I recently developed a learning activity for a client who wanted his team of 60 commercial property managers to recognize the influence that biases, preconceived notions, and assumptions had on the quality of their tenant interactions. My client was motivated by the recurring conflict that arose whenever property managers had to explain ancillary fees or justify certain limitations on the tenant’s use of space and other restrictions.
When I worked with the same group two years ago, we designed a number of role-plays to reenact quarterly pulse checks between the property managers and their tenants. Adult learners typically hate role-playing for a number of reasons: one reason is the possibility of doing it wrong and being exposed as ineffective before their peers; another is that role-play scenarios often seem contrived, appearing artificial and unrealistic.
So this time around, we decided to craft a case study rather than role-play scenarios as the learning activity. To be effective, case studies, like role-plays, have to be relevant to the adult learner’s “real world of work.” The challenge with traditional case studies in a small group setting is that dominant group participants can take over and influence the group’s outcome or, worse yet, determine it. While this dynamic is always present in group settings, its effect can be neutralized by applying a naïve element to the learning activity. I refer to this naïve element as the “wrinkle.”
The wrinkle in the learning activity we designed was subtly hidden in the first and third paragraphs of the otherwise identical case study. Both versions of the case study appear below.
We were intentional about distributing the first version of the case study (“Mr. Crabapple”) to table groups 1-4 and the second version (“Mr. Crabtree”) to table groups 5-8. Each table group was told that the case study scenario was identical for all table groups. This was true because the scenario containing the facts of the case study in the second paragraph was the same in both versions of the case study. Participants thus assumed that they were working on identical case studies.
Table groups were then given 10 minutes to discuss the case study and determine how they would approach the conversation with the tenant.
Afterward, one Case Study Worksheet (below) was distributed to each table group. Based on the group’s discussion and approach to the tenant conversation, they were instructed to assign numerical ratings to the questions below according to a 10-point scale:
- From your group’s perspective, how satisfied would you say the customer is with the customer service quality received by the property manager in the scenario?
- From your group’s perspective, given the customer’s perception of the ancillary fees presented in the scenario, how do you think he would rate the value of the space for the price paid?
- From your group’s perspective, given the tone of the conversation presented in the scenario, how do you think the customer would rate his intent to recommend our company to a friend or colleague?
- From your group’s perspective, given the tone of the conversation presented in the scenario, how do you think the customer would rate his intent to renew his lease?
The ratings assigned to each of the four questions were then transferred and calculated in the table at the bottom of the worksheet.
Finally, one member of the table group recorded the group’s ratings and average on the flip chart at the front of the room where one flip chart was designated to capture the results from table groups 1-4 and the other to capture results from table groups 5-8.
Below are the actual combined scoring grids from the session:
After the results from each table group had been recorded on the flip charts at the front of the room, I debriefed the results with questions like these:
- “If your group rated its response to Q1 (dissatisfied with customer service quality) low, what contributed to this low rating?”
- “If your group rated its response to Q2 (great value for price paid) high, what caused you to make that determination?”
- “If your group rated its response to Q3 (may not recommend) low, what caused you to doubt his willingness to recommend ACME Commercial Leasing?”
- “If your group rated its response to Q4 (definitely renew) high, what made you confident that the customer would renew his lease?”
- “What were some of the sources of conflict in this case study?”
- “How are customers warned about potential misunderstandings ahead of time?”
As you might expect, as the debrief unfolded, participants from table groups 1-4 referred to the tenant as “Mr. Crabapple” while participants from table groups 5-8 referred to him by his proper name, “Mr. Crabtree.” Initially, participants at table groups 5-8 were amused by the unflattering moniker, assuming it was ascribed to the tenant’s behavior as depicted in the case study. At the time, they did not realize it was the actual name assigned to the tenant in the introductory paragraph of the case study version assigned to table groups 1-4.
It also became apparent that participants at table group’s 5-8 held the tenant in high esteem, describing him as “discerning: shrewd, exhibiting keen insight and good judgment”, while participants at table groups 1-4 labeled him as “difficult and hard to please” – another reference to the “wrinkle” distinguishing the two versions of the case study.
Finally, table groups 1-4 were asked to discuss how they would “deliver the bad news” to the tenant that “these maintenance expenses are, if fact, his responsibility in accordance with the terms and conditions as specified in the lease he agreed to and signed.” The tone set for the discussion at table groups 5-8, however, was less confrontational and more constructive. These participants were instructed to discuss how they would “utilize empathic communication skills (seeking to understand the tenant, before being understood themselves) and offer value-oriented responses to influence customer perception and, together, work to clarify misunderstandings and reset expectations.”
Realize that while the customer’s proper name, description of his demeanor, and the tone set for the conversation were altered, the scenarios (containing the facts upon which the case study was based) were identical in both case study versions. Even so, the combined/averaged scores from table groups 1-4 were lower than those from table groups 5-8 in every category measured!
This demonstrates the very real link that exists between our perception; how we “see” things, and reality; the results and outcomes we achieve. It’s the familiar self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces the relationship between our expectations (whether positive or negative) about circumstances, events, or people that may affect our behavior toward them, resulting in the fulfillment of those expectations. Just because you and I are aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t mean that we’re immune to its effects. If you’re skeptical, just revisit the scoring grids above. The proof is in the numbers.
The objective of this activity was to impress on property managers that success (as defined by higher customer satisfaction, perception of value for price paid, intent to recommend, and intent to renew) requires seeing customers as partners and avoiding the “us vs. them” mentality that often typifies landlord/tenant relationships – and erodes trust and openness. By utilizing empathic communication skills and offering value-oriented responses to tenant questions and concerns, property managers can influence customer perception and, working together, clarify misunderstands and reset expectations.