The brave are benevolent

Many industries have to contend with challenging barriers to entry. Financial services has the distinct position of having to include overwhelming public distrust as part of those challenges. But what does the cultivation of trust really require?

At our recent Boring Money Annual Conference, author of The Trust Mandate Herman Brodie shared with us the formula to “prove trust”.

According to Herman trust is not simply absolute, instead it is viewed on a scale. These shades of trust can be represented between benevolence and competence.

A 2008 study mapped our perception of warmth on these shades of trust.


Using a scaled response, respondents were asked to report the impression others made on them based on how competent or benevolent they perceived the person to be. The impressions fell into four quadrant response that signified how trustworthy this person made the respondent feel. The response scale can be seen on the bottom left image below. 

To see how this works in the real world, the bottom right diagram shows a range of impressions people reported when asked about popular celebrities. People who were perceived to be highly competent and highly benevolent were met with admiration. In 2016 Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Ellen Degeneres all occupy this space. Those that were perceived as incompetent and low on benevolence are often met with pity or contempt. This is where the Putins, Trumps and Charlie Sheens of the world sit.

When respondents were asked to convey their perceptions of brands, Amazon, Ford, and Johnson & Johnson all ranked high on benevolence and competence, and as such were perceived as high trust brands. Financial services are naturally perceived as a field of high competence. However, respondents scored the benevolence of financial services brands so low that the industry created an impression of contempt, and as such features as low on trust.

The professions that feature on the top right are only occupied by physicians and fire fighters. An expected position for highly skilled lifesavers. Striving to attain this status may be unobtainable in practice, but as financial services naturally ranks high on competence, it shows exactly where the effort needs to be placed. Customers don’t want to be baffled with jargon that demonstrates the technical marvels of your asset allocation screening process. They already expect you to have the best practices in place. They want to know that you are there to serve their best interests with these best practices. The conveyance of benevolence sounds grander than it is, but every interaction with a client is in opportunity to show them what you want to do for them. What your expertise can do for them. You can convey why you want to benefit them and show them that their success is ultimately your success. Every interaction you have with your clients is an opportunity to express benevolent intentions.