Trust & Commitment: Chicken and Egg?

Mark Hollyoake shares insights from his doctorate on trust within B2B

This week I’m grappling with a chicken and egg situation: trust and commitment. Good B2B customer management depends on both, but which comes first? And, how does understanding this determine the quality of your relationships?

Let’s assume that trust needs to be in place for a relationship to be effective, even on a transactional level. What enables it to develop in B2B? A number of trigger spring to mind – contact, strategic value added insight, joint working, people’s expertise/capability/empowerment and mutual investments, to name a few. However, commitment over time appears to underpin all of these.

This poses something of an academic ‘chicken and egg’ question. Does trust need to be in place before commitment can develop, and once established, is it a key enabler to the development trust? Or, is the opposite true – commitment needs to be in place before trust has a chance of developing?

Academic opinion is divided on this:

Some claim trust develops over time, and different types of trust (e.g. everyday trust, risk based, knowledge based, competency based and identification based trust) develop as your relationship with customers changes. Others argue that commitment needs to exist between organisations to allow trust to develop.

This got me thinking about the part commitment plays as a precursor or component of trust. It is possible to have a purely transactional relationship that operates at a level of everyday trust or risk based trust, e.g, I am searching for a widget, you sell widgets, I buy your widget – The benefit to both sides outweighs the potential for opportunistic behaviour.

However, it could be argued that without a level of commitment from both sides, the relationship is unlikely to grow into longer term relationship and grow mutual value – I go to your competitor for a cheaper widget next time round. In this sense commitment is not only a foundation for trust, but a key antecedent that plays its part, alongside time.

Commitment measures have been developed as a key satisfaction/relational metric and indicator of trust.

On a simple level Net Promoter Score (NPS) aims to ascertain a level of commitment within a relationship, however falls short in the granularity required for large complex B2B customer relationships. It is important to consider other factors; innovation, satisfaction, experience, service, solution, joint working and trust when establishing relationship quality and not only relying on commitment as an indicator of it.
In essence, it’s inadvisable for organisations who want to grow and develop their business with customers to rely purely on commitment as an indicator of a healthy relationship.

If You Only Do One Thing…ensure your customer contact isn’t managed through an internal ‘gatekeeper’.

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