BBB trust report gets specific


The Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan published the findings of a recent survey that shows how consumers in the region perceive businesses when it comes to trustworthiness.

Partnering with the Calvin University Center for Social Research (CSR), the BBB Trust Lab — a local initiative developed last year — surveyed 508 consumers in a 38-county region along the west side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and this month published the “Trust Lab Inaugural Assessment: Consumer Trust and Business Trustworthiness in Western Michigan.”

The research was presented to the public Aug. 14 at the BBB Serving Western Michigan office, at 3330 Claystone St. SE in Grand Rapids.

The report provides a glimpse into how trusting — or not — consumers feel as they approach businesses for the first time, which industries they rate as trustworthy and which they don’t, and the factors consumers use to evaluate businesses on trustworthiness.

A full copy of the report can be found at

“Two years ago, we started having discussions throughout the community about how to build trust in West Michigan. We needed a better understanding of what trust is, how to measure trust (and) what can be done to impact trust,” said Phil Catlett, president of the BBB Serving Western Michigan.

The local BBB chapter in early 2018 received approval from its board to launch the BBB Trust Lab, partnering with CSR to design “broad and specific” research that would give the BBB Serving Western Michigan “an understanding of how to positively impact trust in communities we serve, particularly business and nonprofit trust relationships,” Catlett said.

Trust Lab’s objective will be to use the data from this and other studies to create programs that foster trust and enable West Michigan to become “the most trusted place to do business in the United States.” 

Neil Carlson, director of CSR, said research continues to demonstrate trust relationships are an essential component in the success or failure of organizations.

“Trust relationships are literally a source of capital,” he said. “Trust is a productive resource for economic growth that’s at least as important as financial capital and physical machinery. Trust reduces transaction costs, and it reduces the risks of innovation.”

Initial trust

In 2017, The Council of Better Business Bureaus conducted the first Trust Sentiment Index survey, designed to explore how trust drives consumer marketplace decisions. 

It asked, “On a scale of one to five, with one being more skeptical and five being more trusting, how would you describe yourself when it comes to working with a company for the first time?”

Using a similar question, the Better Business Bureau asked consumers across West Michigan if they are more trusting or more skeptical when working with a company for the first time. The results show West Michigan consumers are more skeptical at the first business interaction (57.2%) than the national average found in the 2017 study (67.5%).

While within the survey’s margin of error, when broken down by region, northern Michigan residents were the most skeptical (52.8%), followed by respondents in the central portion of West Michigan (56.6%). Southwest Michigan was the most trusting (62.5%).

Age also appears to play a factor in consumer trust, with young consumers being more skeptical initially than older consumers, according to the report.

Rating industries

Not all industries are trusted the same, the report found. 

The Trust Lab survey asked consumers to rate 10 national industries and 21 local industries on a scale between “not trustworthy” and “very trustworthy.” 

Dentists, restaurants and doctors topped the list of most-trusted industries in West Michigan. The least trusted industry, according to the survey, is used car dealers, followed by landlords and lawyers. 

While Catlett said some of the negative results fell in with well-known tropes, now that sentiment is quantified, the Trust Lab can help businesses take preventive action and employ better communication and marketing strategies to break out of the “reputational traps” they face.

Key factors in trust

The data begs the question, “How can companies gain trust before that initial business interaction with a customer?”

The Trust Lab survey asked consumers to rank a list of the most important factors they use when deciding to trust a company with their business. The top three responses were good reputation, good customer service and recommendations from family and friends. 

The least important factors were somewhat surprising: social media presence, articles on the internet and advertising, but this could be because the survey question was asking consumers about what the company is putting out on the internet about itself, versus what has been said about it by reviewers on social media or by news outlets, according to Troy Baker, communications manager of BBB Serving Western Michigan.

“These results make it clear that what other people say about a business means more to consumers than what a business says about itself,” Catlett said. “One of the best ways to build trust with new consumers is to have a loyal customer base that is willing to share a good experience with others.”

Carlson added organizations can make social media much more powerful than it is — if they so choose.

“It goes to a basic principle in building trust in political science — these, what are called ‘credible commitments’ involving powerful players, which, in this case, might be businesses vis-à-vis consumers — publicly tying their own hands, making commitments not to do certain things that might exploit other people,” he said.

“If you think about using social media to be tenacious about making commitments to consumers where people can see that they’re being made and being fulfilled, answering a complaint in a way that isn’t just a one-off, but demonstrates a conversation about how we’re going to reintegrate them into our community of buyers — that kind of tenacity … it’s the ones that push through the toxicity and stick with it until they’ve demonstrated it to a core group of people that start gaining the benefits of a feedback culture and trust-building exercise.”

Next steps

Following the Trust Lab’s inaugural assessment, the work will continue, Catlett said.

“This study is a first step at understanding how consumers in Western Michigan interact with businesses,” he said. “The results show there is still work to be done with both companies and consumers to help foster an environment where both sides can have confidence when they do business.”

The BBB Serving Western Michigan said it will continue to examine the results and use the findings to create and expand programs and offerings to help enhance trust between businesses and consumers.

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