers 18-34 years of age and 20 percent of those 35-49 years old saying they have a great deal or a lot of trust in online only companies compared to 14 percent of those aged 50-64 and only 6 percent of those 65 years or older.

"As a result of this initial Index survey, consumer trust in business has been benchmarked and quantified," Cole said. "Our challenge now is to keep a close eye on how consumer trust in business changes over time and champion the qualities – honesty, reliability and performance - that will move the trust barometer upward."

For more information about BBB, visit In Southeast Texas, call 409-835-5348.

About the Survey Methodology

These findings are part of the first "BBB/Gallup Trust in Business Index" survey commissioned by BBB and underwritten by Visa. Gallup fielded the survey Aug. 22 to Sept. 8, 2007. The sampling included 1,204 respondents, 18 and older, randomly selected from across the U.S. The overall sampling error in the results is plus or minus three percentage points. For findings based on subgroups within the overall population, the margin of sampling error would be greater.

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