Reality vs Perception: Which is true?

Reality: The state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they appear or may be thought to be.

Perception: The belief as a result of past experience, and interpretation of sensory information.

We have all heard the question, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it make noise if there is no one there to hear it?” In reality, it definitely makes noise—the same sound it would make regardless of whether there is a witness. But if no one is there to hear and observe, there is no knowledge and therefore there is no perception of noise, as there is no notice of a fallen tree. This is an age-old topic, but it is always interesting to see how often, as we work hard in our organizations to move things forward and improve operations for customers, we tend to rely on what we know but not what the customer or the external market thinks as our guide. Reality isn’t relevant if your customers are not aware of, or care about, the things that created the less than stellar experience they have had.  Three specific business cases in the past few weeks have reminded me of the importance of managing customers’ perceptions over trying to explain the business reality.

First, the Southwest Airlines experience. You don’t have to talk to many people to know they have really stepped in it. For many frequent travelers, it was clear in the last year that the Southwest of old, excellent operators and caring employees, was fading. Too much flight interruption, less customer-centricity, and much more policy. Last week they fell apart. It will cost them dearly to fix the problem. And just getting systems back up may be the least of it. They have violated trust. People won’t flock back to Southwest if they feel they are at continued risk. People make decisions based on recent experience. Southwest is doing a lot of things to “make it up” to customers—refunding tickets, crediting 25,000 points per flight that was cancelled in the window of failure, and extending people’s tier status as this gets sorted out. But who cares? I had a flight on January 5th on SWA and canceled it to book an airline I considered reliable. Even though SWA claimed to be operating by then, it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. Those of you who know me know I have been a loyal flyer of this airline for years, sometimes not taking the fastest route just to fly SWA. I have pointed to them as a positive case study. But their customer commitment has been lacking for a while. And now they are going to have to re-establish it. I don’t believe any publicity is good publicity—especially in this instance. Being unknown is a lesser problem them messing up on this grand scale. Future perception will have to be changed as the current experience creates a deep perception of unreliability and risk. So even if they regain their operational footing after their “system reset” it will be very hard for them to come back without changes across the board—operations, leadership, service, etc. Points in an account is not enough. Neither is an apology. Customers will have to witness needed change.

Currently, I have two clients dealing with perception issues on a smaller scale, fortunately. For one it is a matter of positioning. Their organization has a reputation for excellence but in a smaller segment than they actually serve. We are working on what they need to do to provide value across the board to all members and perhaps attract more members by doing so. All that without alienating the segment that has been at their core of service for decades. Even though the organization has offered programs and educational content that is broad in nature, it doesn’t come across to the membership. The main fix will be positioning, messaging, and communication. Perhaps there will be some adjustments in the types of programming offered, but mostly it will just be making the things they already do more visible. The funny thing about changing perception is you can’t start by explaining why customers’ perceptions are wrong. You have to start by acknowledging their point of view and treating it as the reality.

The second client is plagued by a very common problem for many—a supply chain that was devastated during covid and left customers feeling like they were holding the bag. Although there is an intellectual understanding of supply challenges across all businesses, it doesn’t solve the problem. Customers don’t care why they can’t get something when they need it –not really. They just want to get it. Solving this problem is tricky but it too is an issue of effective communication. Being totally transparent is key. As is accessibility in customer service. Avoiding customers because you have bad news is the worst thing you can do. The more value you can add in other ways like technical support, new ways to access information more easily, or other value adds are important.

When is the last time you have evaluated your operations and programming through the customers’ eyes to see if their perceptions are aligned with your intentions?

To read more examples on this issue and learn from others’ mistakes, click the previous blog post here, and let me know if you’d like to talk!

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