Price and Service Are Keys to Trust in Business

Drugstores and banks rank high, with auto dealers and real-estate brokers at the bottom.

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Bankers have had a rough year. They may find some solace, however, in a survey from the Better Business Bureau and Gallup that found banks beaten only by drugstores as the businesses trusted most by consumers. Auto dealers, real-estate brokers, and cellphone providers were the least trusted.

Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for Gallup, said this is the first major survey to look at attitudes toward businesses that consumers interact with on a daily basis, rather than just attitudes toward business in general.

The overall response was mixed: About half (49 percent) of Americans said they have either a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in businesses. Forty percent said they had only "some," while 8 percent answered "very little" and 3 percent "none at all."

One line of questions asked respondents to think of the company they regularly deal with that they trusted the most, and the familiar company that they trusted the least, and then note what makes them trust or distrust those companies. In more good news for banks, 22 percent of these most-trusted companies are in the financial sector.

Two factors stood out as most important in earning (or losing) customers' confidence: price and customer service. Low prices and polite service inspired trust; high prices and poor service did the opposite.

Size matters, too: Sixty-seven percent said that they would rather deal with a small company than a large company, and 73 percent said they trust small companies over big companies.

That love for the little guy shouldn't be surprising. A Gallup Poll in June found small businesses are one of the institutions in the country in which Americans have the most confidence, trailing only the military. Big businesses, on the other hand, rank near the bottom of major institutions. Only Congress and HMOs rank lower.

The survey also suggested that Americans have not yet grown as comfortable with online businesses as they have with more traditional ones. Only 17 percent of respondents said they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in businesses that are only online. Forty-two percent said they had "some trust," and 34 percent answered "very little" or "none at all." (Seven percent said that they had no experience with online business.)

As talk of an economic downturn continues, it might make sense that Americans' trust in business would decline. Almost a fifth of Americans said that their trust has decreased in the past 12 months, but the survey didn't explore why.

Business is by no means unpopular: Nearly 3 in 4 said their trust has remained the same. Gallup plans on tracking future trends with a "consumer trust in business index." That will be one way to see whether Americans' faith in businesspeople can weather economic troubles.