Trust - An Interview with Lauren Solomon


7min read

Lauren thanks for taking the time to discuss your perspectives on trust.  Can you start by telling us why you think it’s important for organisations to build and maintain trust with the people we serve? 

Someone I deeply respect and once worked closely with back in government said to me one day: ‘Lauren, you can’t get anything significant done without trust’. I was only just beginning to find my way, dealing with a reasonably contentious policy issue at the time, and seeking advice on how to approach it. To resolve the issue, I was going to have to engage individuals and organisations that the government traditionally didn’t have a good relationship with. While there was a risk if it went badly, it also presented a slim opportunity to reach a resolution if it went well. The conversation needed to be had if we were going to get anywhere.

"To achieve significant change, we often have to be prepared to reach out and see things from other points of view."

I guess that experience never really left me and his advice still echoes to this day. To achieve significant change, we often have to be prepared to reach out and see things from other points of view. Sometimes we need to be vulnerable, and that can be a scary experience if it’s taken advantage of. Trust can be shattered in an instant and once it is, it can take a lifetime to repair. Sometimes it never really does.

In that situation back in government, despite an attempt to build trust, we didn’t actually get a resolution and the reform stalled. But we didn’t end up worse off - the relationship slowly started to build. Many, many other times however, taking a step into the unknown and unfamiliar did drive change, and it was worth it every time. So, from my perspective, both at individual and an organisational level, trust is essential if you want to really make a significant difference that benefits the community.

What are your views on the state of trust in society today?  

I think society today is generally becoming more fractured and polarised, as a result of how we live and technological advancement. There’s no question that trust in major institutions has hit all-time lows, across religious, media, political, corporate and government institutions. That presents a massive problem if these are the organisations that our society relies on to deliver products, services, jobs and protections. From a risk perspective, if a government or business needs to quickly implement a reform to protect people, but no one listens, I think we’re in real trouble as a society.

A challenge we’re also only just starting to catch up with is the subtle shift in the power and influence of institutions with access to a growing body of data about who we are, what we buy, our behaviours and our networks. Paradoxically, these organisations are securing greater levels of influence over markets and society, but currently attract higher levels of public trust, not yet being subject to the same levels of public scrutiny & transparency as other organisations with the potential to have a sweeping influence on society. Not stifling innovation, while building long-term trust in new markets will be a massive challenge during this period of transformation. This is a big piece of work for us over at CPRC over the coming few years. 

"We need to work together to rebuild the community trust in our markets that has been eroded."

One significant opportunity can be found in a more prominent recognition across business, government regulators and community sectors that we’re actually all in this together. We need to work together to rebuild the community trust in our markets that has been eroded. No-one has the solution on their own. If they did, it would have been fixed by now.  Secondly, I believe we need to be far more mindful and aware of the impact of big data, a growing online marketplace and the trend towards personalisation resulting in a reduction of a genuine shared experience by our community as a whole.

Tell us a bit about CPRCs research on trust.  Why did this come about?  What were your findings and where to from here?

CPRC and the former CUAC set about our Building Customer Trust project in 2015, working collaboratively with energy and water providers. Participating businesses include: AGL Energy, EnergyAustralia, Origin Energy, City West Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water.

Through their engagement, our team identified key activities within businesses which really were improving outcomes for customers and building trust – so the plan was to document this and use it to highlight some of the good practices. Unfortunately, often we all spend an awful lot of time talking about what’s not working, but a relatively small amount of time looking at what is working well and better understanding why.

Released earlier this year, the Building Customer Trust report was a breakthrough for this change in approach. Our team spent months meeting with a range of representatives from across each participating business, looking at processes and policies and pulling out some of the key trends, themes and examples. Four overarching principles were developed which we believe all businesses could adopt when attempting to make changes to build trust with consumers:

  1.       treat customers fairly
  2.       set customers up for success
  3.       embed a culture of trust in the business
  4.       create systems and processes that make it easy to build trust.

The report also has a series of practical actions that could be taken within each of the principles, drawing from some of the best practices identified across industry.

The next step is to start a conversation with industry, government and the community sectors about how we better identify and measure the consumer outcomes that we believe are essential to the operation of effective markets that are fair and build trust. We’re hoping to have this conversation collectively through the Thriving Communities Partnership, being better informed by experts across a range of sectors. If we can agree on what consumer outcomes a healthy market delivers, then this may help to guide the way we think about interventions and projects to drive sustainable change.

What advice would you give to service providers who are seeking to build trust with customers?

Listen more, assume less. Listen more to what your customers and clients are actually experiencing when they engage with you. What challenges are they having? What is and isn’t working? Listen to your employees. They are the ones talking to customers every day. If frontline staff were better supported in engaging customers and feedback better captured about what is and isn’t working well, then changes can be made in a more deliberate way. This isn’t about lip service, it’s about knowing the journey of your customers.

It’s also important to listen to those with experience in engaging people who are vulnerable. The challenges and experiences of vulnerable Australians are often so far removed from those making the decisions; when that happens we can end up with major unintended consequences. I think at the heart of it, this comes down to diversity of thought. Having a diverse set of skills, backgrounds and experiences when designing solutions helps to ensure that a broader range of considerations are incorporated. This applies not only to service providers, but for government policymakers, regulators and the community sector too. Stay inquisitive.

We talk a lot about consumer trust in institutional systems, what are your views on trust between the parties of an institutional system such as the relationships between corporate, government and community sectors?

I’ve long been a passionate advocate of cross-sectoral collaboration and partnerships, because I genuinely believe they result in a better shared-understanding of complex problems. When everyone is clearer on the problem, it’s much easier to design a solution. This sort of approach also often results in more sustainable change over time, as opposed to quick interventions into and out of the market.

"Trust across all sectors is essential to driving lasting change. We all need healthy markets and communities and in order to achieve that, we need to be working together."

That’s not to say that this approach suits every single policy issue, but often long-term problems that have been very difficult to resolve involve some form of losses on all sides to make a difference. Frequently there’s only a least worst solution. That, and incremental change. Now all that doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? It’s often not newsworthy, but it’s still important work and it needs to be done.

Trust across all sectors is essential to driving lasting change. We all need healthy markets and communities and in order to achieve that, we need to be working together. That’s why I’m excited about the opportunity that Thriving Communities Partnership presents – it’s the first real collaborative attempt across industries and sectors that I’ve seen. No matter which sector you work in, we all owe it to the prosperity of future generations to have a real crack at getting this right.

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