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In the Eye of the Beholder: How Perceptions are Formed and How to Leverage Them for Business Advantage

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International

"The eyes are very unreliable witnesses.
Sometimes they see what they are meant to see."

Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's famous Belgium detective, uttered this significant phrase when solving a murder mystery that had captured his attention. He realized, as many of us do, that simply perceiving something does not make it true.

We form perceptions all day every day. Whether checking out the dating pool, interviewing a candidate for employment, evaluating the school district in the area, observing an employee at work, approaching a manager or sizing up a political candidate, we consult our mental database, for better or for worse, and form a perception.

How are perceptions formed?

What impact do perceptions have on success?

Can we influence how others perceive us?

In psychology and the cognitive sciences, perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information. Relying most heavily on our five primary senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) and to some degree on our sixth sense (gut), we arrange our impressions to form a conclusion - our perception.

In business, perception is reputation.

People acquire the information they use to form a perception about you and/or your organization in a number of ways.

The figure below depicts many of the ways in which customers form perceptions about an individual or an organization. A single direct or indirect touch can be responsible for a perception held and the most ensuring perceptions are those that are the sum total of a number of direct and indirect touches over time.

Customer Perceptions
(how they are formed)

Each point of contact has the power to influence, form, confirm, challenge or alter perceptions. Each of these points of contact has the power to influence if people like you or not. Trust you or not. Believe you or not. Each of point of contact has the power to influence, for better or for worse, your ultimate success. Perceptions are powerful. Once formed, they are difficult to change. The fact that a perception may be inaccurate, matters little in how others relate to us.

Organizations seeking to establish a desired reputation/perception in the marketplace invest heavily in product packaging, advertising, marketing collateral and internal systems. Interestingly, it is the sometimes overlooked and frequently underestimated element that is most responsible for the enduring perceptions people hold - the personal element.

Let's explore the touch points one by one to evaluate the power each one has in influencing the perceptions people hold. We'll begin by looking at the direct touches - those touches where a person has first hand contact with an individual or an organization.

Phone: "Thank you for calling. Your call is important to us. Please listen carefully to this message because the prompts have changed. To place an order, press one. To check on the status of an order, press two. For general inquiries, press three." And so on. The phone, the valuable instrument that allows people at long distances to connect and is responsible for lifesaving 911 calls is also the perpetrator of some of the worst perceptions customers hold of organizations. Whether the interaction is with an individual in a telephone conversation, a group of people on a conference call, or a recorded communication, perceptions are being formed. The perception left by a long-winded, rambling voice mail is starkly different from the clear, brief voice mail message that contains the critical points.

Electronic communication: "need to talk b4 u meet. l8r" The electronic means of communication available today has allowed people to maintain almost real-time contact and immediate response, which can translate to perceptions of value. Contrast that with the casual nature of email and text messages that lends itself to very different perceptions and add to that the permanent documented record of communications that has come back to haunt many a well-intentioned individual.

Meetings: Face-to-face meetings, net meetings and video conferences all contribute greatly to the perceptions people hold. Meetings, by their nature, are multi-sensory and as such can lead to enduring perceptions.

Office or Site Visits: The impression your premises makes also contributes to a perception. Cluttered stores, offices and desks can lead to perceptions of disorganization which can quickly extend to the individual or organization inhabiting the space. A tidy, welcoming environment staffed with smiling, helpful individuals can influence a more desirable perception.

Business Events: Professional associations, Chamber of Commerce events, industry tradeshows and so on. All these events have the opportunity to feature yourself and your business, for better or for worse. Even when people aren't watching, they are hearing and feeling and forming impressions. Sidebar conversations with colleagues at a networking function can communicate volumes.

Social Events: "All the world is a stage" and people are sizing you and your affiliations up when they sit next to you at the soccer match, run into you in the grocery store or have the misfortune of being cut off in traffic by you.

Products/Services: Perceptions of the efficacy of products and services are formed through first hand experiences and use of the products and services in question. Does it work as promised? Are the directions hard to understand? Does the product packaging require an engineer to open it? Did the service meet my expectations? The answers to questions such as these shape the perceptions people hold.

Billing: Money and what it represents usually holds deep and emotional meaning for everyone. When the financial transaction takes place, people are silently (or not so silently) recording the impressions. Was the invoice more than expected? Less than expected? Expected? Was there an error on the bill?

Customer Service: When products perform as expected, the needle on the scale of outstanding perceptions rarely moves because we tend to not be impressed when our expectations are met. When products don't perform, the responsiveness of customer service becomes paramount in preserving a good perception or forming a bad one. Although customer service departments are often staffed with entry level workers, it is in the hands of these individuals that some of the most enduring perceptions are formed.

The above examples describe the direct contact customers have with you or your organization. Interestingly, perceptions are also formed when you may not even be aware that you are under the microscope. Following are examples of indirect touches.

Website: How user-friendly and informative is your website?

Collateral: How user-friendly and informative are your marketing brochures? What impression does your business card leave? Even the quality of paper you use for your corporate letterhead creates an impression that leads to the formation of a perception.

Advertising: Your ads may be attention-getting but are they annoying?

Media: What did the media have to say about you last month? The media has the power to create perceptions - for better or for worse. One of the most misunderstood things about the media is that they are trying to make people look bad. The truth is that the media is always in search of the newsworthy story. It matters not whether or not you look good or bad to them. Sadly, stories that make someone look bad tend to be more newsworthy than stories of success and good deeds.

Affiliations: When the restaurant loses your reservation, the poor reflection may be on you more than on the restaurant. The bad behaviors of your friends and loved ones also may reflect poorly on you. The perceptions others hold of those you are affiliated with also extend to you.

Word-of-Mouth (compliments/criticisms): The perceptions others have that they share extend your perception in the marketplace. Salespeople count on positive word-of-mouth as one of their most valued forms of marketing, realizing that the sale is nearly made if a trusted source shared a good perception. Similarly, shared horror stories reflect badly and can be very difficult to overcome.

Observation: We are always being watched. Students watch their parents. Followers watch their leaders. Employers watch their employees. Constituents watch their elected officials. All these observations combine to result in the perceptions that we hold. Since it is very difficult to hold two opposite perceptions at the same time, we weigh one more heavily than the other, forgive an indiscretion (or not) so that the data we hold supports the perception we hold.

Community Involvement: Which causes do you support? Do you support any causes? Good corporate citizenship can soften some of the worst perceptions people hold.

Industry Reputation: What are your competitors doing? When a competitor makes a blunder, it can reflect badly on your reputation.

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