Just a few months ago, global communications firm Edelman surveyed 33,000 consumers in 28 countries, polling them on their trust levels for NGOs, businesses, governments, and media organizations. The resulting 2018 Trust Barometer report was sobering.

For instance, the U.S. population fell a full nine places between 2017 and 2018 in the report’s “trust index” – from “neutral” to “distrustful.” And, the U.S. was far from unique. Australia, Italy, the U.K., South Africa, and other countries also experienced precipitous drops.

The best proof of love is trust.

– Dr. Joyce Brothers

I’ve spoken at length over the past few years about the increasing value of trust in customer relationships. Long ago, as Gigya, we telegraphed the impending tsunami of data misuse, privacy and security crises, the erosion of consumer trust that resulted, and the regulatory shifts that inevitably followed — especially the drafting of the Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Just like any societal and technological trigger point and ensuing correction — think of Y2K or the Sarbanes-Oxley Act — a certain amount of panic has ensued as businesses regroup to address the new challenges.

From my perspective though, to flip the cliché on its head, while many businesses facing GDPR see an oncoming train, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. But to go from surviving to thriving requires a shift in thinking for businesses to put customer trust and control at the center of their strategy, and a retooling of the technology stack to put customer data at the center of the digital ecosystem — not the outskirts. In short, businesses need a more mature model for handling consumer data. But, what does this actually look like?

I can break this down into three functional areas. By addressing these from a holistic perspective, companies can not only tackle compliance, but also build a foundation for innovation that will stand the test of time as markets continue to evolve.

1. Know Your Customer

Identity is at the core of a mature digital strategy. Have a flexible and secure way to identify and engage customers early in their journey. For multi-brand, multi-region enterprises, build registration and authentication flows appropriate for various brands, devices, and regions. Support various options for authentication, including social, biometric, multi factor, and risk-based, as well as data federation standards and single sign on to reduce friction and increase security. Utilize economies of scale and repeatable processes to simplify ongoing deployments.

2. Build Trust Through Transparency and Control

Consumer data is only as valuable as the consent you have to use it. Present clear and unambiguous requests for terms of service, privacy and ePrivacy (cookie) policies, marketing communications, and any other activities that involve the collection and processing of customer data, and store these settings in a centralized, audit-ready environment. When terms and policies change, ensure that requests for customers to renew their consent are triggered. Enforce customer profiles, preferences, and consent setting across the enterprise by synchronizing these settings with downstream applications and services. Give customers access to a self-service preference center that enables them to access and manage their data.

3. Progressively Build Unified Profiles

Identity is key, but it’s not binary. Create a more expansive customer journey by incrementally offering value for information over time. Consolidate the data you collect through this process, whether structured or unstructured, into unified profiles that can be centrally governed and broadly orchestrated across the business to support every line of business. Analyze customer identity, profile, and account status information to better understand, segment, and engage your audience at every touchpoint.

Let’s face it; despite the changing landscape, data-driven marketing, sales, services, and product strategies will continue to evolve. And we, for our part as consumers, largely want and even expect the benefits that Big Data offers. We enjoy experiences that are more personally relevant to us, just not at the expense of our privacy. We’ll exchange our information for value from brands, but only if we understand what it’s used for and that we are ultimately in control of it.

It all comes down to this: If you want to know where digital commerce is heading, don’t ask businesses, ask the customers they serve. The organizations succeeding in this brave new world — not just at winning new customers, but converting those customers into long-term brand advocates — are listening to what people want, delivering it to them how, when, and where they want it, and doing so in a way that respects their wishes for privacy and control.

Patrick Salyer is general manager of SAP Customer Data Cloud.