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Trust Thermoclines

8 February 2023
Deep Sea Diver in the depths of the ocean

I love learning new business language to describe something – my last blog was about ‘organisational tempo’, one blog was about the importance of ‘psychological safety’ at work, another about my own invention ‘elegant simplicity’ (yet to take off) ….. this week, I’d like to talk to you about the Trust Thermocline.

It was a term I learnt when Twitter was experiencing its ‘post Elon Musk purchase outrage’.  John Bull @garius talked about how he thought that Twitter was close to hitting the ‘Trust Thermocline’.  What is a thermocline and indeed, what is a thermocline of trust?  John first explains what a thermocline is:

“Large bodies of water are made of layers of differing temperatures. Like a layer cake. The top bit is where all the waves happen and has a gradually decreasing temperature. Then SUDDENLY there’s a point where it gets super-cold. That suddenly is important. There’s reasons for it (Science!) but it’s just a good metaphor….”

“The Trust Thermocline is something that, over (many) years of digital, I have seen both digital and regular content publishers hit time and time again. Despite warnings … it has a similar effect. You have lots of users then suddenly… nope.”

You can read the whole Thread by @garius here but Bull goes on to explain that a Trust Thermocline occurs when an organisation takes their customers for granted over and over again, and they reach a critical point of ‘no trust return’ and just leave.  The inference being that it’s very difficult to win them back again.  As a lean specialist who deeply cares about customer value, the term offers a really great exploration of how dynamic and complicated customer value is.   John talks primarily from a digital company perspective, but I think the term is relevant for a lot of organisations actually. We are all feeling the effects of the changes that companies are making to protect their profit margins in these times. Chocolate bars suddenly requiring a microscope. Cinema trips that cost the same as a weekly shop.  Price rise, after loss of product feature, after price rise, after loss of service … we tolerate …. but they increasingly grate. When is the moment that we say goodbye to that no longer chunky chocolate bar and wait for the film to be shown on whichever streaming service?

Off the top of my head, and from a privileged, white middle class perspective of course, the reasons for today’s tolerance could include:

a) too much hassle to change a.k.a. ok the price has gone up massively AGAIN but I just can’t bear to think about that crash and re-live the shame, when even was it again? Urgh. *car insurance* “just ring them up Sar, get them to knock some money off and stick with them another year, they are good and reliable, plus I simply haven’t got the energy or the mental strength to embark upon a major admin task right now.”

b) being scared of the alternative a.k.a. God I hate this *alarm company*. They raise the prices all the time, nothing is included, NOTHING. But what will happen if I stop them? They’ll come and take the box down, and surely that recognisable box on the front of your house is a successful burglar deterrent? Urgh. Can’t risk it. Persist. Persist. Ring them up Sar, get them to knock some money off and stick with them another year.

c) having no alternative a.k.a. woohoo three day long weekend with the girls! YES! URGH THAT’S the only *airline* that flies to there?! GOD I HATE THEM. Ach, do you want to go away with everyone or not? *adds credit card information, passport number and books flight*.

d) they are just too much a part of your life. This reason can involve a combination of a), b) and possibly c) but more than that d) emerges when you are so entwined with a company you can’t possibly imagine leaving them. My playlists! *digital music provider* My photos! *social media chain* My one constant companion! *phone manufacturer*.

I don’t know when I’ll break completely free of all of the above, but let it be known a), b) and c) are all ON WATCH. d) not so much. I love them too much.

The Trust Thermocline probably appears at different points on different customer loyalty spectrums for different products and services. But wherever it is, it lies in wait, lurking, to push your customers off the cliff edge because they simply can’t tolerate what they have thus far tolerated anymore. The trust is gone. The thermocline could be triggered for ethical reasons, a desire to try something new, a bravery to deal with the associated admin, a confidence that there are better options out there, or simply because you just can’t now afford it or just don’t think it’s worth it anymore.

Of course, pesky customers are ever pesky and probably have different levels of tolerance to some extent. Many better, more noble and righteous folk than me, breached their personal Twitter Trust Thermocline and have departed accordingly. I salute them and miss them. It has yet to take me down so perhaps that’s why the Twitter Trust Thermocline hasn’t been breached yet? I notice that Bull @garius is still tweeting for example?

The concept is really important though…in the ever important task that is thinking about who your customers are and what they value, it can be really useful to think about whether you’ve pushed an overwhelming amount of them to the edge of that thermocline precipice. John Bull shared another Twitter thread about how to find your trust thermocline saying:

“I’ll give you the same answer I give senior execs: I don’t know.

But the people working on the ground level in the customer-facing sections of your company do.

Because it’s those people that will be picking up on the general vibe of your userbase and their ‘grumbles’ – i.e. the complaints that the user shoulders internally (mostly) rather than makes directly in feedback. So its your creators, your community managers, junior sales etc.

But the BIGGEST sign you are at risk of hitting your Truth Thermocline, if you are a relatively large company, is this: Do you have a customer retention process? Do you have a sales retention TEAM? Do you have a customer retention DEPARTMENT? Alarm bells.

There’s this odd thing where companies with a trust problem start to treat retention as a normalised process. And a ‘good’ retention rate as an indicator of success. It isn’t. It means you have growing trust issues with your userbase and are DELAYING your issue, not fixing it.

Do you know what’s really fun? Sticking people who do the retention calls in a room, with a white board, and lots of GOOD food and drink, and getting them to list all the stuff they CONSTANTLY hear but have stopped bothering to report up the chain”.

To me this is a fantastic description of what ‘weak signals’ are and can provide (yep – that’s another term discussed in another blog :D) but perhaps in reality, are not so ‘weak’.

The trick, as ever, is to not be too caught up in the alluring language and narratives of experience of these business concepts, but to actually investigate them within your organisation, get the people on the ground together, buy in the good food and drink, and LISTEN TO THEM. The hard, and critical, part then of course is doing something about what you find.


p.s. Exciting update alert! John Bull is actually called Gareth Edwards – who knew?! He let me know that he wrote a more in-depth exploration of the concept here Breaching the Trust Thermocline Is the Biggest Hidden Risk in Business – Every  Importantly, this analysis discusses “how ‘trust’ is a ‘pool resource’. An “ambient trust commons” and as a result inherently non-linear. That’s why companies struggle so hard with it”. Thanks for sharing Gareth 🙂