Wonky Wonga: a spectacular failure to understand trust

30 January 2019  |  Rich M

Trust is a nebulous thing

A precious commodity that all individuals and corporations wish to be associated with. Without it, most of society’s systems fail. A financial crisis is a lack of trust in the payment of liabilities; a coup is a lack of trust between a society’s denizens and its leaders. Central to Wonga’s insolvency is their spectacular misunderstanding of the concept of trust. Let me explain.

We are asked by clients on a monthly basis to help them “rebuild trust” with their people. This is a wholesome and honest aspiration but is basically wrong in concept. It’s backwards. The question should be “what do we need to do to demonstrate ourselves to be trustworthy?” Trust works when someone feels comfortable giving it, not when it is demanded. Claiming to be trustworthy doesn’t override untrustworthy behaviour.

In all relationships, there is a constant accounting process – friend to friend, company to the customer. After any interaction, you run your trust algorithm. A point is added to the trustworthy column, or one is subtracted. This accounting determines how we feel about people and about organisations. Moreover, it governs our future behaviour towards them. We don’t revisit people or organisations that continually violate our trust. Let me unpick the algorithm for you with a basic sketch:

Wonga’s trust algorithm goes like this:

Credibility – Wonga is authorised and regulated by the FCA

Reliability – They will deliver your money to you with chilling speed and efficiency

Safety – They will keep your personal data safe

Focus – 100% focused on themselves with little thought for the impact they have on society’s most vulnerable people

The Focus piece is the crucial bit. In Mathematics, the denominator (bottom) is the figure that holds the power. Many institutions satisfy the top three variables of trust. But in 2018, that is the bare minimum of what people expect. They also expect you to not be excessively focused on yourself. The genesis of the anger towards the banking industry post-crisis was all about the public perception of self-service. In contrast, Larry Fink of BlackRock read the public mood masterfully in 2018 and has quickly pivoted his company to reflect this. Danone likewise.

Companies that people trust will carefully balance their focus between themselves and their customers. Quarterly earnings and ‘shareholder primacy’ is the bug in that system. It creates a conflict. A conflict that makes good people do bad things. Vanguards founder John Bogle understood this decades ago: “As the good book says, no man can serve two masters”.

If you find yourself saying “trust me” or “we need to rebuild trust with our people”, stop. The question you might ask yourself is “how do I demonstrate that I am worthy of your precious trust”.

When you are worthy of trust, it appears.