Three Vitally Important Lessons I Learned About Trust While In a Filthy Gas Station Bathroom

I’m blessed with healthy young children. The family’s on a road trip. You know what that means – someone always needs to use the bathroom, right away, right now. And that’s how I wound up in one of the filthiest gas station bathrooms I’ve been in in a long time. 

We’re not talking rats in the trashcan and overflowing toilets nasty, but this bathroom was rough enough that I felt bad about having my son in that environment. Had I known things would be this dirty in this establishment, I would have dealt with whatever the consequences might have been for driving to the next stop – no matter how distant that might have been.

Once we were out of there and back on the road, I found myself surprised about how emotional that experience had been for me. This is a tiny minor interaction with that business, yet I was angry with them. Why was I angry? 

Here’s Trust Lesson #1: We All Have Trust Issues.

I was angry because I felt betrayed. I stopped at that gas station in the expectation that it would provide facilities in keeping with its branding. I knew not to expect a luxury experience, but there’s a certain basic level of competence I trusted would be in place. 

Based on this trust, I brought my child into this setting. Parenting is a serious responsibility, and we all try to shield our kids from things that could make them sick or distressed. I wouldn’t stop at the sort of sketchy looking place where this filthy bathroom would be unremarkable because I don’t bring my kids to places like that. 

My kids trust me to take care of them. Being in this nasty bathroom, I felt like I’d let my son down. Who was responsible for these bad feelings? The gas station that failed to live up to its brand promise. They showed me I could not trust them. How do you think I feel about that gas station now?

If this seems like an excessively personal take about a brand, you should know that every single customer interaction is like this for customers. Trust is won and lost when people interact with your brand as part of their everyday life. Everyday life is intensely personal.

In everyday life, people are much more than customers. They’re parents. They have parents they’re caring for. They have romantic partners, friendships, and countless other connections with people near and far. Every single one of these relationships is much more important to your customer than the relationship they have with your brand. If your actions – or lack thereof, in terms of bathroom cleaning – violate the customer’s trust in you and introduce negative elements into their much more important relationships, the bond you may have had with them is over. 

Key point: as much as we measure our customer behaviors, it’s very easy for brands to lose sight of the customer as an entire human being, who does much more than shop. It’s only when we develop a multi-faceted understanding of our customers that we can truly prove ourselves worthy of their trust. 

Trust Lesson #2: When You Trust, You’ll Be Willing to Try.

Of course I couldn’t help but contrast the experience I’d had in this gas station with what I knew I’d experience at Buc-ees. I’ve written before about how this successful chain thrives in part because it lives up to its promises – including the promise that if you bring your child there to use the bathroom, you will find clean facilities for them!

Buc-ees does more than provide clean bathrooms and gas. They also have great food. Food & Wine Magazine once wrote an ode celebrating their brisket. I have had it and I have to agree that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten – but how do I know that?

Before you eat food, you have to trust that the food is safe to eat. This is a very primal aspect of being a human being, but in the modern world this plays out most often in choosing restaurants or takeaways that are suitably hygienic. 

Having seen Buc-ees billboards about their bathrooms, and then the bathrooms in question, I had no hesitation in trying the food they serve. This is a brand that does a good job in rapidly establishing the fact they are trustworthy. The competence and attention to detail that goes into the restrooms made it easy for me to trust that the kitchen would be equally well-run.

They sold food in the place that had the filthy bathrooms too. And remember that I was there with my young son, who is not too old to want a giant slushie. But after the bathroom experience, I didn’t trust the cleanliness standards of that kitchen. We left that place without buying any food whatsoever!

Key Point: Being trustworthy increases a brand’s earning power. Customers buy more – and they buy more often – from brands they trust. It’s a smart strategic move to begin demonstrating your brand’s trustworthiness early in the relationship. 

Trust Lesson #3: We talk about who we trust – and who we don’t.

Word of mouth and reputation management are not exactly new concepts, especially in the branding and marketing world. But what struck me most about this filthy bathroom experience is how strongly I felt the need to warn other parents away from that particular gas station.

I’m not going to name names here, because there’s already more than enough negativity online. But in those instances where I have strong trust-based relationships with people local to the area, you’d better believe I mentioned to them that there are much better businesses to visit when the kids need a potty break.

Again, we’re talking about some very deep social conditioning here. One of the ways we strengthen the bonds we have with other people in our communities is by sharing information. The impetus to do so is especially strong when we experience or perceive that our trust has been misplaced. When we care about people, we take action so they might avoid being similarly disappointed. When our trust is broken, we talk about it. 

This is where social listening and artificial intelligence can be useful tools for brand building. Monitoring the conversations people are having about our organizations and using the right tech tools to filter out some meaning from the unstructured data gathered can help identify problems as they’re happening. Addressing these concerns may not restore lost customer trust, but it may be possible to strengthen relationships with your existing customers and start relationships with new customers from a better position. 

Key Point: Brands need to consider their reputations as viewed through the filter of trust. Where are customers feeling let down or betrayed? How do these feelings align with the experience the business provides? Ultimately, each brand determines how trustworthy they are. Be clear about what promises your brand is making, and what operational decisions are required in order to keep them.

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