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Something is rotten in Denmark — if Denmark is what company leaders think they know about their employees and customers. And in the arena of trust, many of them don’t know.

According to a report released this week by PwC in its Consumer Intelligence Series, 87% of business leaders think customers highly trust their companies when only about 30% of consumers do. And 84% of business leaders say employee trust is high, compared to 69% of employees who say they highly trust their employer.

Wait, so gut instinct on how employees and customers feel isn’t always accurate? Shocking.

Misalignment: Who Owns Trust, What Drives Trust

Further, PwC findings indicate continued misalignment on what builds trust: 47% of executives say trust is more bottom-up than top-down, built from customers, employees and other stakeholders rather than senior leadership. However, only 27% of customers and 35% of employees say the same, indicating that they are looking to the C-Suite to lead more on trust.

“That jarring gap can have consequences ranging from employee retention rates to the bottom line,” Tim Ryan, US chair and senior partner at PwC, wrote in a June 15 LinkedIn post.

And speaking of misalignment, what drives trust?

Business leaders take to social issues like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and environmental, social and governance (ESG); 50% of executives strongly agree that their companies invest in and stand up for social and racial equity. Further, 43% of business leaders say companies should not operate in markets where there is geopolitical/social unrest.

But ask customers the same thing? What are the drivers for trust at the moment? Things like rising prices for essential goods and pandemic fatigue.

And while consumers may appreciate that companies are making environmental, social and governance investments, they’re less likely to say that these actions build their trust right now, according to PwC researchers.

“Businesses are rightfully making commitments and taking action around social issues like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social and governance (ESG),” Ryan wrote. “However, these efforts may not be moving the needle on trust with employees and consumers as much as hoped. Uncertainty in the economy — and beyond — is likely why these critical groups are prioritizing what directly impacts them right now, like available, affordable products and services and treating employees well.”

Related Article: Where CX Meets EX: Customer-Obsessed Culture

Executives Prioritize Communications, Stakeholders Don’t

Almost half of executives prioritize providing transparent communications to build trust with consumers and employees. However, this is not exactly what those stakeholders want: only 13% of consumers and 19% of employees rank this as a priority. Executives also want to be good corporate citizens to build trust, but customers and employees rank it low in importance.

“In other words, when it comes to trust, start with the basics and be sure to get them right,” PwC researchers concluded. “Then build from there.”

Doubling Down on Employee Experience

What are the big takeaways from the numbers and trust disconnect between brands, employees and consumers?

It’s like what we heard all week at the Forrester CX North America conference in Nashville, Tenn. last month: Those responsible for consumer experiences must also have an eye on employee experiences.

That seems like one way to begin to build trust.

“How we interact with our customers and our employees is different," said April Viola, manager of business strategy who supports customer experience across the Discover financial services organization.

“So what's the technology we need to have? What is important to our customers and...to our employees now that we don't get to see them and interact with them the same way that we used to? How do we make employees feel like they're part of our culture without physically being in the space where we once held our culture?”

Related Article: Heard in Nashville: Customer Experience, Employee Experience, Everything in Between

Define Trust, Treat Employees Like Customers

PwC researchers say business leaders need to get the basics right if they want to avoid losing trust, focusing on areas like affordable products and services and treating employees well, which employees and consumers prioritize. Then, move on to environmental goals and larger societal issues.”

Ryan suggests five action steps:

  1. Define what trust means to your company and establish a framework for trust.
  2. Treat employees like customers.
  3. Don’t try to be all things to all stakeholders, but make sure you communicate what you’ve chosen and why.
  4. Recognize that maintaining trust takes effort AND action.
  5. Acknowledge that you’re standing on moving ground, and trust is fluid.

"One of the most notable takeaways for me from this survey is really the jarring trust perception gap that remains among business and both their employees, and really to a larger degree, consumers," Wes Bricker, Vice Chair, US Trust Solutions Co-Leader, at PwC, said in a press conference June 15.

"That gap really reflects a finding that leaders, business leaders, tend to overestimate how much their stakeholder groups really trust them, and what actually drives trust. And that trust gap can lead to adverse consequences, including lower employee retention rates, and negative impact on a company's bottom line whenever they're not executing as well with their products and services with customers."