A Magical Way to Get Trust

It was a perfect evening. I still remember it vividly nearly twenty years later.

My wife and I were sitting at a table for two at one of the most talked-about restaurants in Paris. You could just spy the Eiffel Tower out of one of the windows, lit up against a dark sky. The moon was nearly full. Romance was in the air.

The restaurant had just been awarded a second Michelin star. The highest rating is three stars, and there were only a handful of establishments with that rating.

The meal was everything we expected. Extraordinary. Oh, and the wine. The waiter had recommended it—a delicious red Bordeaux.

The service was impeccable. Not too formal, not too familiar. We were in culinary heaven.

We stretched the evening out as much as possible. But all good things come to an end. The waiter brought the check and I discretely pulled my credit card out and placed it on the tray on top of the check. It was expensive, but worth it.

The waiter came back to pick up the check, and I immediately sensed something was wrong. He had a very concerned look on his face. He looked down at my credit card, his eyebrows arching slightly. “Je suis très desolé, monsieur.” (Have you noticed that when it’s said in French, it sounds special?)

I understood that he was very sorry about something. He continued in English, “We only accept cash.”

I was a deer in the headlights. The romance abruptly ended. I scrambled to pull out my wallet, but I knew I didn’t have anywhere near enough money to pay for our extravaganza.

The waiter stood, patiently. We were at a standoff. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know…” I imagined the Gendarmes arriving. I’ll be like Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, imprisoned for years for stealing a loaf of bread (nothing compared to a whole dinner for two at this place!). I cringed with embarrassment.

Suddenly, a lifeline.

“What hotel are you staying at?” The waiter asked. Five minutes later he returned. “No problem, I spoke to your hotel and they are taking care of the bill.” My wife and I exchanged glances. We were astounded and relieved.

The restaurant, and the hotel, trusted us. They assumed the best about our honesty and our intentions.

You might be thinking, “That was easy for them. The hotel basically guaranteed the bill.” Not so fast: There was a leap of faith. Any number of things could have gone wrong for them in between letting us leave the restaurant without paying and getting their money.

Our perfect evening in Paris could have ended badly. But because the restaurant was prepared to trust us and our hotel, it had a happy ending. As a result, I’ve never ceased recommending both that restaurant and the hotel to everyone I meet who is going to France. I have probably sent thousands of dollars of business to both of them.

We live in a low-trust world. Since World War II, levels of trust in just about everything—business, government, each other—have declined. And in many cases, it’s declined for good reasons.

There’s a vicious circle that occurs: If you don’t put any trust in the other person, they won’t trust you. Which brings us to a key principle of trust: Give trust to get trust. There’s a corollary, which says that people become what you believe and expect of them.

If you believe your customers are all trying to beat you down on price and exploit you, then your own behavior will reflect and reinforce that lack of trust. You’ll be stingy about sharing ideas and value in the sales process. You will inadvertently harden your customer’s behavior. Your attitude of distrust will make it impossible to build a healthy relationship.

The same is true of your friends or loved ones. If you won’t put trust in them, they won’t trust you back—and worse, they will lose confidence in themselves. Distrust creates a vicious circle.

Sometimes you have to “trust but verify.” Sure, be prudent—don’t expose yourself to a major loss or risk. But remember: Trust can be both a vicious or virtuous circle.

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