So, the most influential and highly cited papers on marketing and trust are the oldest. And it’s not just because they’ve been around for a while but because they were the first to document, fundamentally, that trust does facilitate economic exchange, that it does create better outcomes for buyers and for sellers.
And equally important, it showed that trust is a key mediator between things that buyers and sellers can do and these wonderful outcomes.
So, for example, why does more communication with your exchange partner make things better? It’s not because there’s something inherently great about communication, but it’s because communication leads to higher trust, which then leads to better exchange outcomes.
So, since marketing researchers have found this main finding that trust helps economic exchange, researchers since then have published some really influential papers documenting times and conditions and circumstances when trust may not lead to better economic exchange outcomes.
So, one example is a really influential paper by Atuahene-Gima and Li. They looked at relationships between sales managers and sales people. And what they found is, first of all, that when sales managers make themselves more accessible (they’re around more and they communicate more), the sales person is going to trust more in the sales manager.
And you would think that that would lead to greater sales. You would think that it would lead to great sales, but it turns out it doesn’t.
And what that leads to is the conclusion that a sales manager can build trust in a sales person by being more accessible, but one of the downsides of that is that the sales person starts to learn about the sales managers — the things that the sales manager pays attention to, the thing that the sales manager doesn’t pay attention to.
And as a result of learning about those things, the sales person can use information asymmetry to their advantage. If they know that the sales manager isn’t monitoring certain things like whether they go out on certain sales calls, it means that they can cut corners out in the field, and that will hurt sales.
What’s cool about this paper is that it highlights that trust is enhanced by information exchange, but information exchange also gives buyers and sellers information about how they can better game the system.
So, that’s an example of some research that has shown that trust doesn’t always have positive outcomes, that there’s a dark side to it, that inherently, it can be good or bad.
Related to that, there is another string of research that has looked at contexts where trust is going to be more or less influential. And again, there’s several papers that look at that. One example of a great paper that looks at that is a paper by Garbarino and Johnson.
And what they did is, they looked at relationships between people who buy tickets for a theater company and how their experience at the theater company influences their likelihood of buying another ticket.
But the interesting thing that they did is that they divided the people they surveyed into two groups. One group are people who are subscribers; people who have bought a subscription and who go to the theater a lot. And another group are people who are just individual ticket buyers and they’re probably not going to the theater a lot.
What Garbarino and Johnson found — first of all, they confirmed the finding that I’ve been talking about all along, which is that trust is this key mediator between things that companies can do and outcomes that companies want. But they found that trust is a key mediator only for the subscription holders.
For people who are individual ticket buyers, the main factor that influences whether they’re going to buy again is their satisfaction with the performance that they saw. If they liked the performance, they’re more likely to buy again. And trust didn’t have any influence at all.
And the interesting thing about that is that for subscription holders, satisfaction was not a key mediator for future intent, or for likelihood of buying another ticket.
In other words, as a subscriber, you could be a little bit less satisfied with the performance and still have the intention of buying another ticket as long as you trust the theater company.
So, one of the interesting things about this paper is that, first of all, it shows us something that we’ve already talked about before, which is this idea that if you have trust in a buyer, that they can maybe take advantage of that.
If you think about the theater company, they could have slightly worse performances and still have those subscription holders. But Garbarino and Johnson emphasize another aspect, which is—when you have a relationship that’s trusting, there’s more room for experimentation.
So, this theater company could do an experimental production that might not go over very well, but might not also lose their customers. So, rather than just saying that trust has a dark side and people can take advantage of it in bad ways, it also suggests that trust has a side where people can take advantage of it in good ways.
One example of an influential paper that takes more of an economic perspective is by Brown, D.V., and Lee.
They studied the hotel industry, and in particular, relationships between the corporate office and the people who own or run individual hotels. And what they looked at is what safeguards the corporate office can put in place so that the individual hotels are less likely to take advantage of information asymmetry.
Now, what do I mean by safeguards? I mean these contracts or agreements that can be put in place to try and keep people from doing things that you don’t want them to do.
One safeguard that can be put in place is that the corporate office can actually own the hotel. And when they own the hotel, they’re able to come in and really demand that people do the things that they have to do.
Another safeguard that people can put in place is to monitor, is to put monitoring mechanisms or have people on the property monitoring what is going on and reporting back to the head office. What this paper did is, it distinguished between two types of safeguards.
One is more economic, like the ownership one. The other kind of safeguard is a little bit more social. They are things like acculturating people to a particular corporate culture, which means more training sessions or more corporate events that help people to understand what the norms and values of the corporation are.
And what this paper found is that more rational or economic safeguards actually have a backlash effect — that when people feel like they’re being monitored, for example, they’re more likely to break trust and behave opportunistically than for safeguards that are more about bringing people aboard and making them part of the culture.
So, what this suggests is that safeguards are, first of all, not always going to universally minimize opportunism, even though they might rationally seem like they do, but also that people can resent safeguards; they can feel bad about safeguards, and they can actually have the opposite effect that the company may intend.