Mirrors and Reflections: The Consequences of Gaps Between Vendor Perception and Customer Reality


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Those of us involved in the inside (enterprise-level) and outside (marketplace-level) of designing and delivering the optimum customer experience understand the importance of looking at, and understanding, stakeholder perceptions vs realities. By stakeholders, we are principally considering employees and customers.

In our work with clients, internal perceptions, i.e. what the employees see, believe, and report, are often quite different, and even diametrically opposed, relative to what customers see, believe, and report. For example, if there are customer relationship problems, or product performance challenges, customers are reporting this back to the company through formal means – customer support, sales reports/Salesforce, qualitative and quantitative research, or through text analytics. The company may even be addressing these issues through internal initiatives; but not all employees, and often very few, are aware that anything is happening. This fairly pervasive lack of inclusiveness and transparency means that, for employees, what they perceive is out of sync with the realities customers have reported and what the company is doing.

Years ago, quality guru W. Edwards Deming said that each person in a company has one of two major functions: They either serve the customer or serve someone who does. So, it’s clear that understanding where perceptual gaps between employees and customers exist should be of prime importance, in efforts to optimize the effectiveness of employees in terms of productivity and delivering value to customers.

As a stakeholder customer experience consulting organization, we’ve frequently found that customers consider the emotional, relationship-based aspects of value delivery — trust, communication, interactive/collaborative components of service, anticipation of needs, brand equity, etc.— much more important, and more leveraging of behavior than the functional aspects. Customers tend to see the functional aspects of delivery as more basic and expected, in other words one-dimensional table stakes and non-differentiating among suppliers.

For key interaction and touchpoints between customers and suppliers, the level of true focus and centricity can be identified quite easily. We have long supported the concept of “mirroring,” that is including at least one cell of supplier staff—from Field Sales, Marketing, and especially Customer Service—in every customer loyalty study done for our clients. The results are frequently eye-opening. We simply ask employees to answer the same questions asked of customers, in the way they believe customers will rate and evaluate them as a supplier. This tells us a lot about the differences, or gaps, in perception and reality between stakeholder groups. In vendor-customer relationships identified as ‘bow’tie’, there are frequently communication and operational choke points or impediments, and this only intensifies the differences between employee perception and customer reality.

In one of many examples of perception-reality gap that could be reported, service staff at a specialty retail store chain had significantly different perceptions of performance than customers of the store chain, especially in need anticipation and making the customer feel special, both key components of relationship and bond creation. Employees felt they were doing an excellent job. The reality, based on the customers’ ratings, was far different in nature. Long story short, customers thought the retailer was doing a poor job in these key, emotionally-driven areas.

Again, there are often significant, impactful perception-reality differences between stakeholder groups. The degree to which employees can mirror, or accurately reflect, the perceptions and realities of value expressed by customers says a great deal about the level of enterprise transparency and customer centricity. Naive companies have numerous employee-customer disconnects, and natural, or truly customer-centric companies have relatively few.

Here’s a straightforward prescriptive: to narrow or eliminate the employee-customer differences, mind the gap, first by recognizing that gaps always exist between inside design and outside delivery and response. When companies are innovative and inclusive with staff, all parties benefit. The company gets more effective employees. Employees like the participation and learning. Customers like the improved processes and interactions. Another key advantage of conducting employee “mirror” or “reflection” research, and one not to be overlooked, is that, in all likelihood, competitors don’t have this kind of insight. They’re hearing only from the external constituent group, the customers, but not from the equally important internal representatives and deliverers of value, company employees.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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