Re-engaging the Trust of Your Customers, Employees and Stockholders
by Julie Miller and Brian Bedford

Public confidence in the business world has rarely been lower. The impact of the Enron and Worldcom scandals, plus senior leaders who feathered their own nests at the expense of customers, employees and stockholders alike, have created a deep and widespread suspicion of companies and their leadership.

Against this nervous backdrop, large and small businesses should ask themselves, "What can we do to regain the trust and confidence of the publics we need most: the customers, the employees, and the stockholders?"

One answer lies in a return to strong core values. Often taken for granted yesterday, lack of these fundamentals could undo a business tomorrow. A company with strong core values, and the processes to support them, can create a competitive advantage for itself in today's uncertain marketplace. Here are a few of the most significant benefits for your company's key audiences.

Customers should recognize that they'll be treated with integrity. They're assured that commitments mean something to this company and to its management.

Employees can have clear expectations of what is required from them, and what they can expect from their leaders. Managers and employees alike will be held accountable to the highest standards.

Stockholders can bet they're less likely to wake up to unpleasant surprises -- their holdings crashed in value and executives charged with fiscal offences -- as a result of a lack of integrity.

In return, the benefits to the company itself for its investment in core values are enormous:

  • Top talent can see that this is a company worth working for in the long term. This will be a company that people will be proud to work for, and proud to stay with. Retention rates will improve.

  • Customers will be more likely to engage in long-term relationships, allowing the company to better navigate the inevitable ups and downs of normal business.

  • Stockholders will be comfortable to engage in long-term commitments relative to their investments in the company, knowing that it lives up to its values.

Simply put, strong core values build trust, cement relationships, and create stability. Despite the bed the Enrons and Worldcoms have created for the business environment to lie in, creating and sustaining desirable core values can be achieved through a relatively straightforward process.

Coupled with an absolute commitment by the company's leadership to the principles involved, this is a four-step process for success:

  1. Identify the core values

    It's fundamental that the core values chosen should support the objectives of the business. Core values define the makeup of an organization and must reflect the desired culture of that organization. These will be different for every business, based upon companies' missions and business formats.

    For instance, a fast food outlet may have the core values of fast, friendly service, and quality products. A hazardous chemical facility may have safety first as one of its top values. A high-tech product designer may emphasize customer first or technology excellence.

    No matter what business you are in, integrity must be the primary core value, providing the foundation for all other values. Without integrity other values will lack credibility.

    These values must be selected by the organization itself. In order to support the values, there must be ownership.

    The number of core values should not exceed three to five. This will allow the organization to best focus on those selected.

  2. Bring the core values to life

    For each core value, develop behavioral statements which create shared understanding at all levels of the organization. For instance, if the high-tech design firm selects customer first as a core value, its leaders need to help everyone understand what their definition of customer first is. Some sample definitions that can help with this include:

    • Listen to customers: understand, manage and exceed their expectations
    • Demonstrate ownership of the customer in all we do
    • All solutions begin with the customer considered first
    • Develop a list of behavioral "Dos and Don'ts". To expand on the customer first behavior above:
      • Be proactive and flexible when handling customer needs
      • Have a sense of urgency
      • Communicate well to keep customers informed of progress
      • Don't make empty promises
      • Don't assume you know what the customer wants
      • Don't make excuses or blame others
    • Communicate the core values and the behaviors throughout the organization, to customers and stockholders.

  3. Weave core values into the fabric of the organization

    Identify and update existing organization systems and processes. In order for the core values and behaviors to "stick" in the organization, all elements of the company should stress the importance of these values. Such cultural components include all decision-making processes, performance management, reward systems, hiring processes, training and metrics - putting the "teeth" into the process.

    Develop a training plan that:
    • Teaches all employees what the company's core values and behaviors are and why they're important to the organization
    • Teaches all employees about the changes to the existing systems and processes of the organization. For example, teach employees what the new performance appraisal system is and for what they will be held accountable. For each system or process changed, train all system or process users regarding the changes
    • Teaches all organization leaders what their role is regarding core values and behaviors.

  4. Ensure accountability and model the way

    Hold employees accountable for their behaviors as well as their outcomes. Reward employees for correct behaviors and apply consequences to those not meeting behavior expectations.

    Demonstrate the importance of applying the core values and behaviors by modeling the way, "walking the talk".

In applying these four steps, the absolute commitment of the leadership of the organization is vital. Stockholders, customers and employees will be watching to see if what the leadership does matches what it says, not just in the short term, but in the long haul. Decisions and actions will be analyzed as to how they measure up to the values, and exceptions will be seen as a lack of commitment to the process.

Many companies can implement a process like this, but truly successful ones keep it going over the long haul. It's not an overnight event. To be successful, it requires time, resources and constant dedication by an organization.

The rewards, however, can be enormous. Renewed trust and confidence from stockholders, customers and employees; what a huge competitive advantage in today's environment.

Julie Miller and Brian Bedford are co-founders of the consulting firm MillerBedford Executive Solutions, which specializes in a "no nonsense" approach with clients. They focus solutions around the following topics: Culture Development, Organization Development, Leadership Development and Human Resource Development. You can learn more about what they offer by viewing their website at or by emailing them directly at or .

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