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C-Suite Advisory

The New CEO Priority: Building Trust in a Digital World

Alex Manea

In the wake of headlines about data breaches by household names such as British Airways, T-Mobile, Facebook and Google, it’s not surprising that studies show trust in business reached an all-time low in 2018. At the same time, reports also reveal that customers are increasingly willing to share their personal data with companies they do trust when they see the value they get in return.

As a business leader, what can you take away from these two realities? If you’re like 76 percent of CEOs — as reported in a recent Edelman trust survey — you’d consider building trust as a top priority, even ahead of delivering high-quality products and services.

In today’s digital world, businesses are more visible than ever and with that transparency comes high stakes: even your blunders are in full view and that means customer confidence is on the line.

As a long-time Chief Security Officer (CSO) and practitioner, and now in my current role with growth-equity firm Georgian Partners, I’ve helped hundreds of start-ups, international businesses, governments and regulators build customer trust. What I’ve seen time and again is that taking a proactive, long-term approach to creating trust with your customers could be the most important thing you do as CEO. Here are what I recommend as the first five steps to do so.

Conduct a trust audit. To take the best course of action in the long run, you need to be sure that you understand your starting point. Start by measuring your trust maturity relative to your competitors and to what your customers expect, identifying your relative strengths and weaknesses. Survey your customers to find out whether they feel comfortable sharing their personal information with your company and if they’re not, what it would take to get them there. If your technology is new to the market, you’ll be appealing to early adopters who might initially prioritize the value your product delivers over how comfortable they are with questions such as trust, but soon you’ll have to make the jump to the majority, where comfort will matter more. Ask yourself what your company can do now to lay the groundwork for later.

Create a trust roadmap. Using the results of your audit as a guide, conduct a workshop to gather input from your team on what’s lacking and how you can build trust in five key areas: security, privacy, fairness, reliability and transparency. For example, how will you protect users’ data and ensure sensitive information is treated with the utmost care? What skills and resources will you need to consistently deliver the best possible experience for your customers? Are you being open about your product, business model and policies, and taking steps to explain them in clear terms? The feedback you collect will form the basis to design a holistic trust program.

Make it accountable. To be effective, trust needs to be a coordinated effort across your entire organization. As leader, you can set a clear example of what it means to develop a trust mindset and show that trust is an organizational priority. Follow the lead of Microsoft — which has a comprehensive approach to trust led by its own Trust Center — and bring together a team of employees to serve as key influencers. It will be the team’s responsibility to create core trust values that will be embedded into every aspect of your business, including strategy, culture, hiring, promotion, processes and technology. For example, they might consider whether your incentive structure rewards building long-term partnerships or if your hiring and compensation practices could be fairer.

Deliver on your plan. With an effective structure and processes in place, you’re ready to operationalize trust by delivering on your plan. Your plan will be unique to your business but should include: security guarantees to show that the appropriate level of security is in place for every piece of data you collect; accountability to show that you take responsibility for the data you collect and will act swiftly and surely in the face of any breach; and, a stand on fairness, to show that you’ve identified potential sources of discrimination in your business product and approach. You’ll also need to demonstrate credibility and competency by your actions, not just words. If your core business isn’t performing, you can’t be trusted, so be sure to set realistic performance expectations and have the best team and resources in place to consistently deliver on them.

Show that you’re trustworthy.  As good as your internal processes may be, you won’t be able to build trust unless you communicate them effectively. Celebrate your track record and talk to your customers about how you have successfully built what matters most to them. It’s equally important to be open when things don’t necessarily go your way. You can follow the lead of AT&T, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber and Verizon, all of which publish regular transparency reports documenting the numbers and types of subpoenas, court orders and search warrants they receive. Make sure your privacy and security policies are written in plain, easy-to-understand language and are easy to find. Don’t hide any nasty surprises in the small print. The simpler you make it for customers to approach you with concerns, the more likely they’ll be to understand if a breach does occur. Be human-centered and customer-centric, fitting the digital experience around the customer, not the other way around.

You don’t have to look far to find companies that are winning on trust. BlackBerry completely turned its business around by identifying security and privacy as key competitive differentiators, and Apple, Microsoft, Google and IBM have all recently published principles outlining how they will protect trust as they develop AI products.

Trust is a balance between the value you deliver and the comfort customers experience when interacting with your company, brand and products. When these two factors come together — and you successfully put security and privacy first in your business — trust becomes your key differentiator. Your customers will reward you with additional data and you’ll be able to provide greater value in return.


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Alex Manea
Alex Manea is Chief Security and Privacy Officer at Georgian Partners, a thesis-driven growth equity firm investing in business software companies that are leveraging applied artificial intelligence, trust and conversational AI. A renowned international cybersecurity expert and keynote speaker, Alex previously spent 12 years working at BlackBerry, most recently as Chief Security Officer. Alex Manea is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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