It's perceptions, stupid!

Wednesday 26th December 2012 at 9:22AM

As Father Ted once explained to the congenitally bewildered Father Dougal, those two cows may look the same size, but in actual fact, one is small and the other far away.  What we perceive to be true may not always represent reality.  However, when it comes to the matter of customer service, our perceptions should not be so lightly dismissed.

I was thinking about this the other day when talking to a business about their customers’ experiences. I’d listed a number of well-known companies and asked my audience to call out the first thought or impression that occurred to them upon hearing those names. An interesting exercise. Two years ago, if I mentioned Starbucks, the responses would range from ‘trendy people with laptops’ to ‘great service’ (or in my Mum’s words: ridiculously priced milky coffee). Now perceptions are characterised by cynical remarks about creative approaches to tax accounting. Amazon is starting to see the usual ‘easy’ and ‘hassle free’ comments replaced by similarly sceptical pronouncements.

IKEA is another one that always produces some contrasting responses (great prices, chaos, meatballs, etc) while Prêt and Lush seem to have occupied the higher ground (lovely, friendly, nothing’s too much trouble). But it’s Ryanair that is always guaranteed to produce the most passionate responses. ‘I hate them’ said one participant, ‘I have to use them. I’ve no other choice, but they make you run through hoops, their website is awful and their whole strategy seems to be based on trying to catch you out, so that they can punish you with a random charge or fee.’

No one argued that Ryanair’s product was a problem: always on time and in fact, they’re Europe’s most reliable airline. They probably fly to more routes than any other airline and, in the midst of this painful recession, they’re likely to be the cheapest option too. But customer sentiment is mixed at best and it’s clear that their processes, which are akin to making someone complete a circuit of Mousetrap in exchange for a cheap flight, produce damaging perceptions that must be constraining the company’s attempts to grow further.

My experiences of UK customer service over the past twelve months have underlined this failure to understand what matters most to different customers. I’m left feeling unnaturally spiky levels of rancour towards some providers and its lasting effect is hitting them in the pocket. For example, by making the assumption that I’ll happily take a cold call (on my business line, during work hours and at their convenience) a number of businesses have been dropped from my ‘positive perceptions’ register.  Are you listening Talk Talk? I’m even a customer of theirs, but until they recognise that I’d like to hear about new offers by email (or even text), they’re only distancing themselves from me.

Jet2 could be said to have the best opportunity of all. They’re locally based, they appear to take customer service seriously (certainly in terms of in-cabin experiences) and although not serving as many airports as Ryanair, they’re well set up to take a different path for customers. We understand that we might not always get the cheapest price, especially when we’ve only given short notice of our intention to fly. That’s not a problem. We understand the basic algorithm. However, by charging you (£16 on our last booking) for checking in online, they’re edging towards the end of the perceptions plank for this customer.  You check in online to save them the money it would cost to do it in person. It produces less administration for them and, as we all know, the concept of self-service takes costs out of the operation. But Jet2 persists with this charge (possibly because ‘they all do it’) and when people ask me about the company and if I would recommend it, I give a guarded response. My perceptions, understandably, are that they’re not just offering flights, but taking us for a ride too.

If Jet2 need to make this extra charge, then why not hide it in the flight cost? My perceptions will be altered in an instant and, I would guess, the value they offer in comparison to what the public believe to be the less scrupulous operators, is only emphasised. The irony is, the same money is made, but our perceptions are transformed.

Perceptions are our businesses’ first clue as to what matters to customers but there’s plenty of evidence out there to show that some organisations don’t see the link.

When Inconvenience Stores (my first customer service travelogue) was published eight years ago, we weren’t in recession – and the standard of UK service was pretty poor.

Step forward a decade, with the economy on its knees and no sign of a respite for at least another four years and you’d imagine British companies would have recognised the need to keep their customers on side.

Asking us what we think they really stand for is a first step on the road to recovery.

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