Do you remember the first time you purchased something online?

I do. I bought two books from Amazon.com, when it was just an online bookstore. I was just out of college and had my first credit card. I can distinctly remember feeling a bit uncomfortable typing in the credit card number, and then I anxiously waited for the package to arrive. I was nervous about the whole process.

Buying online was a new thing. You send a request out into the ether, and voilà, an object that you desired shows up at your house? It sounded absurd! It sounded too good to be true! But when the box arrived with my very reasonably priced books, worry turned to joy, and I happily peeled back the cover of my new paperback and settled in for a nice read. The whole thing was a revelation.

My initial feelings of uncertainty were normal—I was doing something new in a format in which I was not familiar. There was a risk. The online transaction itself was a demonstration of trust. Would the payment be secure? Would the package arrive safely? Would the books be damaged? At each step of that interaction, I had made a teeny, tiny leap of faith.

Over the years, as ecommerce and online businesses became embedded in our everyday lives, our level of comfort performing transactions and interacting with each other online has become a lot greater. We no longer debate whether it’s safe to share our email address on a web form, or to type our credit card number on the checkout page of an online retailer. Those operations are now the norm, and sales numbers back that up.

Annual B2C e-commerce sales in the United States from 2002 to 2013 (in billion U.S. dollars)

However, it’s so easy to take them for granted. And as businesses and organizations with goals and bottom lines to meet, we often do. Truth is, our audience still performs these little leaps of faith daily. And we too often ignore them.

To overcome this blindspot, we must, at each interaction point presented to our customers, ask ourselves…

"What can I do to gain the trust of my audience at this stage?"

Amazon did something right. They were able to convince people to trust them. Amazon now sells far more than books, has an avidly loyal customer base, and provides users with a clean and seamless experience. The Forrester CS Index now rates Amazon as the top-ranked for customer experience among mobile device manufacturers.

What is it about your presence online that helps to foster a relationship and build the trust that leads to a good interaction?

1. Be helpful

Whatever your site has to offer, be sure you can provide undeniable value. Serve as a resource. Provide content that is good and can help someone who needs it. This can be in the form of:

  • Information - A blog, a report, a point of view that is unique and will add to the conversation about your topic of expertise.
  • Service - Can you prove you can add value to your customer before a firm commitment? Offer to start a discussion, provide a consultation, host a webinar, or even demo your main product.
  • Product - Let your customers test drive your products and services before committing to them. Offer a free trial of your core product or a low-cost peripheral product as a low-friction entry option.

2. Be genuine

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not—and don’t promise something you cannot deliver. A company does far more damage to trust and reputation by agreeing to provide a service that cannot be delivered. When you’re honest, it means that you care about your customers’ experiences. You don’t want to disappoint them. Don’t advertise that you can provide everything if you know that you cannot. When you are open and honest about potential problems, people tend to believe you when you talk about the positive things, too.

3. Show your face

An online experience inherently creates distance. When you make a purchase online or visit a site, you are not interacting directly with the people behind the organization. You can’t see them. That’s why it’s important for companies to take that initiative—reveal yourself and your team—and add a personal touch by featuring photos of your team, CEO, or anyone who is directly involved in providing a service or content. Listing a physical address of a company can also add credibility.

4. Make it easy

Don’t require folks to jump through hoops to get what they need. Ease of navigation, search, and carrying out transactions helps to create a good experience. When you have good experiences, you build trust. People buy from people they trust. Also, don’t hide the important stuff. This point seems straightforward, but often isn’t. That's because it requires a tremendous level of organizational clarity to define:

  • What your goal out of each customer interaction is
  • What you are selling
  • Who your customers are
  • What your customers are looking to find
  • How your customers want to find what they are looking for
  • Whether you can you meet those expectations
  • Without clearly defining these key parameters, any organization would be hard-pressed to design meaningful interactions for their audiences, which leads to our next point…

5. Foster conversation

Have tools that are easily accessible to allow your audience to interact with you. The more options you offer to accommodate different types of conversations, the better off you are. Some people may have a simple question, others may want to post a review, or request a feature, or provide feedback on an existing service, some might want to have a deeper conversation about what you do. When contact is initiated by the customer, the response should be speedy. When contact is initiated by the organization (and this should be done often and consistently), the feedback collected should be reviewed meticulously. This is the most important information to guide everything else we’ve talked about here.

These 5 key points are a good starting place to consider when looking to build trust and create meaningful relationships. They are not, by the way, limited to online interactions. They are golden rules for business period. And they are never checklist items that you complete and set aside. They should be looked at as vital signs of an organization’s health and analyzed, optimized, and exercised regularly.