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Five Ways to Build Trust—and Tipping Points for Choice

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A column I was recently reading, by noted coach and businessman Harvey Mackay, contended that trust is the most important word in business. It made the point that people buy from people, not from companies.

I work in the healthcare sector, particularly hospitals and long-term care companies. People would rather not need their services, and it may be years before they need them. Studies seeking to understand how people choose hospitals have found that physician recommendation is usually at the top of the list. But how do people find that physician? Usually through word-of-mouth—from people they trust.

Healthcare entities are large, complex organizations, like most large corporations. How do you start to build trust for such institutions? I would contend that you first need to humanize the large organization that you represent.

As a former CMO for a hospital in NJ, I came into the position with a challenge. The hospital had been for-profit, and its idea of community involvement was none at all. The mentality had been, "We are paying our taxes, so leave us alone." The competition was eating our lunch. And now, as a not-for-profit entity, we were tied at the hip with a sister hospital that faced closing. More than ever we needed to tell our story.

Did we use billboards or fancy advertising? No. Simply, the strategy was to involve our senior team, and all levels of the organization, in the community. Simple things like joining the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the like made a big difference. Because the community saw that human beings were behind the stark cold walls of the hospital.

In the end, when we had to make hard decisions about closing our sister hospital, the community understood, and most of our patients sought services at the remaining hospital—not our competitors.

To help build trust, start with the following five steps.

1. Be transparent

Do you promote transparency at all levels? This is not just about quality and price transparency but simple things like publishing the email addresses and phone numbers of senior staff so people can contact them directly. CEO blogs, too, promote transparency.

Take a lesson from Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. His hospital has suffered through some costly medical errors. Though such errors have happened at countless hospitals, they usually are not revealed until the lawsuits start flying. Levy addresses them in his blog, Running a Hospital, warts and all.

In the end, transparency builds trust and confidence, even in the case of situations that might otherwise undermine trust. (See "The See-Through CEO," a great article on CEO transparency, from Wired.)

2. Collect information

I preach a lot about how organizations can leverage word-of-mouth for strategic gain and trust-building. Consider data collection, for example. I mean anecdotal and observational information. What do you really know about the people you call customers?

I experienced an excellent example, first-hand. I had an endoscopy recently. Before I went under, I was talking to the staff about interests and told them I was a singer who still actively performs. One of the staff actively sang as well. When I received a thank-you note from the members of team, they mentioned that little tidbit. It made me feel special. It built trust.

3. Monitor

People out there are talking about you. Just ask the community hospital in Paris, Texas. They have a not-so-kind blogger who has a site called the The-Paris-site. How do you react to the blogosphere and establish relations? Appoint someone who scans the Internet regularly and responds and participates in the discussion. Several large organizations have been famously using Twitter to respond directly to customer concerns and complaints. Doing so creates trust.

4. Create community

Harley-Davidson has an annual road rally. I have talked to people who have attended. It is not about Harley as much as it is about bringing people together, stepping out of the way, and letting them talk to each other. In the end, they remember who brought them together. Shouldice Hospital in Canada has this approach down to a science. An annual patient reunion dinner attracts 1,000 people. At one hospital where I was CMO, we staged a Bicycle Safety Day that brought numerous constituents together. I grew tired of it and tried to ditch it. The community rebelled.

Community is also about groups on Linked In, Facebook, and elsewhere online. Let people meet, and then move out of their way. It builds trust.

5. Adopt causes

Adopt causes that are strategic to your services. An orthopedic service line or a long-term care facility might adopt fall prevention as a cause. Sounds counterintuitive... But if you help keep people healthy longer, when something inevitably happens and they need a knee or hip replacement and rehabilitation, who will they look to first? The people who tried to keep them healthy longer, of course. Build trust.

* * *

Trust is key.

So how do you build trust in your own life and as an organization? Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time, forming tipping points for choice.

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Anthony Cirillo is president of Fast Forward Strategic Marketing Consulting, LLC ( in Huntersville, NC. Reach him via

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  • by Andrew McFarland Tue Jan 5, 2010 via web

    To get a friend, be a friend. To get trust, give trust. Your example showed that you were willing to trust "the community" to "understand" the hard decisions. Sure, you took steps to be visible, active, and engaged, but the first step of trusting your "customers" is the hardest.

    Thanks for the article!

  • by Anthony Cirillo Tue Jan 5, 2010 via web

    Thanks Andrew. Funny how we have no control as marketers when you think about it. And taking that first leap of faith is the hardest. Thanks for commenting. Anthony

  • by Barbara Bix Tue Jan 5, 2010 via web

    To get trust, deliver. I also do a lot of work in the health care industry. As you note, most people turn to physicians for recommendations. Yet, when you interview community-based physicians, one of their largest issues is that hospital-based specialists are hard to reach or don't keep them abreast of patients' progress. I suspect investment in systems that improve service to referral sources is a better investment than the branding campaigns many hospitals are launching today...

  • by Anthony Cirillo Tue Jan 5, 2010 via web

    I agree with you Barbara. And with reform, medical home, etc. the PCP will be more of a gatekeeper and the specialists are going to have to pay attention!

  • by Donna Baske Thu Jan 7, 2010 via web

    You get what you give. If you want respect you have to earnit. if you want people to like you and follow you, say on twitter - give them a reason. I think working in a corporate environemnt has at times stripped people of the aspect of just being people.

    I react to what resonates with me and makes me want to contribute / comment and join the converation. End of the day we all go home and are real people there's no reason we can't act that way ALL day .

  • by Anthony Cirillo Thu Jan 7, 2010 via web

    I love it Donna. We are real people and should act that way ALL day! Thanks.

  • by Robert Airhart Mon Jan 11, 2010 via web

    May I make 12 copies of the article "FIVE WAYS to BUILD TRUST-and TIPPING POINTS for CHOICE"%3E

    I wish to give these to my Association Board members.
    Bob Airhart

  • by Anthony Cirillo Mon Jan 11, 2010 via web

    Robert - fine by me!

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