The Struggle to Unravel the Truth Behind Customer’s Perception and Reality


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Damien is “In A Pickle.” His organization’s delivery stats tell them that they’re doing quite well. But when they do customer survey data, the customers don’t think they are. So, Damien wants to know why there is a discrepancy.

The problem here is perception. The internal perception is shipping is going great, but the customers’ perception isn’t. If perception is reality, they have two realities—only one matters.

Can you guess which one it is?

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For my part, it’s the customers’ perspective. I’m always interested in what the customer tells me rather than all the internal stats. How we interpret and compare experiences to our expectations affects how we evaluate things.

However, those four terms—perception, expectation, interpretation, and evaluation—have distinct ideas or stages, per psychologists. So, to clarify, let’s look at perception and interpretation from a psychologist’s or scientific perspective:

Perception is related to the five senses, meaning things we see, touch, or smell.
Interpretation gives meaning to these chemical or light signals.

In other words, perception is how information comes in, and interpretation is what we get from that information.

Expectations affect our interpretation. So, if you respond to it and feel good or bad about it, satisfied or unsatisfied, that will depend on your frame of reference.

Evaluation is the sum of your interpretation and your expectations. So, if you feel good about your interpretation, you have a positive sum. If you feel bad about it, then it’s a negative difference.

This video from the BBC also explains how perception and interpretation interact.

Therefore, you can see that these ideas are interrelated. Our expectations influence our interpretation of things, and they certainly influence our evaluations, and you couldn’t have any of these reactions without first perceiving them.

For example, my wife and I ordered a chair for our lounge. When it arrived, I thought the color differed from what we saw in the showroom. Lorraine disagrees. We disagree on the color of the chair. We view the same thing but have different interpretations and feelings about it.

Then we add in the expectation. I expected the chair to match the lounge decor. However, the interpretation was that the color was off from the floor sample. Therefore, my evaluation was less than ideal, a negative difference.

So, getting back to Damien’s pickle, the discrepancy could be that while Damien’s firm is comfortable with their shipping policy internally, customers interpret the length of the shipment time differently than what they expected after they heard or read it initially—and it’s a negative difference.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Going deep into philosophy for a moment, consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, we are to suppose that prisoners are chained up in a cave and cannot turn their heads to look behind them. Behind the prisoners, their captors have a fire burning and a wall they can stand behind. The area above the wall with the fire behind it allows captors to project the shadows of objects on the wall, like a book or a bird.

The prisoners might refer to the shadow of the book they see as a book. However, Plato argues that they did not see a book. The prisoners saw a shadow and inferred it was a book but would need to turn their heads to know it was. Therefore, Plato argues that the names are not for the actual thing but the thing we think we see.

One could interpret Plato’s argument that our perceptions trap us, barring our access to reality. Regarding Damien’s customers, they perceive the experience as troublesome because of how they see it, like a shadow on a cave wall. The reality could be something else; they would have to turn their heads to see.

And Then, Memory Plays a Part, Too

All of this ties into one of my favorite subjects, memory. Returning to the chair in my lounge, I have a clear picture of what it looked like, a leather captain’s chair that was yellowish brown. When it arrived, it was a mid-range brown, which was not what I had pictured.

However, when I searched Google for chairs, it showed me all I had looked at before, including the chair we ordered. The photo showed a color different than what I remembered.

Of course, that made me think I shouldn’t complain because my memory was a bit off. Plus, the company did say on the website that the chairs are slightly different colors and shades. So, the amount of variation was reasonable when you consider that.

The perception feeds into our evaluative system, and it also feeds into our memory. Therefore, to get to reality, you need a side-by-side comparison to see how perception influences them.

If you have seen many TVs for sale playing the same channel, you might notice that some displays are brighter or have more vibrant colors than others. Once you get the TV home, it would be difficult to remember many differences; you would need to see them in a side-by-side comparison. The differences are perceptual effects.

So, What Happened in Damien’s Case?

Going back to Damien’s problem, is it a perception problem? Is it an evaluation problem? Is it an expectation problem? The fact is they can’t know with the data they have now. They could need to dig deeper to find out.

However, delivery time isn’t a squishy concept. If it was four days, the customer doesn’t perceive that as six days. Instead, it’s likely a problem with expectations or evaluations. The disconnect could be customers comparing Damien’s organization to something else, like Amazon. After Amazon’s shipping rates, anything longer than 48 hours feels like an age.

Another area that might be causing the disconnect is communications. It could be the lack of it or inaccurate messaging coloring perceptions.

Expectations matter, too, and these can be relative. For example, I took my grandkids to Disneyland, Paris, for the first time recently. They had a Princess Lunch, and all six of us went. When I got the bill, I felt it was expensive, around $100 per person.

However, when I told friends and shared the amount, they didn’t think it was expensive. So, that is a relative expectation comparison.

From a scientific perspective, this wasn’t a perception difference. If the food tasted terrible to me and not to my friends, or if it felt cold in there to me but not to my friends, that would be sensory and therefore a perception issue.

Instead, it would be an expectation difference. I expected the price to be lower, but my friends did not. If I had been before to this event, I might not have thought it was that expensive either. I would have expected the bill because I had paid it before and was “used to it.”

So, the presentation of information matters because how it is presented affects our perception. For example, if you draw a circle on the page and then draw smaller circles next to it, you will perceive the first circle as large.

However, if you drew larger circles next to it, you would perceive the first circle as small or average—the perception of the first circle changes while the reality of it does not.

So, What Should Damien Do?

Psychologists and scientists love to get precise and nitty gritty about this stuff because distinguishing between different stages of evaluation matters. This precision can help Damien determine where things are going wrong.

Is it a perception problem, meaning they perceive the delivery time differently?

Probably not.

Then, is it an evaluation problem that they’re evaluating us less favorably than they should be? And is it an expectation problem that they’re expecting something different from us than we thought they would expect from us?

Maybe. Damien’s organization would need more information to be sure.

My point is that breaking things out conceptually like that gives Damien’s organization the ability to understand the problem in greater detail and hopefully have additional avenues to fix it.

From a practical perspective, Damien needs more information. Ideally, they should talk to those customers and break it down. Then, take those responses and sort them into categories. Then, using those categories, they could write specific survey questions for those customers and determine what’s happening there. This information will be invaluable to determining how to get out of that pickle, akin to turning their head to look behind them in the cave.

Colin has conducted numerous educational workshops to inspire and motivate your team. He prides himself on making this fun, humorous, and practical. Speak to Colin and find out more. Click here!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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