Survey reveals need for businesses to build trust with consumers

By Bryan Strickland

In business, it's a matter of trust.

According to PwC's latest survey gauging corporate trust, most business leaders believe their companies are trustworthy. Many consumers, however, don't see companies as worthy of their trust on the same level.

The 2022 Consumer Intelligence Series Survey on Trust: The New Currency for Business, released Wednesday, found that 87% of the 503 U.S. business executives surveyed in May believe that consumers "highly trust" their companies. Just 30% of consumers, however, said they highly trust companies, a gap that a PwC representative described as "jarring."

A smaller gap existed between business executives and employees when it came to high levels of trust: 84% to 69%.

"Business leaders tend to overestimate how much their stakeholder groups really trust them and what really drives trust," said Wes Bricker, PwC's vice chair, US Trust Solutions co-leader. "That trust gap can lead to adverse consequences, including lower employer retention rates, and can have a negative impact on a company's bottom line."

The survey asked 2,508 consumers to rate their level of trust across eight industry fields. Financial services stood among the most steady fields, with 69% of respondents saying their trust level is the same as last year. Twenty-two percent said they trust financial services less than last year, a little lower than the 24% average response rate across all fields.

Bricker shared his thoughts during a conference call about how businesses can look to build trust in the current topsy-turvy economic environment.

"What should business leaders do? We believe that getting the basics right in this instance is the starting point," Bricker said. "Starting with areas like affordability of products and services — that gets to the consumer trust item. Another place to start with employees is treating [them] well. Treating employees, as we say, as customers."

Business leaders have had a hard time recruiting and retaining employees during the Great Resignation, and sometimes that was because of factors beyond the leaders' control. However, fair treatment of employees seems to resonate with different stakeholders. Not surprisingly, the 2,002 employees surveyed overwhelmingly listed "treats employees well" as the top step that businesses can take to earn their trust, but consumers listed employee treatment as the second-most important trust item to them — barely edged out by "affordable products/services."

A satisfactory level of affordability can be difficult for companies to achieve in the current inflationary environment, but the effort to do so has led to the emergence of a new valued stakeholder for businesses, according to Mohamed Kande, PwC's vice chair, US Consulting Solutions co-leader and Global Advisory leader.

"With all of the supply chain issues we are seeing across industries, we are now seeing a stakeholder that is rising," Kande said, pointing out that 42% of business executives listed suppliers as a top-three stakeholder — up from just 13% in a survey last year. "This is a major issue that companies are facing today because of diversification of supply chains — finding the right supplier at the right price. And this is not just a U.S. phenomenon."

Bricker added that "value" is a key term as businesses try to meet consumer demand for affordable products and services. The employees surveyed listed "a variety of high-quality products/services" as the second-most important way businesses can earn their trust.

"Companies today are trying to keep prices as affordable as they can," Kande added. "Consumers can understand and appreciate that we have inflation and that prices might go up, but consumers will have expectations that quality will be maintained independent of the pricing. That's one of the trade-offs that we're seeing today."

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Bryan Strickland at Bryan.Strickland@aicpa-cima.com.

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