The “Trust Me” Dilemma

Business Casual
Susan Percy

It was a spirited but civil exchange between the two nice ladies asking for a refund and the wily old mechanic refusing their request. The word “trust” sailed back and forth between the two sides, like a badly hit tennis ball.

The dispute involved a faulty part – a $310 distributor – the man had installed in my daughter’s valiant ’98 Honda Civic that failed two weeks later in heavy rush-hour traffic on the interstate. She had taken her car to another repair shop when it broke down the second time – feeling that the first guy had had his shot at working on the car and she did not trust him enough to give him a second chance. Mechanic No. 2 told her the distributor had burned out and that she ought to take it back to the person who sold it to her, which she did. I went along because it was my credit card that financed the repair job gone wrong.

Our request was that the mechanic and proprietor of the gas station/repair shop buy back the distributor from us and then take up the problem with his supplier. He refused. “It wasn’t my part,” he said. “But we bought it from you,” my daughter pointed out. “Yeah, but it’s not my part. And, you know, sometimes things don’t last.” That we knew.

He felt we should give him the distributor, then “trust” him to have it checked out and rely on what he said the supplier’s analysis of the part showed to determine whether any refund was due. We felt we had already “trusted” him sufficiently, by giving him the car to fix in the first place. We debated some of the finer points of trust as it relates to the mechanic/customer relationship, but at the end of our discourse, he still had the $310 and we had the useless distributor. Nobody trusted anybody.

There may be some who find amusement or certainly a heavy dose of irony at the thought of an auto mechanic and a journalist tossing the word “trust” back and forth. I don’t begrudge a laugh at my expense. Yet I consider myself both trustworthy (I never cheat at self-park lots – I put in as many dollar bills as I’m supposed to) and trusting (I once bought a used car from a man named “Bubba.” And it’s still running).

But my latest automotive experience begs the question: Whom can you or should you trust? That’s a question for the experts.

Dr. Archie Carroll, a professor of management at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, teaches business ethics. Ask him about the concept of trust in business and he responds with good, solid words like integrity, honesty, morality and credibility. Trust is a real part of doing business, he says, whether the endeavor operates on a global scale or aims at a much smaller, more localized group of consumers. “I can’t think of anything that’s more important.”

He offers, by way of example, the whole Enron/Arthur Andersen/WorldCom and other corporate bad-guys horror show. “Five or 10 companies that misled the public,” he says, “ruined it for everyone.”

The stock market is still feeling the effects, he points out. “The investing public doesn’t trust that the system is working again. Or that companies are being honest.”

Trust is, by its nature, a fragile commodity. “Once you’ve been lied to, cheated, deceived or misled, the trust is broken,” Carroll says. Rebuilding trust is a slow and gradual process that usually depends on how a company or individual responds to the particular incident or misunderstanding that damaged the trust in the first place. “I would not lose trust because someone made a mistake,” Carroll says, “but I would if the person denied responsibility or was not accountable. If the person ‘fessed up, I’d give him another chance.”

The other trust authority I invoke is the title character in the 1989 movie “Blaze,” about a stripper named Blaze Starr who had a little fling with a Louisiana governor named Earl Long, played in the movie by Paul Newman. Starr’s credo was a little more proactive and a lot more direct: “My mama always told me never to trust a man who says, ‘Trust me.'” I have passed that gem along to my own daughter, with this addition: Especially if he’s a mechanic.

Categories: Business Casual