Please don’t kill the tortoises!

Please don’t kill the tortoises!

Or, “How to trust your customers”.

In commerce, so much value is placed on building customer trust. Having your customers trust you, as a business, as a retailer, as a service provider or as a supplier is, after all, pretty much a golden ticket to retention, positive NPS trends and great referrals.

A key factor in building that trust is often missed, though. Trust is a two way street, and it’s self-propagating. Trust builds trust. Trust builds relationships. Trust builds business.

So why do we talk about this so little? A quick google of “customer trust” or similar will show this is perceived to be a very one-sided affair.

Perhaps it is that, as providers of a service, we assume we are in control, and indeed should be in control, of the entire relationship. Perhaps we are societally so much imbued with the notion that trust should be earned that we forget it’s not a one-way transaction. 

How do you build a service or business that demonstrates your trust in your customers?

First, let me tell you a story. It’s the summer holidays here in the UK. I have two young boys to entertain. Naturally, among all the iPad time and play dates, that means a number of outings to paid attractions such as museums, zoos, theme parks and play centres. 

This week, we ventured to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. It’s a very local wildlife sanctuary dedicated to, you rightly guessed, the welfare of wolves both in the wild and in captivity. They’re a small, independent charity, staffed largely by volunteers, with limited opening times. I’ve been wanting to visit for several years, and finally, having spotted on their website that they were soon to close their doors forever, we got our act together and went along. 

A little prior research had lead us to expect this to be a shortish visit. We expected to spend, at most, a couple of hours there. They have only 10 wolves, and are dedicated more to their welfare than to entertaining any small children who may be visiting. The only addition to the main attraction, for the purposes of these summer holiday openings, was a tent set up by the local “reptile man”, giving lots of opportunities to handle snakes and relations.

We found the entire experience enchanting. As did our boys. For them, the main attraction (even with howling Artic wolf not twenty yards away), was a small, permanent enclosure housing some pet tortoises, owned by the family who runs the Trust. 

We’ve been to petting zoos, rainforest recreations and pet shops before. They all have had tortoises that my boys could examine. But they’ve always hitherto been behind glass or a very high enclosure. The actual ‘petting’ sessions have always been under the careful watch of a member of staff and on limited times. The walls, physical or metaphysical, have always been comparatively high. 

Here, at the Wolf Trust, the tortoises were in a little wooden enclosure, open to the elements and the many eager fingers of excited children. There were no staff helicoptering around to monitor the situation. The walls of the tortoise pen were less than eight inches high. There was a small, inconspicuous notice on one side asking people politely not to pick up the tortoises, as it causes them stress. It essentially, politely, and implicitly gave visitors permission to spend as much time as they liked, up close and personal, with these bijou reptiles, so long as they didn’t endanger them. 

“Please don’t kill the tortoises!” 

It struck me that this small charity was placing a huge amount of trust in its customers. The tortoise wall, and its tiny sign, I realised, was a big part of the reason our expected two-hour visit in fact ran to over four hours. We felt comfortable in the place. Our boys were given freedoms they don’t enjoy in other places, behind bigger walls, to explore unfamiliar worlds. We meandered up and down, taking in the environment and the animals at a snail’s (or even a tortoise’s) pace. The tortoise wall was emblematic of the whole experience. We felt comfortable because we were trusted. We stayed and explored because we were comfortable. 

Usually, we herd our boys through the obligatory post-visit gift shop as quickly as possible, heads down. But here, we bought wolf-themed paraphernalia from the unobtrusive gift shop, because we’d stayed so long, and our expectations vastly exceeded. 

If the trust of a small, independent venture such as this can imbue me with such a cocktail of excitement, interest, and curiosity, then how can a commercial enterprise take advantage of this phenomenon, too? 

How do you build a service or business that demonstrates your trust in your customers?

There are examples out there of the “low tortoise wall”, in organisations of all sizes, from Apple, down to your corner shop. And we all know how guilty many large corporations are of putting up big walls between them and the client.

Ultimately, I could write a hundred articles attempting to answer this question. The truth is, I believe, that there’s no single answer. We’ve eroded our commercial sense of trust in consumers drip by drip, and there’s no quick fix. 

And neither is there a complete fix. In matters of legislature, finance, safeguarding and protection, of course we need frameworks in place that limit the capacity for systems failure or personal injuries. But where do these frameworks end, and irrelevant and unhelpful limitations imposed by businesses on their consumers begin? It’s a blurred line. But somewhere on this line businesses fail to demonstrate any level of trust in their clients. Clients feel distressed. It makes them edgy. It propagates and perpetuates any niggling doubts they may have in their relationship with that service provider.

Whether that line has been blurred to save costs, streamline processes, or to fit with technological or commercial limitations, it’s worth examining closely. 

How do YOU exhibit trust in YOUR customers?

This article first appeared on my Linkedin publications in August 2018