Elevating Trust Through Customer Experience: Reflections on Our Work with Second Harvest Heartland

No matter where you live, during this pandemic you have seen stories and images of people in what appear to be endless lines, waiting, hoping, needing food assistance. Trust across a system that people must rely on to deliver essential support is paramount. This is a story of our work with Second Harvest Heartland as they tackle hunger and lift trust at the same time.

One of the nation’s largest hunger relief organizations and a member of Feeding America, Second Harvest Heartland (SHH) has over 44 years of history and experience in fighting hunger. Today, they distribute food to nearly 1,000 food shelves and meal programs across 59 counties in Greater MN and WI.

Our Aveus team has invested in SHH through volunteer work and fundraising —many of us, tied in our own personal way to their mission and the communities they help serve.

So, when an opportunity arose in early 2020 to assist SHH on their strategic initiative of “becoming a more trusted partner,” the answer was obvious. When can we start?

In any year, we would have considered this valuable work. But in a year of COVID-19 shutdowns, mass social uprising, and a historic Presidential election, what became abundantly clear is this: building and maintaining trust is not valuable, it is essential.

We have since wrapped up the first phase of our project, but our teams continue to be energized by the work completed and currently underway. In a recent conversation with SHH’s Agency Relations Director, Pat Pearson, we paused to reflect on what we have accomplished and learned together so far. Below are some of those reflections.  

Measuring Trust

To build trust, we had to first define it. Early in our engagement, our team introduced the Aveus Trust Model, which outlines trust as a combination of three underlying components: capability, reliability, and motive. (Read more on the components of trust here!)

Understanding these three components allowed the team to think about trust as actionable—as something that is not only manageable, but measurable.

This was part of our excitement to engage with SHH. We see few organizations attempt to measure and analyze trust. Yet creating a baseline for where your organization sits today is imperative in knowing whether trust has been built or broken, and the related effects on your mission or business purpose, positive or negative.

The SHH team dove right in. We designed, and together we fielded, a trust measurement survey with their network of agency partners based on our shared definition of trust. The results from this survey created a baseline for SHH to reference as they continue measuring trust with their partners in the future, and helped our team narrow in on which component(s) of trust required the most attention and immediate action.

“Overall, I feel we’re on the right track. We have to remember that this was during COVID and that we have more of a partner relationship than a customer relationship. So, we have to take that into account [for our scores]. But I was really happy with the results. It’s influenced a lot of our work, both things that we had kind of already started, but then things that we want to do.”

Pat Pearson, Director of Agency Relations, Second Harvest Heartland

Building Trust by Enhancing the Customer Experience

Although defining and measuring trust was a critical part of our work, it was not enough on its own. The trust measurement survey provided an important quantitative baseline for SHH but lacked the detail and depth necessary to build a clear roadmap for enhancing the relationship with their agency partners.

We used a customer experience-based approach to place another stake in the ground around trust, starting with empathy. This would be the focus for the rest of our engagement, as our second objective was to map the current and ideal experiences of Second Harvest Heartland’s agency partners.

In non-COVID times, we would have visited SHH’s partner food shelves and meal programs in-person to meet with their staff, understand their operations, and get a sense of their day-to-day experience. But as with many of our “normal” approaches and processes this past year, we had to get creative and adjust.

We started with SHH’s internal teams and conducted a series of group interviews to draft starter experience maps. We walked their teams through the different phases of the partner experience, asking them to put themselves in their agency partners’ shoes and think about what might be happening and what they might be thinking, feeling, and saying at each phase.

Each team added depth and color to the map, providing details that another team might have missed or not thought about. As is the case with any internal team, the challenge here was to think beyond the limitations and constraints of their organization, and lead with the needs and desires of their partner.

With the internal stakeholders – that was brilliant to bring them into the conversations. They’re all really dedicated teams and they do their jobs really well, but we’ve never as an organization connected, ‘how does what you do affect the end-user who comes to the food shelf to get the food?’

So, those conversations were really helpful in having teams start to think through, ‘if I pull the product here and it goes all the way to the end user… why does it matter if I pick rice instead of pasta, or whatever it was?’ Some of the work that we’ve started now – those departments are already on board. And they know it’s going to be a bit of a culture shift, but we’ve already started it. Those were really good conversations.”

Pat Pearson, Director of Agency Relations, Second Harvest Heartland

Once the maps were drafted and we identified potential critical moments at each phase, our next step was to test these insights with SHH’s partners themselves. Over the weeks that followed, we conducted hour-long interviews with selected agency partners to listen to their perspectives on partnership with SHH, obtain feedback on our critical moments, and gauge the relative importance of improvement at each moment.

We heard about how their communities were evolving and reacting to the challenges and changes of 2020; about the pressures and opportunities their organizations faced; and about the needs, pain-points, hopes, frustrations, and gratitude they felt as part of their experience. Their voices provided invaluable insights and allowed us to finalize our experience maps.

When you know that a client depends on you to get their food, it’s really important. I don’t want to stand out as a Food Bank that has an outstanding customer experience. I want to just stand out as just having a phenomenal customer experience.”

Pat Pearson, Director of Agency Relations, Second Harvest Heartland

A Roadmap Forward

Layered on top of our experience maps, the results from the trust measurement survey helped to illustrate capability, reliability, and motive as specific touchpoints and experiences in their agency partners’ journey. Capability correlated strongly with their partners’ ability to get the food they need and want, whereas reliability correlated with the quality of their partners’ delivery, and motive with how their partners viewed SHH’s communications and advertising.

These findings provided a strong foundation for Second Harvest Heartland to build an action plan to improve their partners’ experience, build trust, and most importantly, better serve those needing food assistance. As we enter a new phase of work with these teams, we continue to be inspired by the work and engagement that went into phase one.

We feel grateful to have been a part of this important work and to have witnessed the passion and commitment Second Harvest Heartland and their agency partners share to serve their community and end hunger together.


Ellie is an Associate Consultant at Aveus. An English major with a business mind, she is energized by making meaningful connections and building solutions and systems that improve experiences for all.