The Power of Perceptions in Shaping Customer Satisfaction

Is the glass half empty or half full? The definition resides in your customers’ eyes.

Human perceptionIsn’t it interesting how our perceptions rule our beliefs and actions? So much of the brain research today seems to support the idea that what we perceive defines our reality. This article examines the role that perception plays in the minds of consumers.

People Perceive Quality in Many Ways

Regardless of how good you believe your offerings or project solutions are, your clients and customers will be responding to “quality in perception” even more than “quality in fact.”

Quality in fact refers to the features that we believe we’re paying for, such as how much something weighs, how fast it runs, or various other characteristics.

Quality in perception pertains to things like special considerations, courtesies, a caring and personalized attitude, and many other subtleties that can lead us to believe we’re receiving more than what we’re paying for. Effective quality in perception can help compensate for any gaps in quality in fact that could otherwise irritate or inconvenience consumers.

Often, Perceived Value Is Not about Cost

Some years ago, I was a volunteer mediator in the Small Claims Court system. During my involvement in the court system, I became fascinated with the number of cases involving alleged wrongdoing or incompetence. People were suing businesses such as termite services and auto body painters, and even former best friends and health care providers over a variety of grievances! The suits often sought fairly small amounts of compensation, which meant that the financial aspects were not the primary concern.

What repeatedly emerged in the mediation sessions was that each plaintiff felt that the vendor, service provider, health care provider, or ex-friend had not listened to his or her concerns. Many of the plaintiffs believed that their concerns about shortcomings in services, products, or communications had simply been ignored.

However, if the defendants in these cases had earlier offered a simple, sincere apology — and had they made a concerted effort to communicate while also taking timely remedial action — I believe the resulting quality in perception could have prevented many of these lawsuits, even if the quality in fact still left something to be desired.

New Proof of the Power of Apologies

The New York Times recently reported that sincere, heart-felt apologies coming from doctors, surgeons, and hospitals who made serious medical mistakes have the effect of greatly reducing the likelihood that patients will sue for malpractice. In addition, patients who are willing to settle out of court often accept lower settlement payments than when doctors become defensive and deny what happened.

“Deny and defend” is the advice that malpractice lawyers and insurers typically give to doctors in the U.S., according to the Times. Studies that show that as few as 30 percent of medical errors are ever disclosed to patients. However, since malpractice claims have helped fuel skyrocketing medical costs, drastic changes in approaches to handling these high-stress situations are sorely needed.

According to the article, two years ago, the University of Illinois Medical Center initiated a program of openly acknowledging and apologizing for its medical mistakes. Ever since, the frequency of malpractice cases filed against the center has dropped in half. And in 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient has filed suit.

In one patient’s situation described in the article, “the doctor was completely candid, completely honest, and so frank that . . . all the anger was gone.” This apology also helped settle the case for a significantly lower amount.

Creating a Perception of Seamlessness

To help ensure the continuity of our customers’ perceptions, we need to create consistently pleasant experiences in every interaction each person has, from visiting a Web site or bricks-and-mortar location, to asking for more information, to buying products, to receiving shipments, to interacting with the actual products or services, to asking for help, and so on.

Consider this very important point: People perceive a series of interactions with your organization and offerings as one cohesive experience — as if everyone and everything represents threads in the same seamless piece of woven fabric.

Customers don’t care whether behind the scenes, your business is spread out all over the world, or whether individual departments consist of contractors or employees, earthlings or aliens. Whenever customers call technical support representatives, for example, they expect them to know all about the features advertised on the Web site that are supposed to be in the product.

So, if there is any type of communication disconnect, you might be able to explain it to yourself, but there’s no logical explanation for it in your customer’s mind.

Prescriptions for Boosting Quality in Perception

These important findings show the power of apologies and candid communications in influencing the perceptions of clients, customers, or patients. To make sure you’re not overlooking potential ways to create quality in perception, consider:

1) Special courtesies that can set your offerings apart from your competitors

2) Your ability to listen to and handle complaints quickly and diplomatically

3) Your willingness to be honest with clients about problems and shortcomings

4) Clear, prompt, and courteous communications that convey consistent details

Remember that quality in perception is not a substitute for quality in fact. But it can go a long way toward minimizing customer and client dissatisfaction, as well as powerfully reinforcing stellar quality when you ultimately deliver it.

About the Author

Adele Sommers, Ph.D. is the author of the award-winning “Straight Talk on Boosting Business Performance” success program. She helps people “discover and recover” the profits their businesses may be losing daily through overlooked performance potential.

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