In the 1947 Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street,” Macy’s accidentally hires the real Santa Claus to work in its flagship store in midtown Manhattan. Surprisingly, Santa directs parents to other stores for hard-to-find toys.

“The only important thing,” he tells a bewildered but delighted mom, “is to make the children happy.”

In the 20th Century Fox movie, the public’s reaction is overwhelmingly positive. The character of R.H. Macy (based on the real company founder) immediately embraces the new policy. “You cannot argue with success,” he exclaimed to a roomful of dubious executives. “Never in my entire career have I seen such a tremendous and immediate response to a merchandising policy. I’m positive that if we expand our policy, we’ll expand our results, as well. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profit. And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.”

Santa Claus and R. H. Macy were both right, according to a new report released by the Council of Better Business Bureaus entitled, “BBB 5 Gestures of Trust: A New Framework to Evaluate Customer-Business Relationships “The research suggests that trust boils down to five critical behaviors trusted businesses tend to exhibit: Be Honest. Be Transparent. Be Proactive. Be Humble. Be Equitable.

“Customers demand more from businesses today,” said the report’s co-author, Craig Honick, of Metro Tribal. “As consumer expectations evolve, especially among younger generations, we see a demand for more than just a smooth financial transaction. To be a better business in today’s marketplace is to see business as a series of ‘human’ transactions. In many cases, this might require businesses to be customer-centric, employee focused, [and] forward thinking and innovative, as well as environmentally and socially conscious.” (Download the full report at

“BBB’s motto is Start With Trust, and this research really digs into exactly what that means,” said Beverly Baskin, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “Most businesses want to be trustworthy, and BBB has long been there to help them with guidelines on honest advertising, privacy protection, responsiveness and other good practices. Now, we can offer insight into the intrinsic, deeply personal values that greatly influence their customers’ marketplace behavior, even when people sometimes have trouble articulating those values.”

To get to that level of understanding, BBB began with in-depth conversations with a variety of consumers who related their marketplace experiences, positive and negative. Researchers listened to how consumers structure the mental framework they use to evaluate their experiences, and how that influences whether or not they will do business again with a company.

Then that framework was tested in surveys of consumers across the U.S. and Canada. Researchers also visited with several companies with good reputations and positive customer growth and retention. Finally, BBB surveyed approximately 1,500 businesses (a balanced mix of BBB accredited and non-accredited businesses) to learn what they believe builds trusted relationships and whether they use any or all of the Five Gestures of Trust in their day-to-day practices.

Although customer trust in business is eroding (along with trust in government, institutions, the media, etc.), BBB’s research was conclusive: businesses that see themselves as trusted were more likely to put into practice 15 different actions that demonstrate they value their relationships with their customers. These actions included making things right, treating employees well, putting customer service ahead of profits and — yes, Santa Claus — even recommending a competitor if that is better for the customer.

Angie Barnett is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. She can be reached at 410-347-3990 and [email protected].