MT EXPERT: How Deutsche Bahn turned its reputation on its head

Companies spend millions on building trust - but Ipsos MORI's Milorad Ajder says individuals are what really make the difference.

by Milorad Ajder
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

All companies want to beloved but failing that the desire to be trusted comes in a strong second - trust tends to be at the heart of all good relationships and brings with it a sense of permanence and stability. From a commercial point of view, it can translate into benefits that impact the bottom line – from increasing customer loyalty to people giving you the benefit of the doubt when times get tough.

But a recent Ipsos Global Advisor study shows people find it difficult to trust companies. A majority of consumers don’t trust CEOs to tell the truth and want businesses to be more regulated.

The problem is that trust can only emerge if people have a clear sense of what companies are and what they stand for. Without this kind of saliency, they will be perceptually lumped in with everyone else.

When you think of sectors such as banking, energy and transport you can intuitively grasp the size of the challenge some companies face in differentiating themselves. In most cases the popular sentiment is ‘they’re all the same’ - or, worse, ‘a plague on all their houses’. Although this kind of corporate homogeneity may be at its most acute in those sectors, it’s by no means restricted to them - companies in many sectors struggle to create an individual and unique connection with the consumer.

So the sixty four thousand dollar question is this: given the millions companies spend on communications, how can they cut through the generalisations about their sector and communicate in a way people can genuinely relate and respond to?

Part of the answer lies in an anecdote I heard at the European Communications Summit in Brussels last month. It was from Deutsche Bahn on the way they communicated with one of their customers through social media.

The gist of the story was that a frustrated passenger waiting for the umpteenth time for a late train sent a message to DB where she assumed the role of a long suffering girlfriend who had just about had enough of her unreliable boyfriend. The message ended with news that she had found a new man in her life called Opel and was breaking up with DB.

The way the passenger used humour to make a serious point impressed me - but what impressed me even more was DB’s response. Instead of falling into a well worn mantra about investment in the network, importance of customers etc they decided within minutes to respond in a similar vein. They adopted the persona of the jilted boyfriend who understands his girlfriend’s frustrations and realises she would be a great catch for someone else. However given an opportunity he would try his best to mend his ways and woo her back.

The exchange was picked up by the German media and DB received a lot of positive press coverage – quite an achievement given the speaker indicated DB’s reputation in Germany is comparable to that of train companies in the UK.

On one level this is simply an amusing story, but I think in many ways it also gets to the heart of how companies should behave if they want to truly connect with people and build credibility with the wider world. In this case DB managed to break out of the sanitised corporate speak that so often deters people from paying attention to what a company has to say and managed to convey a sense of personality.

The way it responded achieved three things: it acknowledged it was having a conversation with an individual (by not sending a standard response which could have gone to anyone), it demonstrated that it trusted its employees by empowering them to empathise with the feelings of the customer and communicate in the way they felt was most appropriate, and finally, given the speed of its reply, it was clear its response was not rehearsed and therefore authentic.

Nordstrom encourages its employees to think for themselves

In many ways the DB story echoes the culture fostered in Nordstrom, a successful US chain of department stores, which leads the way in allowing employees to cut through process and protocol. Until relatively recently its entire training manual consisted of a single piece of card containing 75 words. There was a short welcome and expression of confidence in the abilities of the employee and then the following line: 'Nordstrom rules: Rule #1: Use best judgement in all situations. There will be no additional rules.' Although the manual has been subsequently expanded to accommodate mandatory legal considerations the essence of the company remains the same – above all other things, your judgement is what counts.

By allowing their employees to use their judgement, DB and Nordstrom add some impetus to the rather over-used phrase that employees are a company’s best ambassadors. This is because the average customer can spot the real thing and detect when they are being treated as an individual, by an individual. Communication between customer and employee therefore becomes an opportunity for a company to reinforce or dilute its distinctiveness and to build or erode trust.

At the end of the day reputation cannot be built by corporate advertising and PR alone. It needs to be constructed day-by-day by the behaviour of employees who, while they may be on board with the spirit of the corporate promise, also demonstrate that they are trusted to think and empathise as individuals in their own right.

- Milorad Ajder is the head of Ipsos MORI's reputation centre

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