Perception is all there is

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I’ve been battling a few business Owners and Managers who have distorted views of their operating standards over the last couple of months. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes I feel like shaking them until they see reason. It’s nothing new, I first encountered this difficulty nearly twenty years ago, when I was an Area Manager for KFC.

I noticed that when we left our Managers too long in one location, they often lost objectivity and started to lose the plot. To counter this, I adopted a policy of shifting my Managers around after three years. The results were interesting.

They’d go into the new location, all gung-ho and full of challenge and immediately see what needed to be done and bounce into it. The staff would be ‘cleaned out’, procedures would be revised, repairs and maintenance would be undertaken. Turnover and profit would increase. They viewed their new environment dispassionately and, free of emotional baggage went about their work efficiently.

After about two years their view altered from objective to subjective. Their loyalty to the people they’d employed and trained, and the systems and environment they’d created, led them to stop seeing the dirt in the corners. As they became comfortable, their desire for change became dormant.

The same thing affects business owners, only worse. They often stay in the one job for in excess of ten years or so. The lack of objectivity a normal person can unwittingly suffer after five years in the one place can be profound. It is compounded by the tendency to stop getting out and about, observing the competition. A business can become frozen at a moment in time quite easily.

Customers add to the problem. They have a tendency to not want to ‘rock the boat’ and often leave bitter and twisted, having failed to assert their feelings, but silently vowing never to return. If you’re ever tempted to say something like: ‘My customers tell me they love the place’, you’re right in the danger zone.

There is a way around the problem, though. Just as you must have a control system to ensure your profitability (an accounting system of some sort), you should have a control system that gives you feedback about your customers’ real perceptions, before they choose to go elsewhere. You can start by asking your customers the right questions.

‘Did you enjoy your meal?’ is bound to elicit the response: ‘Yes, thank you. Very nice.’ or similar. Try asking a different question — ask: ‘How can we improve our food (or service, etc)?’ The answer to a specific question, phrased like this will enable an answer that is seen by the customer as ‘helpful’ rather than ‘critical’. We’ve experimented with this simple procedure and the usefulness of the information gained is well worth the effort.

It’s one thing to get information, but it’s another, more difficult problem use it. You’ve first got to hear, then you’ve got to listen, then you’ve got to act. The best businesses are very responsive to customers’ comments.

There is a limit to the effectiveness of voluntary customer feedback. Smaller businesses are probably going to have to use it as their main control, but larger businesses have a much more effective way of measuring customer perception available to them.

We’ve learned to install a more thorough system of perception surveys as a normal management control system into medium and large hospitality businesses. We call them by the name they were first given in the retail industry where they evolved: Mystery Shopper Checks. The reason we use them is simple — customer feedback can measure service perception to a certain extent, but it can’t measure the other critical factor in business success — the application of selling and merchandising skills. A structured perception survey can.

I’d go as far as saying that you are wasting your time trying to get a large number of staff to suggestive sell and up-sell as part of your customer service if you haven’t got any means of measuring their performance. It’s also interesting to note that customer perception survey results are higher in businesses that apply professional selling skills than those that don’t. Good selling skills are perceived as service.

All staff have to wear name tags. I’ve had Hell’s own trouble over this one. The staff usually hate it, because it makes them more accountable. Imagine how we’d all drive on the roads if we didn’t have to display a vehicle registration number? The fact that we can be ‘numbered’ and fined keeps us reasonably within the rules. It is the same with your staff; name tags please the customers and function the same way registration numbers do on our cars. Call it ‘big brother’ if you like — but it works.

Our surveys are carried-out anonymously by properly trained people who are hired for this specific job. They are chosen to represent specific target markets. They are given a score sheet which they fill out upon leaving which forces them to comment on all the little things they’ve seen that go towards creating a customer’s perception, as well as the application of selling and merchandising skills. A percentage score is calculated and surveys are repeated at regular intervals — often enough for the staff to realise that there is a good chance they will be spot checked. After several surveys, trends can be spotted and procedures altered to eliminate negative comment.

I’d be willing to bet that if you’ve been in the one place for a while, you’d benefit from a fresh, objective view of your business. Imagine what a new owner would do if they bought your business. Get cracking.

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