Transformations of TrustArticle

Akrout, H. and Mbaye Fall Diallo. “Fundamental transformations of trust and its drivers: A multi-stage approach of business-to-business relationships.” Industrial Marketing Management 66 (2017) 159-171.


Masi Keshavarz, Research Project Manager


This study investigated how trust changes over the course of a relationship by testing the different forms of trust and their drivers. The authors integrated three forms of trust: calculative (e.g., cautious’ behaviors underlying deterrent sanctions), cognitive (e.g., predicting the other party’s behaviors), and affective (empathy, security, emotional bonds). They included several factors that affect these three forms of trust:

  1. Supplier reputation – driver for calculative trust.
  2. Conflict resolution, communication and sympathy – drivers for cognitive trust.
  3. Shared values – driver for affective trust.

In addition, all three forms of trust were associated with investment in the relationship and confidential information.

Prior research has shown that relationships progress in stages: awareness, exploration, expansion, maintenance, and termination. Trust is developed during exploration, expansion, and maintenance because both financial and personal transactions occur during these stages. The first and last stages do not feature trust because there are no tangible exchanges among parties then.

Three forms of calculative, cognitive, and affective trust are linked to relationship development stages. For example, in the maintenance stage, calculative and cognitive trusts persist as foundations, but affective trust is the dominant form. In a business-to-business (B2B) exploration stage, both parties are involved in the process and explore if the other party has interest and capability to deliver positive outputs. They then initiate trial exchanges to develop a relationship that aligns with their expectations. During expansion, the parties feel a sense of obligation or responsibility to each other, resulting in development of interdependencies among them. If both parties are satisfied with the fulfillment of promises and satisfaction with the other party’s performance, they move to an advanced stage to maintain their relationship.

The authors used five samples of B2B customers’ actual behavior. The three trust forms are directly and indirectly interdependent. Calculative trust does not affect investments in relationship or confidential communication, while affective trust directly helps lead to investment in a relationship and causes additional confidential communication. Also through the mediation of affective trust, cognitive trust influences these elements. The tests also indicate that drivers such as conflict resolution, communication, and sympathy have a positive impact on cognitive trust. However, shared values do not significantly drive affective trust.

What this means for food and agribusiness

Depending on whether a relationship is at its beginning or at a progressed stage, different factors drive various forms of trust. Suppliers must develop a variety of strategic tools to meet the needs of customers at different stages. To acquire new customers, suppliers should create a good reputation in their B2B relationship. They also need to start communicating with potential customers to address their concerns, particularly about honesty, open communication, and expertise. In order to create an image and reputation of a responsible business partner, suppliers should help their customers become more successful and improve their performance. They have to have good knowledge and experience in the industry their customers work in and have to perform substantial research on their customer, their target audience, and their niche. The focus should not be only on selling product. They need to recognize the personal aspects of supporting the customer’s success and performance. In many ways, the old adage, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is still relevant.

A more stable and strong form of trust is preferred for all businesses. Usually poor product performance or service failures can be healed faster and easier if a supplier has a strong relationship with its customer and they are already in an affective, trusting relationship. Therefore, suppliers should understand how the calculative trust of the buyer could transform to affective trust. Meeting three types of expectations is fundamental in transformations of trust:

  1. Relational – Sympathy, communication, and conflict resolution.
  2. Technical – Competence.
  3. Moral – Honesty and benevolence.

Following are several steps to take to strengthen trust in a B2B relationship. These steps will help in the transformation of the stage of trust, particularly when performed repeatedly and within several different contexts of the relationship.

  • Communicate accurately, openly, and with transparency. Engage in talk and actions that build a sense of ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’
  • Promote shared values and emotional attraction. Show concern for others by getting to know them and their businesses, engaging in active listening (referring to things they have said before – this is where taking good notes during a call and preparing for it pay off), showing a focus on their needs, desires, and interests. Recognize the contributions of others on your team and theirs, and demonstrate confidence in other’s abilities.
  • Perform competently by updating skills and abilities as technology advances. As others contemplate how much to trust you, they will assess your qualifications and ability to perform.
  • Behave in consistent and predictable ways. It will enhance the degree to which others will regard us as trustworthy.
  • Be honest and credible through clear and direct communication when addressing complex problems and having the right attitude.
  • Be reliable and benevolent by acting fairly. Behave in a way that benefits the interests of both parties and make an extra effort when unexpected problems arise.

Managers can decide how much to invest in each relationship, thinking about where more or less interaction with customers is needed, focusing conversations with salespeople on the best opportunities for profit, or revisiting relationships that have been lost in the past. One measure of the customer’s trust is to consider whether they are willing to disclose confidential information. It is important to recognize that relationships change over time and to address which stage both parties are in. Salespeople are likely to overestimate the customer’s relational stage and level of trust, or to assume that purchases and relationships are the same things.

Trust needs to be cultivated because it grows with use and decays with disuse. Salespeople need to take into consideration both the stage and duration of the relationship to understand when, how, and how much to invest in them.

People usually recall their positive and negative emotions, so suppliers should make sure that they have a history of positive relationships with the customer. This can happen by helping salespeople who are in charge of the relationship portfolio to strengthen their relational capabilities. Suppliers need to provide training for the sales force in account strategies and relational competencies, rather than focusing on transactions. It will be very helpful if they combine trainings with appropriate assignments to match the different types of customers in different relationship stages.