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Can consumers trust business?

In March 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered an address to Congress where he said consumers are the largest economic group, affecting almost every economic decision, yet their views are often not heard.

JFK’s words still ring true. As our own politicians gear up for the election, the treatment of consumers by private and public sector organisations must once again be front and centre of the political battleground.

Successful businesses know that by giving people the products and service they want, at a fair price, they’ll have happy customers who are more likely to stay loyal. But firms harm their own reputation and damage trust in their industry when they neglect the basics and fail to put the customer first.

Arming consumers with better information

To earn the trust of consumers then they need first to convince the public that they have nothing to hide.

At its worst, poor information can lead to serious consumer detriment as we have recently witnessed with the horsemeat scandal.

But, even when the information is accurate, it is often provided in an unhelpful way – for example, it’s virtually impossible to accurately and easily compare the cost of different bank current accounts. Doing much more to arm people with information they can use to make better choices would represent a significant shift in attitudes from businesses towards their customers.

Businesses must offer genuine choices

However, people power can only be exercised if there is also genuine choice in a market. The rise of challengers in the food retail market is one example of where providing something distinctly different and simple can turn a market on its head.

But in essential markets like energy and banking, many consumers feel there is no point in switching to another supplier because there is no discernible difference in the service and they can’t always tell if the price they will pay is fair.

Listening to consumers

So information alone is rarely enough. Businesses must also listen to their customers. Consumers want products and services that make their lives easier, provided by firms that treat them fairly and with respect.

For business, getting this right can bring great rewards: people say they are twice as likely to choose responsible, ethical, sustainable brands over their competitors. People are also far more loyal to brands that demonstrate responsible, ethical behaviour.

It’s 50 years on from JFK’s speech but it’s never too late for businesses to learn from the basic consumer principles of information, choice and a right to be heard that he set out.

More consumer power is essential for building trust in business. Markets that work well for consumers are good for the most responsive, innovative and efficient businesses. And that is good for growth in the economy.

This piece originally appeared on the CBI’s Great Business Debate website. Richard Lloyd attended the CBI’s event, debating with CEOs from major companies on what more business can do to rebuild consumer trust.


To imply all business cannot be trusted is, I’m sure, not the implication of the intro but it does rather give that impression. Many businesses I deal with, and worked for, are trustworthy, fair, give me a decent deal – as long as I remember they are in business only because they make a profit.

To say changing your energy supplier may not be financially fair is misleading. We know a large number of consumers could benefit substantially from an initial switch off a standard variable tariff. We should be encouraging that to help them save money.

There are, of course, untrustworthy business and public services that don’t always treat us fairly.

A strong consumers association should be involved in dealing with these miscreants.

Finally, I would not hold up the USA as a paragon when discussing business ethics, nor JFK. Would you trust a politician?


I have very limited trust in large companies because so many of them have let me down in one way or other. I acknowledge that other aspects of their business may be satisfactory. Much of what we discuss on Which? Conversation relates to problems we – as consumers – have with companies.

In contrast, I have a much more positive view of small companies, even one-man businesses. I can phone them and usually speak to someone I know and get useful advice and none of pushing up prices annually in the hope that you will not object. Obviously small companies have their limitations and I probably would not use one for a major job or purchase.

Our large companies should be setting a better example. It might be better if there were more medium sized companies and fewer global multinational concerns that sometimes seem to walk over the consumer.


Sorry Malcolm. That was not intended as a reply to your post.


I agree with the comment about global companies, who get far too much power. Coca Cola and McDonalds taking over the Olympics, Starbucks and Costa driving out small cafes, News International (Murdoch) influencing governments, and such like. This is a very unhealthy situation from what are hardly essential businesses. Oh, and flouting the principles of taxation. No, I don’t trust them one inch (cm).


Perhaps we should use this Conversation to suggest how businesses could build our trust. Some of us are already avoiding the companies you mention, Malcolm.


If there was complete trust in business there would be no need for regulators. The prime duty of the regulator is to protect the interests of consumers by promoting competition. We are all aware of how that competition spilled out of control, particularly in the banking industry that led the country into recession with all its subsequent costs for which we are now paying the price..

Consumers, through their trust and loyalty are being exploited by the entrapment of large organisations who habitually promote cheaper agreements for new customers, only to face large increases in subsequent years. Deals are undertaken over the ‘phone and recorded to back up statements made in the hope that consumers will trust their promises.

Small companies that normally offer better service are struggling to compete with 50%, it is said, not lasting longer than 5 years. We are constantly hearing about “Lessons learned” and “We take this matter very seriously” within large companies but these are just empty words to pacify public opinion and are rarely backed up by action until the next crisis when the same pattern is repeated over and over until consumers become disenchanted to the point of disengagement with the system.

The words ‘more transparency’ seem to be occurring over and over again by consumers. Companies, if they want to restore any trust in the marketplace should realise that if consumers can trust them to access their bank accounts through DD payments on a monthly basis should reciprocate by opening up and delivering on better service and fair competitive prices.

If JFK had been able to remain anonymous when he delivered his democratic address to Congress, would his words have had more resonance to people who have an inclination to put profit before people and culture before virtue.


“Can consumers trust business?”

The answer is no. Surely the question is should consumers ever be expected to trust business. There seems to be a completely unrealistic refrain running through Which? talking of businesses being run in the interests of consumers.

I find it hard to say how ludicrous that statement is compared to reality. Businesses need to run at a a profit and the bigger they are the smarter they become, and more able to game the tax or regulatory system. They also are an entity and to attribute some sort of morality to a constantly changing band of executives who are judged on the profits they make is just fanciful.

So lets have some realism about the relationship. And then let consumers be more informed, and not in a wishy washy way of the company they deal with. Reading Wikipedia’s article on Optical Express was a darn sight more useful in prortraying the company than the Which? articles because it linked to interesting stories.

There are ethical companies and that is because they have a continuing management ethos – generally because it is a family run concern. Even charities are not always trustworthy..


That’s a fine provocative post, Dieseltaylor. It implies that a conventional business is unlikely to be able to operate without exploiting its customers, unless perhaps this might happen as a result of competition with other businesses. I hope it is not nearly as bad as you suggest, but over the past ten or fifteen years I have lost a lot of trust in larger companies and reading the term ‘reputable company’ sometimes makes me wince. Perhaps the biggest factor is that the public is much better informed about wrongdoing thanks to improved communication.

Perhaps sites like Wikiedia are useful at making the public aware of general criticism of companies. From memory, neither Nestle or Barclays have enviable records.

If a supermarket wants my custom, I need to know that their food is safe and wholesome, for an insurance company to keep me, they should not inflate the renewal premium in the hope of me not noticing, and so on. I want to see honest marketing, not misrepresentation carefully contrived so as not quite to fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority. Having said that, I value true competition and have little doubt that this does help the consumer.


John, I agree that it is fanciful, in the real world, to expect business not to put their own interests first. They exist to make a profit, in a world where this is not easy – because of competition. So you need to innovate in all sorts of ways – product, service, marketing, sales, investment – to survive. We need to discuss these topics against what is real, not a world that we might like to be.

Having said that we must not say “do we trust businesses” but “do we mistrust some businesses” because to demonise all business as untrustworthy is quite wrong. Many businesses do treat customers well, in a fair and trustworthy way, because that is in their commercial interests at least, and probably in their ethos as well. Remember businesses are made up of many of us – they are not some abstract entities. And do customers always treat businesses fairly?


I hope that we all accept that companies exist to make a profit. They need to invest in future developments. Perhaps executive salaries are a good indicator that all is well. I recently sent an email to the published email address for the CEO of M&S. I looked up his name and found that his salary is around £1m, possibly plus perks. From memory, Tesco pays their CEO even more. Even if the salary bill remained unchanged, I would like to the money distributed more fairly to their lower paid staff.

I will have more respect when executive salaries become more sensible but they seem to be going down the track beaten by professional footballers.

I have just had a printing job done by a small local retailer that I have used for years. I realised that neither I or the others that had read the final draft had noticed a duplicated word near the start. My printer had already made the plates and was about to run off thousands of copies. He offered to start again and he has not charged an extra penny above the original quote, despite the fact that the error was entirely mine. I wonder if a large business would have done the same. That’s my idea of a business I can trust, though whether they will trust me in future is another question.


My daughter sent us some roses from M&S for our anniversary. We said how nice they were, arriving in a box and sealed in two packs to keep them fresh. She had assumed they would arrive as a bouquet – as the website illustration. She emailed M&S simply to comment on this. She was immediately offered a full refund or another delivery of roses.

Let’s be careful not to be completely cynical about large businesses.


I wonder how many large businesses have executives that do not receive grand salaries, paid for by consumers. That would help me be less cynical.