There's a principle that is true in any relationship but especially between a company and its customers: Trust is your most valuable asset. Or, said another way, you have to tell the truth. This is exactly what automotive company Ford didn't do.

On July 11, The Detroit Free Press reported that Ford deliberately ignored warnings from engineers that the transmission on its low-cost Focus and Fiesta models was defective. Then, the company told dealers to tell customers that everything was fine, even though it knew that wasn't the case.

Yeah, you can't do that. 

According to the report, internal documents showed that Ford pushed aside concerns from both its own legal department and the product team who worried the cars weren't road-worthy. Piles of complaints from customers demonstrate that those concerns were well-founded, but Ford kept trying to sell the cars anyway.

Look, this wasn't a few cars with a faulty taillight or bad airbags. There are as many as 1.5 million of these models, sold in 2010-2011, many of which would " randomly lose power on freeways and have unexpectedly bolted into intersections," the Free Press writes. That's a pretty big deal. People who drive cars generally expect that they'll do what they're supposed to do. 

You know, basic things like not lurching into intersections. 

And customers understand that sometimes accidents happen. They understand mistakes. They are even willing to give you grace when you mess up. What customers usually don't understand, or tolerate, is when a company knows there's a problem and not only doesn't do anything but actually acts as if nothing is wrong.

There might not be a greater sin for a business than to deceive its customers.

Regardless of what type of business you are building, there's a chance that, at some point, something will go wrong. Actually, it's a certainty. That's just reality.

How you handle it says everything about not just the business you lead, but the character of the people and your organization.

In fact, how you deal with adversity, and struggles, and the mistakes you will make (and you will make some) says everything about whether your business will earn the trust of your customers. Or whether you'll be seen as simply trying to take advantage of people who have no way--other than your word--to know any better. 

In a world of Theranos-sized deceptions, Ford certainly should know better. Actually, I'm certain they do, which makes it an even bigger problem. When you know better, people expect more. Your customers expect more. They expect you to be transparent and honest. They expect you to do the right thing, even when it might hurt.

Those are important lessons, because once a company like Ford loses trust, it's a very hard thing to regain. Sure, they've built up a reputation over the years, and they'll probably weather this--but they have work to do to live up to the standard of their brand.

That's really the lesson: Your brand is the way people feel about your business. When they don't feel they can trust you, you've done the one thing no company should ever do. 

Published on: Jul 12, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.