We’ve all been there: spending half the morning on hold on a premium phone line waiting to reclaim some money that’s owed to you, only to find out that you’ve got through to the wrong department and someone will call you back shortly — honest. Or you’ve been arm-twisted into signing up to some service that you absolutely, under no circumstances, can’t be without, only to discover that not only do you not need it but that you are now bound into a 12 month contract.
These stories are the exception to the norm but they are often the things that stick in our minds. The industry shortcomings and scandals make the headlines, while companies going about their daily business, providing products and services which meet or exceed customers’ expectations do not.
Nevertheless, businesses have a huge mountain to climb to rebuild public confidence. New research conducted by YouGov for the CBI reveals that only around half of people (53%) think business makes a positive contribution to society.
In terms of trust, small firms are at one end of the spectrum, trusted by the majority of people, and big business and multinational corporations are at the other end, very poorly trusted. Looking at the different sectors: insurance companies, banks and utilities companies are the least trusted, whereas retailers and manufacturers are fairly well trusted. In general, 60% of people believe business does not do enough to regain trust when it has been lost.
These figures may be unsurprising. On the one hand, the economic crisis and a number of industry scandals in recent years have chipped away at the public’s confidence in business. Mistakes were made in some quarters, and certain businesses have taken a reputational hit as a result.
On the other hand, companies of all sizes, in all sectors and in all regions of the UK are the driving force behind our economic recovery, delivering growth and more jobs. In fact, in the last three months an unprecedented number of jobs have been created.
Every part of the economy plays a role, from the banks providing finance, to large companies working hand-in-hand with dynamic smaller firms in their supply chains. When business prospers we all benefit. And 70% of people surveyed by YouGov agree that profit is a good thing.
But simply focusing on making a profit is not enough. Public expectations of all businesses are rising. In the years since the economic crisis business has been repeatedly challenged to up its game and demonstrate that it delivers real value. Our research shows that 55% of people agree that expectations on business to do the right thing have increased over the last ten years. And the likelihood is that this bar will continue to rise.
The critical point is that businesses can only realise their full potential when they command the confidence of the public – the individuals that companies employ and the customers who buy their goods and services.
And people rightly expect companies to clearly show that they are holding themselves to ever higher standards when it comes to payment of tax, executive pay, transparency, customer service, how they treat their staff, sustainability and diversity in business.
Progress is being made and business has a strong story to tell about its contribution to society, but we recognise the need to do more. Unless business can respond to this challenge, it will lose the right to be listened to on the big issues facing our economy and society and will ultimately face more regulation for regulation’s sake, which would only serve to dampen growth.
Putting the customer first
Going further to put the customer at the heart of everything business does is the right place to start. Our survey highlighted that people rank providing value for money, putting customers before profits, delivering what’s promised and good customer service as some of the most important factors impacting on their trust in business.
Putting the customer first makes clear business sense too: by providing good products, services and customer service, businesses will attract more customers through word of mouth recommendations. In the world of social media and instant feedback this is becoming even starker. Getting this right as a business is the stuff that the world’s best brands are made of.
All of this requires leadership commitment from the top, a willingness on the part of business leaders to listen to, acknowledge, and learn from public concerns. It means reacting quickly when mistakes have been made – as the supermarkets did last year in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
We also need to do more to celebrate those companies that have gone the extra mile to deliver for their customers and share best practice. That’s why I’m involved with and strongly support the Which? Awards today – recognising the very best of business across a wide range of sectors from cars to retailers, banks to home appliances.
Good businesses are crucial to the creation of a stronger and more sustainable economy and that’s why it’s so important to highlight those firms doing a good job.
The vast majority of people are now aware of Which? endorsements, like Best Buys or Recommended Providers, and say that this recognition of excellence positively influences their purchasing decisions.
Over the coming year I am delighted that the CBI and Which?, the leading voices for business and consumers in the UK, will continue to work together on showcasing the best of business, and to explore what more companies can do to address the concerns of their customers.
Building public confidence in business is no easy task, and we won’t change attitudes overnight, but it is a critical one. Without public confidence in business, it cannot do its job — growing the economy, creating jobs and boosting prosperity for all — nearly as effectively.