What we've learned.

There are 5 gestures of trust.

We spent two years (from 2015-2017) with the Better Business Bureau exploring what today’s consumers feel is a “better business.” First, we sat down with, listened to, and observed a diverse group of 18 consumers in their homes or workplaces in four U.S. cities — Charlottesville (VA), NYC, Atlanta, and Seattle — and had them describe, in-depth, their experiences with companies in daily life, positive or negative.  We then later explored the concepts that emerged from these conversations with consumers and businesses across the United States and Canada via survey. The research we conducted was designed to explore U.S.-based consumers’ perspectives on businesses from a fresh perspective; it was not designed to provide conclusions about human beings in general or to extend to other populations or circumstances. However, we do believe that our learning does provide a framework or lens for viewing the relationship people have with organizations (and each other) that is constructive and worthy of further exploration.

The group of consumers we visited with revealed that the degree to which they feel the company “respects” them forms the foundation for whether they want to do business with that company. Ultimately, the measure of whether they trust the company will treat them, and others, well is the deciding factor.

This discovery is nuanced. It’s not that the people we visited with blurted out that “if they respect us, we want to do business them, otherwise, we don’t.” The content of the stories they chose to tell and the way they framed the incidents in the stories reveal this underlying paradigm.

Specifically, consumers communicated to us that “5 gestures” on the part of organizations (or any individual for that matter) engender trust: these consumers look for the organization or individual to be:

  • Honest
  • Transparent
  • Proactive
  • Humble
  • Equitable

To be clear, these are labels we applied to the concepts our research subjects revealed in the course of their storytelling and how they framed responses to questions. We then validated the concepts, along with the definitions we applied to them, with our subjects, as well as with 1500 businesses and 2000 consumers across the U.S. and Canada via survey.

Let’s look at each of the gestures and see how you can apply this insight in your own organization immediately:

To be Honest

More than “telling the truth,” to be honest in this context is to provide the information another needs, when they need it, and the information provider makes every attempt to anticipate what information the receiver needs at that moment. For example, you’re selling a “leather” chair for a great price, like 20% of what most leather chairs might cost. Only the chair is not covered with grain leather as the typical consumer might imagine, but rather with “bonded” leather, which is manufactured by grinding scraps of leather together, applying to a fibrous backing (often paper), coating it with polyurethane, and covering the chair as if it’s a continuous piece of actual leather.  Is promoting a bonded leather chair as a leather chair honest? Well, it’s telling the truth in that chair is covered with leather in some form. But it’s not delivering the information the consumer needs at the moment unless the promotion also includes more information such as the fact that bonded leather is manufactured and does not last nearly as long as regular grain leather and may at some point in the next few years crack and peel where a regular leather chair likely would not.

So, there’s nothing inherently wrong with selling or buying a bonded leather chair as it may be very attractive and comfortable and suit your budget and needs perfectly. But if you leave a consumer to believe they are buying a chair comparable to a full grain leather chair and take a “let the buyer beware” posture, most consumers would not view you as being honest. Honesty is the gateway to trust; you’re likely to lose customers, employees, partners, and public support at some point along the line if you do not value being honest in a way meaningful to those with whom you’re communicating.

Alternatively, if you respect the customer enough to fully inform them at time of purchase what the deal is — yes the chair is less expensive and it might not wear as well as a true leather chair, but for now it is a nice looking, comfortable chair that will suit you well for the time being — you are most likely to earn their trust.

You can translate this into any form of service, relationship, or interaction with others. Think about honesty not as an act of telling some version of “truth,” but rather in anticipating what information a person needs and supplying that information proactively. Most people will bend on their wants and needs a little to work with someone they feel is honest. Honesty as just described is thus a competitive advantage.

To be Transparent

To be transparent in the context of the 5 Gestures means to be willing to make yourself vulnerable in making information available, particularly in situations where a customer, employee or the public perceives you’ve made a mistake. In short, it’s more than “we’ve got nothing to hide,” which is reactive. It’s more like “here’s what you likely want to know about us or the situation and, by the way, if you don’t see or hear what you need to see or hear, please ask because you may see something we don’t!” kind of posture.  

There’s a adage that regrettably has been trotted out too much in recent times that says that people don’t get in trouble for the “crime,” but rather for the “cover up.” People make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow and, as it turns out, ingratiate yourself to others if you’re transparent about it. If you engage others and look at information about your organization or a situation that they’re concerned with, you signal that you’re viewing the world from their perspective and seeking answers along with them; this is true transparency. Put another way, transparency happens when you remove your capacity to control information flow and how others will respond to what they see and hear. This engenders trust for what we feel are obvious, instinctive reasons. Others feel you’re transparent then they comfortably assume that they have all the information they need at any given time.

The next time a customer or employee has a question or an issue, take time to journey with them to find an answer or resolution. If there are no barriers to gaining information or access for either of you, then it’s very possible to do. This “let’s find out together” signals that you can be trusted, something others want very much to do.

To be Proactive

To be proactive as defined by the 5 Gestures is to see your job as bringing value to others. This requires you to anticipate what others need or, at the very least, respond promptly once a need surfaces. In an organizational context, this means looking for ways to bring value to customers, employees, and partners before being asked, if possible.

Being proactive is a mindset that sets the tone for many of the other gestures of trust. As mentioned, to be honest involves a proactive effort to and anticipate and supply needed information. To be transparent requires one to know what information should be shared with others.

Examples of being proactive in an organizational context are to mine a customer’s purchase data and suggest a way they could save money and refunding what they could have saved or offering employees funding for professional education.  Examples could also include responding rapidly to inquiries or problems, and making it easy for people to contact a live person at your organization. 

When you do something for someone that’s in their best interests and requires an investment of some kind on your part, you are signaling that you can be trusted.

To be Humble

Being humble in the context of the 5 gestures does not mean that you don’t promote yourself; it means that you acknowledge and promote the idea that success that you have is due to a collective effort involving others — employees, customers, partners — as well as infrastructure resources like roads, power sources, financing, and government programs.  If you signal that you feel you alone are responsible for your success, you suggest to others that you value yourself much higher than those around you, and therefore are less likely to be trusted.

Examples of being humble are “customer appreciation” specials that are meaningful; highlighting employee achievements and supporting paid education programs; giving back to the community through charity and contributing goods and services to local causes; overt “thank you’s” and other highly visible acknowledgements in public ads or speeches.


To be Equitable

Perhaps the most powerful of trust gestures, being equitable in dealings means sharing power. All human exchanges involve a power relationship of some sort. An organization in a power position that deliberately gives over some of that power to a consumer or employee signals that they have the other’s best interests in mind and are proactively preserving that power for them.

An example of this is a clear generous return policy on a product, or a “try before you buy” program with no strings attached. Typically, a consumer ordering a product online, for instance, may receive a product they don’t like for some reason. The company already has the consumer’s money — it is in the power position in this regard. If the company makes it easy for the consumer to get their money back at any time, or not risk any money, the company is ceding some power to the consumer. 

Another example is when an organization drafts its contracts with employees or vendors with mutual protections. In this instance, the organization projects up front that it intends to identify all potential issues in an arrangement, put them on the table, and insist on fairness should anything arise. The organization does not wait to see if the other will raise concerns, or feels the need for careful review because the organization may not be forthcoming if does need to. Rather, it acknowledges that power is a factor in the relationship and it intends to share that power because it’s the right thing to do.

To be equitable is to promote trust directly.

Final Observations

You might see how these gestures are linked to one another — they are connected to one another by their own themes — to be honest you must first be transparent, which requires that you’re humble and equitable, all of which suggests you need to be proactive. Surely, to be equitable you need to be transparent, proactive, and humble, as we’ve defined these terms above.

Our additional observation is that these gestures appear to go up in importance and power as you move in order listed from being honest to being equitable. While being honest is indeed a “gateway” gesture, it is also assumed to be the lowest bar and expected. Being humble and equitable are of a higher order and require an organization to give up credit and control, respectively. In the end, as we have seen, making oneself a little vulnerable goes a long way to strengthening trust and commitment from others, the greatest asset an organization can have to remain relevant and vital in its marketplace.


Here are some articles, a podcast and a report from the BBB that provide more information on this research.

  1. Report from BBB. 
  2. Article in BBB’s “Trusted” Magazine:  Do your customers trust your business? Five gestures of trust may determine whether they do or not.
  3. Article in BBB “Trusted” Magazine:  Formula for Building Loyal Customers.
  4. Better Series Podcast – The 5 Gestures of Trust