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Avoid disappointment; trust no one

3 min read

Another year, another scandal, this time from automotive giant Volkswagen Audi Group. Can consumers really trust big companies? 

Just a couple of days ago, while leafing through the BBC website, I happened upon an article about the consumer group Which? In advance of the publication of the Competition and Markets Authority’s preliminary findings into competition for bank accounts, the folk at Which? were arguing that all current accounts lacked transparency. In the same piece, Tesco Bank added their voice and bemoaned the loss of trust in the sector. Now the beady-eyed among you might have noticed that not so long ago this was the very same Tesco that forgot how to count properly. And also the one that thought horse was an acceptable substitute for cow – but to be fair they weren’t the only ones who felt that equestrian sports should be brought into the kitchen.

I keep on reading stories about the breakdown of trust between companies and their customers and it’s no great surprise that it continues to dog the big banks. But it seems to me that this issue goes much further and deeper. Take the current example of Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) whom we can all now thank for introducing us to some new terminology; in this case the ‘defeat device’. I could think of all sorts of uses for such an invention but it transpires that the clever folk at VW in Wolfsburg could too!

People around me who know a great deal more about car manufacturing than I (which to be fair is very little) tell me that conceiving, designing and fitting this sort of modification to cars is not something that could have been done by one or two miscreant workers. But we shall have to wait and see whether it is blamed on a general ‘failure of corporate culture’ (code for ‘both everybody and nobody is to blame simultaneously’) or on some key individuals. Call me a cynic but my money is on culture.  It avoids messy court cases.

It’s also interesting that just last week the UK Government came out to reassure the drivers of Seats, Volkswagens, Audis and Seats that they won’t have to pay increased taxes if it turns out their cars are more polluting than the manufacturer claimed (don’t worry Bugatti, Lamborghini and Bentley drivers, you’re not affected!).    It reminded me that back at the height of the banking crisis when lots of big banks ran out of cash, depositors didn’t lose their money – instead all taxpayers paid for the bank bailouts. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to see consumers pay for the bad behaviour of big corporations, but there’s something not quite right when it’s the shareholders and the pension funds and the taxpayers who end up footing the bill.

The people who bought stuff from these big businesses simply shrug their shoulders and move on. They tell themselves that they never really trusted them anyway so why be disappointed? History is littered with tales of companies who placed profit before telling the truth or who cut corners and avoided making critical investments needed to protect their customers.

The conclusion may appear quite stark but really, I simply believe that trust is overvalued. Up and down the country companies spend enormous amounts of money each year trying to delve into the human psyche. Of these very few - from what I can observe - truly understand what customers actually value - as distinct from what people in grey suits believe they value. The two ought not be confused. I’ve long been a great admirer of Ryanair. When I tell people that I am, they either yawn (because I’ve bored them about this before) or they look at me in alarm (because they think I want to charge them for something). I admire them because of their single-minded business focus but from time to time I also trust them (with my life as it happens). By contrast, do I trust my bank or more broadly, do I trust big business?

Not likely.

I can’t help but feel that big businesses and big brands should all carry a new health warning -  ‘Don’t trust now – or ever - to avoid disappointment’.

Image credit: Gerry Lauzon