The 2019 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) was held August 5–7 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Although the bulk of the meeting consisted of committee sessions and other business matters as usual, AAFCO has instituted a new element to the program these past few times by adding a keynote speaker to the agenda. The speakers usually are not directly associated with the animal feed regulatory field, so typically are not intimately knowledgeable in AAFCO functions or activities. However, it is precisely because they are not directly involved with AAFCO that they can offer a fresh perspective. The presenters so far have been well-received, and hopefully their unique insights have prompted attendees to consider new approaches in addressing some old issues.
Keynote: The Center for Food Integrity on earning consumer trust
This past meeting's speaker was Roxi Beck from The Center for Food Integrity. Her topic was "Earning Consumer Trust: 3 Simple Steps." I'm assuming that most of the time her audience is predominantly from various food and food-related industries, and considering all the representatives from the animal feed and pet food industry that are normally in attendance at AAFCO, that was probably still the case. However, beyond industry, the matter of consumer trust is an important facet to the work of state feed control officials, too, so the topic certainly was not lost on the regulators.
According to Beck, the increased visibility of violations of the public trust by government, business, religious and other institutions over the past 40-plus years has resulted in broad public skepticism, leading many to question whether such institutions are worthy of their trust. Considering the very vital and personal role our food (and by extension, our pets’ food) plays in our lives, it's no surprise that the pet food industry needs to maintain the consumer's trust to be successful. However, what leads the consumer to trust a company may not be as intuitive.
How to earn consumer trust
Two factors leading to trust are demonstration of competence (e.g., knowledge, facts) and confidence via a similarity in values. Most pet food companies probably have the competence in place to sufficiently address concerns from consumers. However, it's the showing of those shared values that are a much stronger driving factor in gaining trust than the actual facts. Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."
So, what are the three steps to earning consumer trust? No, it is not to persuade, correct and educate! It may seem appropriate to some that when a concern based on an inaccurate assumption is presented, arguing the soundness of the complaint by challenging the veracity of that information should suffice. However, attempting to counter consumer complaints with the facts simply doesn't work by itself. No matter what scientific credentials you present or what knowledge you convey, it will not gain the trust of the consumer unless first he/she feels that you have a connection; i.e., that you share the same values and concerns.
So, the first step is to listen. The goal is not to listen just enough to formulate a response, but to listen with the goal of truly understanding the other person. The second step is to ask questions to invite more dialogue. In doing so, make sure the person appreciates that they have been heard and that you understand. This may take a number of back-and-forths.
Only after all that is the third step; i.e., sharing your side of the story. Let them know who you are and what matters to you. Show them that what's important to them is what's important to you. Then, you can let them in on what you know in terms of the facts. Do not abandon science, but go easy on it. The goal is not to win the argument by superior knowledge, but to show the person that you are on their side.
Frankly, for those of us that are trained in science, this approach is not easy. Facts should be the predominant factor in any discussion, so when a consumer expresses a concern based on faulty information, to many of us it would appear that appropriate correction of the errors should be sufficient to remedy the situation. Also, it is difficult to empathize with a complainant who already believes that you are insensitive and greedy, if not outright evil. Still, engagement with consumers in the manner suggested by Beck may not only help you earn and retain consumer trust, but help you better understand your customers and their needs as well.