Managing Change to Fortify or Erode Trust

Last week I presented on this topic for the Washington, DC chapter of IABC along with Angela Beatty of Towers Watson. While Angela shared Towers Watson’s research that illuminates best practices for managing change internally, I focused on managing change with customers and the fickle role of trust.

The process of assessing decisions according to their ability to fortify or, alternatively, to erode trust can be instructive for organizations. It’s also remarkably concise and therefore easy to implement right away.

Oftentimes our ability to see things from another person’s perspective is limited—particularly when that other person isn’t in the room to represent their interests. Fortunately, this one sentence diagnostic will quickly improve any change program.

Simply ask: Will this [action/message/strategy] fortify trust with my audience or will it fracture trust? Suddenly, we start to see the ramifications of our decisions. Managers stop talking about how to sell their business goals to an audience, instead they start aligning their strategies with the emotional needs of their audience.

This one-sentence diagnostic enables organizations to incorporate customers in each decision, thereby becoming truly customer centric.

How people experience change

From the perspective of internal change management, we understand that people (employees) don’t like change. When employees are asked to adapt to new situations, many fear failure and embarrassment. The employee’s perspective is: “Will I sink or swim?”

Customer anxiety stems from a very different form fear: powerlessness. Essentially, when a company changes its product or service model, customers fear everything from an increase in cost to an inconvenience or being forced to learn something new. Any change can require additional learning and adaptation for customers, and those inconveniences can erode trust.

The powerful role of empathy

In my view, empathy is on the verge of explosive growth in the business world. I believe it will soon gain legitimacy as an essential aspect of business management, employee engagement, and customer advocacy strategies. Quite simply, in order to assess decisions with this simple trust diagnostic requires empathy. Managers must empathize with employees and employees must learn to empathize with customers.

Once employees understand their customers’ emotional motivations, values, fears, and expectations, then it is possible to anticipate customers’ reactions to any form of change. And, since we already know that people feel particularly vulnerable and fearful during change, we can empathize with their need for clarity and certainty.

Creating a customer experience that truly engenders trust starts here, in the very decisions that lead to the development of tools, services, and communications programs for employees and customers. Each decision point needs to be assessed—empathetically—from the perspective of trust.

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