Stages in the Development of Consumers’ Trust For Service Providers

ABSTRACT - Trust may be the single most powerful relationship marketing tool available to a services company (Berry 1995), yet little research has provided an in-depth description of how consumer trust develops. We introduce a model describing the stages of development of trust for service providers. It is based on literature on trust and relationship development, as well as qualitative data gathered from five focus groups, 160 written surveys, and 50 in-depth personal interviews. It shows six stages of trust, divided into three main periods: beginnings, middle, and endings. Initial trust and growth comprise the beginnings; maturity and maintenance the middle; and deterioration and dissolution the endings. We pay particular attention to the beginnings and introduce a separate model describing the process by which trust begins. Also important is the endings of trust, where distrust, betrayal and forgiveness are key concepts.


Lenard C. Huff (2005) ,"Stages in the Development of Consumers’ Trust For Service Providers", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Yong-Uon Ha and Youjae Yi, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 105-110.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2005      Pages 105-110


Lenard C. Huff, Brigham Young UniversityBHawaii, U.S.A.


Trust may be the single most powerful relationship marketing tool available to a services company (Berry 1995), yet little research has provided an in-depth description of how consumer trust develops. We introduce a model describing the stages of development of trust for service providers. It is based on literature on trust and relationship development, as well as qualitative data gathered from five focus groups, 160 written surveys, and 50 in-depth personal interviews. It shows six stages of trust, divided into three main periods: beginnings, middle, and endings. Initial trust and growth comprise the beginnings; maturity and maintenance the middle; and deterioration and dissolution the endings. We pay particular attention to the beginnings and introduce a separate model describing the process by which trust begins. Also important is the endings of trust, where distrust, betrayal and forgiveness are key concepts.


Winning the trust of customers is crucial for service providers. As Berry (1995) noted, trust may be the single most powerful relationship marketing tool available to a services company. Despite the importance of trust, little research to date has attempted to provide an in-depth description of how consumer trust develops. In this paper, we introduce a model that describes the development of trust for service providers.


The model is based primarily on literature on trust and relationship development from a wide range of disciplines, including marketing, social psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, economics, political science and organization science. It has been confirmed and refined using qualitative data gathered from five focus groups, 160 written surveys, and 50 in-depth personal interviews.

The focus groups included groups of students at a university in Hawaii who were from five nations: the United States, Japan, China, the Philippines and Tonga. The discussion in these groups centered on the development of trust for two types of services: health care and hair care. We were particularly interested in observing cross-cultural similarities and differences in how trust is perceived and developed.

The written surveys were collected by students in an undergraduate marketing class. The students were asked to complete the survey themselves, then give them to friends, family members and acquaintances. Because of the multicultural nature of the class, the sample included a mix of students and adults from a variety of cultures. The surveys asked respondents to identify and describe a service provider that they really trust, then write a detailed story of how trust in the service provider developed. They were also asked to identify and describe a service provider that they really distrust, then write a detailed story of how their distrust developed.

The in-depth interviews averaged 25 minutes in length and focused primarily on four types of services with differing types and levels of risk: doctors, financial services, hair care services and restaurants. Respondents were asked to define trust and distrust and differentiate them from satisfaction and dissatisfaction. They were also asked to tell stories about service providers that they really trust, and those they distrust, including how trust and distrust developed.


First, we distinguish between trust and trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is a characteristic of the trustee, or the object of one’s trust. Trust is generally regarded as a psychological state (Kramer 1999), defined (in the customer/service provider relationship) as the willingness of a customer to rely on and be vulnerable to a service provider in a situation of uncertainty, based on confidence that the service provider will help the customer reach a goal. As shown, several elements are key to the concept of trust. First, trust involves belief or confidence that the service provider will act in the best interest of the customer. Second, it requires a willingness, or intent, to act on that belief. Finally, trust requires uncertainty, or some degree of vulnerability. If there is no uncertainty, there is no need for trust.


In describing development and change in close relationships, Levinger (1983) said that relationships take the following course: first meeting to initial attraction to building a relationship to marriage to deterioration to ending. These can be grouped into three main periods: beginnings, middle and endings.

The Beginnings of Trust: Initial Trust and Growth

In the model depicted in Figure 1, the beginnings of trust in a service provider include two stages: initial trust, which occurs during the initial encounter with the service provider, and growth. Figure 2 provides a detailed model of the processes that influence trust during the beginning stages of trust development. The model is patterned after Mayer, Davis and Schoorman’s (1995) integrative model of organizational trust and McKnight, Cummings and Chervany’s (1998) model of initial trust formation, with added contributions from Lewis and Weigert (1985), McAllister (1995), Hardin (1993), and Zand (1972). The focal point of the model is trust, which consists of both perceived trustworthiness and trusting intentions. Perceived trustworthiness is the perception that the service provider can be trusted to act in the customer’s best interest in a particular situation. It is based first on an evaluation of the service provider on important trustworthy attributes. Scholars have identified a number of trustworthy attributes. Mayer et al (1995) identify three: ability, benevolence, and integrity. McKnight et al (1998) add a fourth: predictability, or consistency. Based on responses from our focus groups, surveys and interviews, we suggest that openness (Mishra 1996), or the ability to communicate openly, is particularly important for trust in many types of service providers, such as doctors, psychologists, lawyers and financial advisers.

Hardin (1993) argues that belief that a trustee will act in the truster’s best interests is based heavily on an evaluation of the trustee’s incentives to act in the truster’s best interests. If the service provider has little or no incentive to act in the customer’s best interest, the service provider may not be trusted, even if perceived to rate highly on trustworthy attributes. On the other hand, if an otherwise untrustworthy person or organization is perceived to have strong incentives to work in the customer’s best interest, it may be determined that they can be trusted in a specific situation.

    Determining Trustworthiness: Emotional Processes

Trust is directly influenced by emotional and cognitive processes, and by the customer’s disposition to trust. To date, little research has examined the role of emotion in the development of trust. What has been written refers primarily to the emotional bonds that develop between partners in a trusting relationship in the mature stages of trust development. For example, McAllister (1995) differentiates between cognition-based trust, which is generally seen as calculative in nature and occurring in the early stages of trust, and affect-based trust, consisting of the emotional bonds between individuals (Lewis and Weigert, 1985).



Based on our qualitative data, we contend that emotion plays a strong, though different role, during the initial encounter with a service provider. Whereas emotions of warmth and affection help cement trust in the middle stages of trust, such emotions as fear and anxiety, or comfort and delight, provide almost instantaneous signals with which to base trusting evaluations. A number of respondents in each of our research methods indicated that it is difficult to make a calculative judgment when little or no information is immediately available. Often, emotions provide the first signals, which encourage cognitive evaluations to determine the reasons for the emotions. As one respondent succinctly stated, "Trust is 90% feeling". In modeling the role of emotion in trust formation, we draw from Westbrook and Oliver (1991), Schwarz (1990) and Murry and Dacin (1996). Westbrook and Oliver (1991) found that both cognition and affect make independent contributions to satisfaction. Schwarz (1990) and Murry and Dacin (1996) assert that the relationship between cognition and emotion is bi-directional: cognition about events in the environment gives rise to emotions that, in turn, provide information about the environment. Thus, we model a bi-directional relationship between cognitive and emotional processes, as well as direct effects from each process to perceived trust.

    Cognitive Processes

Particularly in situations of high uncertainty and vulnerability, the customer is typically highly involved in a cognitive process to determine whether a service provider can be trusted. As shown in Figure 2, two major sources are used in this cognitive process. The first is specific knowledge of the service provider gleaned before the first encounter. By first encounter, we refer to the first encounter with the service provider in the role of providing the specific service sought in a specific situation. Based on our data, individuals actively seek three types of specific knowledge: the service provider’s reputation, word of mouth recommendations, and past experience. Reputation is a more public perception of the trustworthiness of the service provider. We include any information that is publicly available as part of reputation. From our research, word of mouth recommendations from trusted sources are perhaps the single-most utilized source of pre-encounter information. This seems to be true in every culture we have studied, but is particularly true in more collectivist cultures such as Tonga and China. Finally, past experience and relationships with the service provider in other roles (e.g., family member, friend, neighbor, member of the same church congregation) are strong sources of knowledge used to base evaluations of trustworthiness.

When little specific information is available, customers often utilize categorization processes to determine trustworthiness (McKnight et al 1998). This is where the customer looks for cues that help categorize the service provider into a group that can or cannot be trusted in a specific situation. McKnight et al (1998) identify three types of cues that we include in categorization processes: unit grouping, stereotyping, and situational normality belief.



Unit grouping means to put the other person in the same category as oneself (McKnight et al 1998, p. 480). For example, our respondents actively look for such cues as shared religious affiliation, ethnic group, hometown or alma mater as signals that the service provider can be trusted.

Stereotyping means to place another person into a general category of persons, then to judge trustworthiness based on that stereotype. For example, some respondents indicated that overweight doctors could not be trusted, because they were perceived to be either lazy or unhealthy. Another interesting example is how Tongans viewed Caucasians, who were generally seen as competent, but difficult to be open with.

We included situation normality belief as part of categorization processes [McKnight et al (1998) included it under factors of institution-based trust]. Another term that we use for this phenomenon is "congruence", or congruence with a set of expectations or a schema of how things should be. Situational normality belief stems from the appearance that things are normal or customary, or that everything seems in proper order (McKnight et al 1998). This was a common theme in our research. In particular, if things do not appear normal or customary, it is a strong signal that something is wrong, and therefore cannot be trusted. Examples cited by our respondents included a doctor’s office that is located in an industrial section of town, or another where no patients are waiting for the doctor’s service. On the other hand, there were cases where respondents were pleasantly surprised or delighted because the service was different in a positive way from normal expectations. For example, if a car repair service provider is unusually clean or polite, shows genuine concern for the customer, or makes recommendations that will clearly reduce its profitsBpractices not normally expectedBthe customer will likely have a strong, immediate feeling of trust for the service.

    Customer’s Disposition to Trust

In addition to cognitive and emotional processes, the customer’s disposition to trust will influence the level of trust for the service provider. Simply put, the more trusting a person is of other people or organizations in general, the more likely he or she will trust a specific service provider. Disposition to trust is divided into two factors: a general propensity to believe in the trustworthiness of others, and a trusting stance. As noted by Yamagishi (2002), general propensity to believe can further be divided into a general faith in humanity, and a propensity to believe in a target category of persons. For example, someone may have a high level of trust for people or organizations in general, but because of previous experience or reputation, may have a low level of trust for a specific category of service provider. As shown in Figure 2, the customer’s propensity to believe will have a direct affect on the perception of the service provider’s trustworthy attributes and incentives. In addition, it will influence how he or she cognitively processes information.

Trusting stance means that one believes that, regardless of whether people are reliable or not, one will obtain better interpersonal outcomes by dealing with people as though they are well-meaning and reliable (McKnight et al 1998, p. 477). A person with a strong trusting stance is willing to engage in trusting behaviors before a trusting belief has been established. As depicted in Figure 2, trusting stance is therefore related to trusting intentions, but not to trusting beliefs. We found strong evidence of trusting stance with our respondents, though it definitely seemed to vary across cultures. For example, Americans and respondents from Hong Kong typically had a strong trusting stance, whereas Tongans and Japanese were much less willing to entrust a service provider to act until they had strong beliefs in the provider’s trustworthiness.

We propose that disposition to trust is influenced by three factors: personality, personal experience, and culture. As McKnight el al (1998, p. 475) note, according to personality-based trust researchers, trust develops during childhood as an infant seeks and receives help from his or her benevolent caregiver (Bowlby, 1982; Erikson, 1968), resulting in a general tendency to trust others (Rotter, 1967). In addition, an individual’s personal experience with trust will certainly influence his or her propensity to trust. Everything else equal, if the person has had numerous good experiences from trusting others, and relatively few bad experiences, trust will be higher than for individuals who have either had numerous bad experiences, or who have seldom engaged in trusting relationships.

Though there is disagreement on how culture influences general trust, Fukuyama (1995), Yamagishi (2002), Huff and Kelley (2003a, b), and Doney, Cannon and Mullen (1998) all argue that culture influences the general level of trust of people within the culture, as well as the trust for categories of people. In particular, Yamagishi (2002) and Huff and Kelley (2003a.b), have found empirical evidence that people from collectivist cultures have lower levels of trust for people and organizations in general, and particularly for out-groups, than people from individualist cultures.

    Institution-Based Trust

A number of scholars have argued that importance sources of trust are institutions or systems that provide protection against opportunistic, untrustworthy behavior (Shapiro 1987; Zucker 1986). In Western societies, such structural safeguards include regulations, guarantees and legal recourse (Shapiro 1987). In collectivist societies such as Japan, social sanctions provide similar safeguards. We propose that institution-based trust influences trust in three ways. First, it has a positive influence on trusting stance. Second, it influences the customer’s perception of the service provider’s incentives. If institutional safeguards such as legal or social sanctions are strong, the service provider should have strong incentives to act in the customer’s best interest and avoid being accused of harming the customer. Finally, as we will discuss below, strong institutional safeguards should reduce perceived vulnerability.

    Trusting Intentions, Behaviors and Outcomes

As discussed so far, trust is comprised of both trusting beliefs and trusting intentions. Trusting beliefs are influenced by the customer’s propensity to believe as well as cognitve and emotional processing of information. Trusting intentions are influenced by the customer’s trusting beliefs and trusting stance, which is influenced by the strength of institutional safeguards. As shown in Figure 2, the strength of the customer’s trusting intentions will influence the likelihood that he or she will engage in trusting behaviors. Trusting behaviors are any behaviors in which the customer allows the service provider to act in the customer’s behalf. For example, allowing an auto repair service to examine a car and provide a diagnosis and cost estimate, is a trusting behavior. The trusting behavior will be followed by outcomes. These outcomes will be evaluated, providing feedback for future trust evaluations and behaviors. In particular, the outcomes will influence future emotional processes, provide specific knowledge regarding the trustworthy attributes and incentives of the service provider, and will have some affect on the customer’s general propensity to believe.

    Perceived Vulnerability

One last factor that is key to the nature and development of trust is perceived vulnerability. Vulnerability refers to a perceived susceptibility to injury or to being taken advantage of by another party (Smith and Martin 1997; Lee and Soberon-Ferrer 1997), and is a function of perceived uncertainty, behavioral control, and dependence and the amount at risk. Vulnerability influences trust determination and development in three primary ways. First, the greater the perceived vulnerability, the more highly involved the customer will be in both cognitive and emotional processes. Second, we believe that the nature of vulnerability will influence the relative importance a customer places on different attributes of trustworthiness, as well as on trustworthy incentives versus trustworthy attributes, when determining trusting beliefs. Finally, the greater the perceived vulnerability, the greater the importance of trust beliefs as a determinant of trusting intentions, and trusting intentions as a determinant of trusting behaviors.

Middle Stage: Maturity and Maintenance of Trust

As the customer engages in further cycles of trust determination, trusting behaviors, outcomes and evaluations, trust (or distrust) in the service provider will grow and eventually mature. As this happens, we can expect certain elements of trust to strengthen, and other elements to weaken in importance. For example, trusting beliefs should become more reliant on specific knowledge of the service provider, gained from personal experience, and less reliant on categorization, reputation and word of mouth recommendations. The importance of disposition to trust will also decline as a more specific belief in the service provider develops. Likewise, the customer should come to rely more on his or her own perception of the service provider and less on institutional safeguards.

We would also expect the nature of emotions to change as trust matures. When determining initial trust, particularly when vulnerability is high, emotions will be strong and immediate, often providing visceral responses or cues before cognitive processing can occur. As trust matures, emotions will be more enduring and less volatile. Emotions associated with mature trust could include fondness, affection, joy, and commitment.

Finally, as trust matures, perceived vulnerability should decrease. In fact, reducing perceived vulnerability, which includes uncertainty, risk, and a lack of control, is a major reason that people strive to develop trusting relationships. Interestingly, and not coincidentally, when trust is strong, there is little need for trust, as defined. Another interesting point is that because individuals seek trusting relationships in order to reduce perceived vulnerability and transaction costs, there is a strong incentive to continue to trust a service provider, even when the provider may not merit the customer’s trust. Our respondents nearly unanimously admitted that if they develop strong trust for a service provider, they would quite easily forgive mistakes that would not have been forgiven in early stages of trust development. Therefore, the latter part of the middle stage of trust development is generally a maintenance stage in which the service provider may only need to avoid delivering a level of service that falls below a certain threshold point in order to retain the trust of the customer.

Ending of Trust: Deterioration and Forgiveness or Dissolution

As discussed, unless the customer has a good reason to distrust the service provider, trust can be maintained for a long period of time. However, two things may lead to deterioration, and eventually dissolution of trust. The first, as mentioned, is if the service provider begins to deliver a level of service that clearly falls below a certain threshold point. The second is if the customer begins to determine that the opportunity costs of remaining committed to the service provider exceed the savings in transaction costs, including the reduction of perceived vulnerability. This may motivate the customer to seek alternatives and re-evaluate the trustworthiness of the service provider relative to other options. In either case, trust could begin to deteriorate.

From our qualitative data we have identified two distinct levels of perceived trust deteriorationBdistrust and betrayalBwhich differ in both type and intensity. When a customer comes to distrust a service provider, he or she merely begins to feel that the provider can no longer be trusted to satisfactorily meet the needs or expectations of the customer, usually because they are no longer deemed adequate on one or more trustworthy attributes. While customer distrust is an undesirable state from the perspective of the service provider, it often can be fixed, especially in a society where customers are reasonably forgiving. As Figure 1 shows, and as verified by our respondents, customers will often forgive and regain trust in a service provider, as long as the state of deterioration is simple distrust.

Perceived betrayal is a much more intense form of trust deterioration. There are two key components to betrayal. First, as shown in Figure 1, while distrust can happen at any stage of trust development, betrayal usually occurs only after the service provider has succeeded in winning a strong level of trust from the customer. Second, the customer generally attributes a good share of the blame for distrustful behavior to intentional, self-serving, and malevolent motives on the part of the service provider. Respondents who reported incidents of being betrayed by service providers expressed emotions ranging from disappointment and embarrassment, to anger and rage. They nearly unanimously said that it would be highly unlikely that the guilty service provider would succeed in regaining their trust.


The purpose of this research is to introduce a comprehensive model of the development of consumers’ trust for service providers. Figure 1 maps six stages of trust development, divided into three main periods of trust: beginnings, middle, and endings. Figure 2 focuses primarily on the factors that influence perceptions of trustworthiness and trusting intentions during the early stages of trust development

The three periods of trust differ greatly in their nature and in the requirements of service providers. The beginnings of trust are probably the most crucial. This is where trust is most needed, yet hardest to achieve. It is where the customer feels most vulnerable and is most highly involved in the process of determining, then enacting trust. It is also where competition with other service providers is greatest. The model provides the service provider with a number of insights on how to win the customer’s trust during this vital stage. First, the more information that can be provided to the customer before the first encounter, the more informed the customer will be, and the more confident he or she will be in making an initial determination of trustworthiness. Second, customers rely heavily on word of mouth recommendations from trusted sources. One obvious implication of this is the value of maintaining strong levels of trust with existing customers who will share their opinions with others. Another is that service providers should find ways to encourage existing customers to voice their positive feelings of the service to potential customers. Third, when customers have little pre-encounter knowledge of the service provider, they will pay close attention to cues that help categorize the service provider as one the customer can or cannot trust. Service providers should therefore take great care to understand which cues target customers ascribe to trustworthiness and which they ascribe to untrustworthiness, then provide the positive cues and avoid the negative cues. Fourth, customers are especially sensitive to possible self-serving motives or incentives of the service provider. This was a very strong theme from our research. Customers want to know that the service provider is not acting opportunistically, and has the best interests of the customer at heart. The service provider should look for ways to send strong signals that assure the customer that the provider has benevolent motives and strong incentives to serve the customer well. Finally, anything the service provider can do to reduce perceived vulnerability will increase the chances that the customer will at least take a trusting stance and enact trusting behaviors. Even if the customer’s belief that the service provider is trustworthy is weak, trusting behaviors allow the provider to demonstrate trustworthy attributes and incentives, which should lead to growth in trust.

The model introduces three concepts which are vital to an understanding of trust development and maintenance, yet which have received very little attention by marketing scholars. These are vulnerability, betrayal, and forgiveness. Another aspect of the model which we feel is crucial, but much less developed, is emotion. There has also been relatively little attention given to the distinction between trust and distrust. One important area of future research is to provide stronger conceptual understanding of these important constructs so that they can more accurately be defined and measured.

Admittedly, it may be difficult to test the model in its entirety. Most future research should therefore test different portions of the model. For example, we are particularly interested in how culture influences disposition to trust; how different types of perceived risk influence the relative importance of trustworthy attributes; the role that emotional processes play in various stages of trust development; and the cues and signals that customers use in different contexts and how they are used to ascribe categories that influence perceived trustworthiness.

In this paper, we make a significant contribution to the literature on consumer trust for service providers. We provide a comprehensive conceptual model that will hopefully be valuable for researchers striving to better understand how a consumers’ trust for service providers develops. We encourage researchers to test various parts of the model so that a well-developed theory of trust development can emerge.


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Lenard C. Huff, Brigham Young UniversityBHawaii, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2005

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