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The greatest blind spot: Customer perception

20th Oct 2006
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Ever heard the expression "Perception is reality"? I am not sure how accurate that is about most things, but it is true when it comes to service. I was reminded of this truth while making hotel reservations for a recent trip to Washington DC. My decision was based solely on my perception of the quality of service I would receive, and that decision was based on their brand name.

The difference between the brand name hotels (or automotive companies for that matter) is that they have effectively leveraged people’s perception of their brands. Not only do they capitalize on it, but spend millions of dollars to promote it. The result is that when you think about luxury driving, you don’t think about Hyundai, you usually think about Lexus. Not so fair to Hyundai, who continues to build affordable, reliable cars every year.

By definition, perception is how we define our experiences. It is how we recognize and interpret stimuli. That applies to your customers, who are constantly making decisions about you and your brand based on what they perceive to be true about you. No two people perceive anything the exact same way. When it comes to customers, it is their perception of the quality of service you offer that determines success. The final measure of quality customer service is simply how the customer perceives it.

Your job is to make customers aware of what a great thing it is to do business with you. In their head, they are gagging what they are getting from you, compared to what they expect to get from you. The better you are at closing that gap, the better the perception customers will have about the quality and value of the services you provide. At times, you will have to remind them in many subtle ways that you add value to their lives, or business. Do not leave what customers think about you to chance. Here are some essentials to shaping a high-quality service image in the customer’s eyes:

1. Create and Maintain Accurate Customer Profiles – Do you know who your customers are? Companies spend a lot of time and exert a lot of effort on the wrong segment of the market. You cannot be all things to all people, but chances are that you are trying. Define as precisely as you can which customers you are trying to serve. Then develop an understanding of what is most important to them. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools can help you learn which types of customers are yielding the results you expect. Most CRM tools integrate marketing, sales, and support data and allow you to analyze your customer base and your efforts to give them great service from a broader perspective.

2. Look at your business through your customer’s eyes – Remember that the customer rates your service based on the way they see things. Take a step back to see things from their angle. Evaluate honestly everything the customer sees: your building, your website, and yourself. Don’t forget to also evaluate all communications that the customer receives from you: letters, marketing material, and email. Every single contact the customer has with your business is shaping their perception for better or worse.

3. Keep Your Promises – Reliability and responsiveness shape your customer’s perceptions of you. Businesses like UPS, DHL, and FedEx would never stay in business if they did not keep their commitment to customers. Although customers are more forgiving about their service expectations for other types of businesses, they still expect you to deliver on what you promised and to deliver when you said you would.

4. Use problems as opportunities to demonstrate what you are about – Customers judge the quality of service you deliver in two basic ways: First, based on how well you deliver what you promised. Then, on how you handle exceptions and problems. Problems will arise, and expectations will get muddy regardless of how good you are in your industry. Use those opportunities to show customers empathy: genuine concern for their needs and expectations. Use the tough times to show that you are truly committed to provide exceptional service.

5. Develop a unique relationship with your customers and treat each one as someone special – One of the most missed qualities about service is the unique relationships businesses enjoyed with customers in the past. The "corner store" environment where the store owner knew each customer by name. The hometown restaurant where you could ask for "the usual". Customers go where they feel appreciated. Never underestimate the power and influence of treating customers right. Know your customers sincerely. CRM is a great tool for storing the most intimate details about customers, but if you are using the information only to sell them, you are missing a great opportunity to make customers for life.

6. Keep in touch and keep them informed – If you fail to stay in touch with your customers, they won’t be aware of the good service you’re giving them until something goes wrong. Use every opportunity and every means available to tell customers what you are doing for them. Similarly, proactively educate your customer on how they can make the best out of their investment with you. Every customer has a need to know, and the more you attend to this need, the more value they will perceive.

7. Remember that a large part of good service is "service" – A.P. Giannini, founder, Bank of America was quoted as saying "Serving the needs of others is the only legitimate business in the world today." Be a "good host" to your customers. Do whatever it takes to make the customer feel good in as many ways as possible. When you are in the presence of a customer, you are the host and the customer is the star. Make them feel that way.

Leverage your customer’s perception to your advantage. Correct blind spots in your perception of service quality. Above all, remember that, to stay in business, you must pay attention to how customers perceive you.

About the Author:

Julio Quintana is a writer and speaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of the upcoming book Learning How to Win & Keep Customers, a companion guide to the powerhouse classic, How to Win Customers & Keep Them for Life by Dr. Michael LeBoeuf. He writes regularly about client advocacy topics and customer relationship management practices and technology.

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