7 Ways to Keep Your Promises and Build Customer Trust

Trainer’s Note: Feel free to reproduce and distribute this article to managers.

I was driving on the highway the other day and noticed the billboard advertisement had changed. Facing me and all the other motorists who drive that stretch of the road was a mouth-watering display of fine dining: an elegant dinner spread out on a table covered in a white tablecloth. The words “Room Service” were written along the bottom.

No, the billboard wasn’t advertising the offerings of an Inn or a Bed and breakfast. But like all advertisements, it was setting expectations. In essence, it was making a “promise.” It was making a promise about the food served at a local hospital…the very same hospital that my neighbor had been complaining about the week before.

I had called to ask about her husband. Although her husband was recovering, it was going to be a long process, slowed evidently, by his reluctance to eat the hospital food. She started bringing him food from home so that he could gain some of his strength back.

According to my neighbor, the hospital food often came late and was cold. Other patients and families complained about the food and the service too, she told me. Then she said something interesting. Something all businesses and all managers should think about.

A Matter of Trust

“If they can’t deliver the food on time and while it’s hot, then why should I trust the quality of his care?” Why indeed.

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in; healthcare, retail, hospitality. Any business that relies on customers for its success should be asking the question “Do our customers trust us?” Or are broken promises sabotaging that trust?

Forget the billboard that suggests patients get an in-room dining experience comparable to a 4-star restaurant. That’s the world of advertising and a topic for another time. My neighbor was talking about basic expectations. When a hospital offers its patients baked chicken and mashed potatoes, there is an unspoken promise that the food will be hot. When the nurse says dinner will arrive between 4 and 4:15, there is an agreement that it will be served within that timeframe.

A broken promise equates to a breakdown in trust, and without trust, customers have no reason to return. Think about that for a moment. If you break your promises - if you break that trust - customers may go elsewhere.

As a manager, what can you do to ensure your promises are kept? What can you do to build and maintain customer trust? Start with these ideas.

1. Remain open for the business hours that are posted.

This happened to me the other day. I stopped at store a little before 4:00 in the afternoon only to find a handwritten note in the window that said, “Back at 5.” You can be sure I didn’t wait the hour. I went somewhere else. Maybe I am a stickler for details. But if a business posts its hours as 10-5 as this store did, then one expects the doors to be open for business during those hours. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask and yet I am amazed by the number of small businesses who post handwritten signs or little clock signs with moveable arms that tell us when the proprietor will return. Maybe it’s the only day that week that the employee left the premises during open hours, but how many customers came by at that time expecting it to be open? At a minimum, you’ve inconvenienced your customers. Worst case: Your customer went to a competitor.

Consider how much better it is from a customer’s perspective to see posted hours as 10-noon and 12:30-5.

2. Live the Mission Statement.

Many businesses post their Mission Statements and Company Values for the public to see. If you do so, you better live up to them. Waiting in line too long and not being acknowledged by the employee is poor service. Doing so in front of a sign that promises prompt, friendly service for every customer, every time, is unforgivable.

3. Answer your phone.

Phone customers are important too. At some point they will stop in to buy. Or perhaps the phone call is about them coming in to buy. Acknowledge them and treat them with respect or you may lose them too.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of weeks ago, I tried three times to call a service company to do some work in our home. After trying another day and hearing endless ringing again, I hung up and pulled out the Yellow Pages. I called another business even though the first company had done work for us in the past. The new company came out, did a decent job, and will be the company I call next time. That original company didn’t just lose our business once; it lost our business going forward too. What kind of business doesn’t answer its phone or acknowledge the customer with a message?

It doesn’t just happen in retail. A friend of mine changed pediatricians because she was frustrated by her phone calls with the office. If she was able to get through, she was often put on hold. The final straw: She needed to make an appointment for one of her sick children. She tried three times. The phone kept ringing and ringing. Finally, she tried again and although her call was picked up, she was put immediately on hold. After holding for almost 10 minutes, she hung up and looked for her insurance company’s list of doctors. She changed practices that day.

4. Make sure you have your product - and if you don’t, try to make it right.

Have you ever gone to the grocery store and found the shelf of one of your regular weekly purchases empty for the second or third week in a row? Or have you returned to the hardware store to pick up something you forgot and it isn’t in stock? Have you ever gone to a store the day an advertised special begins only to find the shelves empty already? I always wonder who’s slipping. Who’s not doing their job?

Does that ever happen to your customers? What can you do if that happens in your world? Customers can be fiercely loyal, especially when you look out for them and show you care. Acknowledge the inconvenience and suggest an alternative. Or give them firm information about when they can expect the product. If a sale item is out of stock, give the customer the choice between a rain check and a substitute.

And if you really want to go out of your way to ensure their loyalty, consider the experience I had recently at a national bookstore chain. I was looking for a particular title and the store didn’t have it in stock. The salesperson said she could order it for me and it would arrive in 5 - 7 days. When I told her I needed it sooner than that, she offered to call their direct competitor to find out if the book was in stock there. She was willing to save me time and effort and send me to another bookstore for one title in the hope of building and maintaining my loyalty. And it worked.

5. Eliminate the wait.

Letting customers wait in line while nearby employees focus on other tasks is a broken promise for sure. As far as your customers are concerned, the employees are there for them. And, they’re right. Customers shouldn’t be left waiting. They’ll be forgiving if everyone is visibly addressing customer needs. But, if customers are waiting while employees are focused on other things, you’re creating a recipe for dissatisfaction.

This goes for all industries too. If you run a medical office and the doctor is running an hour behind with no hope of catching up, how do you eliminate the wait? After all, an appointment is a promise between two parties. Do you make courtesy calls? Do you call your patients and ask them to come a little later or reschedule? Do you allow patients who are waiting the choice to continue to wait or reschedule? If the doctor was held up in surgery, give them the courtesy of letting them know what’s going on. Do what you can to eliminate the wait.

6. Under promise and over deliver.

Have you ever ordered something because you’ve been promised a date of arrival, only to have that date come and go? Maybe you were told it was an estimate, but all you heard was the date. You heard a promise. They created an expectation.

Under promise and everybody wins. If you estimate delivery by the 15th, tell the customer that it will arrive between the 15th and the 17th. Then, if it arrives before the 15th, you’ll have a delighted customer. If it arrives any time within the timeframe, you’ll have a happy and satisfied customer. That sure beats facing a disappointed customer if you set the expectation for the 15th and the product arrives on the 16th!

7. If you have a public restroom, keep it clean.

A business that provides public restrooms makes an unspoken promise that they will be clean. And some businesses - like restaurants, food service companies, grocery stores, and medical offices - have a lot to lose. They promise clean restrooms just by the nature of their business.

I’ll never forget the time I went into a grocery store and had to use the restroom. I was so appalled by the condition of the ladies room that I left my partially filled cart and drove to a different store. I was new to the area and hadn’t yet decided on where I would regularly shop. That experience narrowed my choices. I never went back to that store - or any in its chain. It was a broken promise. If a business that sells food can’t keep its restrooms clean, what other sanitary problems exist there?

What kind of promises does your business make? And, more importantly, do you keep those promises?

Michele Eby works for Media Partners as a writer and training advisor. She has worked in the training and development field for more than 15 years. Media Partners' customer service training program, “Give ‘Em the Pickle” was the source for this article.