It’s often claimed in market research circles that perception is everything.

I suspect this stems from the thought that, provided the customer perceives things as being good then that is what matters, be it customer service, product quality, your brand’s image.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a really stupid way of thinking about consumers. Let me explain…

In one sense, perceptions are all that customers have to provide in market research. Life isn’t absolute when you’re living it. For example, I’ve been having some lower back ache (too much time spent writing in a bad chair) and have been treating it with a physiotherapist and lots of exercises. Unlocking my lower back has caused other parts of my back to react and the other night I turned over and stretched at night and managed to pull a muscle higher up my back.

Now, at the moment, my lower back doesn’t hurt. So I perceive that my lower back is fine. However, this is largely because my pain attention is directed higher up at the part that really hurts. In reality, the issues in my lower back are not resolved yet, it’s going to take a few weeks to undo what I’ve done over many months. So my perception about my back is almost certainly misleading.

If you ask me now how bad my back health is I will say it’s fairly bad: my attention is directed at the pain right now and I’m very sensitised to backs.

But if you ask me in a couple of weeks, when I expect it to be considerably better, I will probably say that my back is pretty healthy. In a couple of weeks it shouldn’t be hurting me any more, but I’ll have many more weeks of exercises to do to make it properly mobile.

Perceptions change over time. The further people are from an event the less likely they are to perceive it accurately.

When it comes to customer service (for example) what matters is what service you actually deliver. The only way you can judge that is by seeing what experience you deliver to customers.

They may say that service is poor because they’re expecting red carpets and rose petals.

They may say that service is good because they have such low expectations of your brand.

You have no way of knowing what frame of reference they’re making, how time is shaping it or how recollections of experiences will be factored in to future purchase behaviour.

All you have is a score. Which feels compelling because it has a number attached. But it’s actually meaningless.

Ah, they say, we can track it over time.

So now you know how a meaningless number changes. That’s helpful!!

The solution?

Decide what quality of service you want the customer to experience and design your service to deliver that.

Then watch, dispassionately, to see if it looks as though customers are getting that experience.

If you want them to leave the store delighted, look for delight on their face: we all know what ‘delighted’ looks like, don’t we?

If you’re studying the moment that customer service happens you’re studying reality. If you’re asking customers what they think you’re getting perceptions but you have no way of knowing their durability or relevance to that customers future behaviour.

There. That should save your company some wasted money on customer satisfaction surveys.

Philip Graves


  1. Lynn Lane

    Yet again some great common sense that we can use in business.
    “Decide what quality of service you want the customer to experience and design your service to deliver that.”
    That my friend is reality in action. As they say in the UFC fight game..”As real as it gets.”
    Lynn Lane
    Warrior Of Success

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