Lesson to be Learned – How are you Really Perceived?

Last night, while sitting on my rooftop, I noticed two things: first, it was getting too dark to read the book in my hand; second, the setting sun was a sight that could rival an impressionist painting. “Must capture,” I thought, as I ran downstairs to get my camera.

When I returned to the rooftop and found the best angle to capture the sun, four people stood nearby. I positioned my camera and snapped a few pictures, growing more giddy with nature’s little gift as the elongating pink sky intensified, blending yellow into orange into purple.

Suddenly, one of the women in the pack of four noticed my activity and said to her friend nonchalantly, “pretty sky.”

What happened next makes me laugh and squirm – the disjoint between intent of delivery versus what is actually perceived.

“Well,” said the other woman in the pack, standing up straight and looking in my direction, cocking her head to the side with an air of self-importance: “I just got back from Brazil. I saw the sun set every night there.”

Now let me comment on the funny connection I made.

Right before I sprinted downstairs to get my camera, the book I had in my hands was the updated version of Groundswell written by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li of Forrester Research. If you haven’t read it – it takes a look at how and why marketers are increasingly focusing their time and budgets on social media technologies. And what is so ironic is that the section I had just finished talked about how a company’s brand is what its consumers say it is, or quite simply, how it is perceived.

The example given was of a cancer research center called M.D. Anderson that “prides itself on its reputation. If a cancer can can be treated, M.D. Anderson can treat it.” Enter next a real-life customer, Lynn Perry, who needs the treatment but has a bad experience with the facility. Each time he goes in, he has to wait for hours. While the center thinks that it is best in class, the reality is Perry just thinks of the M.D. Anderson brand as making him wait (the center’s marketing team later worked to change this perception).

Or think about Alaska Airlines, who in the late nineties advertised themselves as the “last great airline” – a perception perhaps not exactly shared by travelers.

“What do your customers think your brand is about?”

Tying this question back to the rooftop Brazil-goer, I am intrigued. This woman made this comment with me standing directly next to her, tossing around her recent experience with myriad perfect sunsets – such that she didn’t need to stay to enjoy the one on our rooftop. Who was she impressing?

Yet while M.D. Anderson thought its brand maintained a pristine reputation ringing in 4 stars – Perry’s actual perception was of a painful experience. And while the rooftop debutant may have thought she sounded elite, to a listening ear she just sounded pretentious.

If she were a brand, with no real information regarding how she was externally viewed, she would probably be surprised to hear the reality.

Now, thinking about this in the context of the federal government, do you think agencies are on the same page with their customers? If not, do you think agencies are working to change how customers perceive them? Have any successfully done this? Bringing social media into this – how about how many agencies are using blogs or twitter to engage? Thoughts?

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Amanda Blount

Nice discussion “tie-in” with a real experience. And, a very nice photo! First, I think the sad part of this story is the woman thought she had already experienced the best, so why should she enjoy something “not worthy” of her attention?

That brings me to your discussion. Many times companies, and people, get “too big for their breeches” as my grandmother used to say. Their brand is no longer for the people, but for themselves. The woman in the story reminds me of another story told to mnay sales people along the way. (don’t know if this is a real story or not – but was used many times as an example) A cell phone company had a few sales people on the floor waiting on customers. One guy comes in looking around. He is dirty, jeans are torn, and t-shirt is dirty and greasy. Rough looking guy. One sales lady was told to wait on him. She said it would be a waste of her time. She would wait on the next customer. Another salesperson didn’t even want to approach the guy. Finally one saleslady gets frustrated by how rude they were being to the fellow. So, she puts on her best smile, reaches her hand out, and greets him. She asks him if she could help him. She is bombarded with what he wants. He starts off saying something along the lines of, “Sorry I am so dirty. Just finished a big job, truck broke down, I needed to help the crew, and we just won another job. So, I need help and I need help now. The new job is spread out over a few locations, and to tackle the new job, we need phones, push to talk, internet capability, etc. etc. He told her he had an entire crew waiting for her to “hook them up” with everything they needed, and it better be quick.

Come to find out, he was the owner of one of the largest Construction crews in the area. That day he purchased more in dollar value then anyone had ever sold out of the store front.

What brand were the first salespeople promoting? “We only treat well dressed people nicely” Basically, they became “too big for their breeches.”

There are many times I want to put that saying in a Power Point; You, and your business will fail when “you get too big for your breeches.”

Going back to your main topic. I think everyone finds themselves at that “uppity” point sometime in their life. That becomes their brand. “I am too good for the likes of you.” Businesses do this too. But, just like with people, a business can come back from this “uppity” level, when they take a look from the outside. Us humans forgive pretty quickly. When a business does find they failed at “business for people”, they can reinvent themselves. They can apologize (and mean it), and start over.

MD Anderson forgot what made them great. They forgot the patients were what made them special. They could have the greatest care in the world, but if someone can’t get to it because they must wait so long for the care. Guess what? There is no care to speak of. The patient only has the memory of too much time wasted. What do those 4 stars really mean to a dying patient who counts every minute to be their last? Those 4 stars mean nothing. Quick and professional care is what the patients were looking for.

Another thought on a real life experience. I heard two men yelling at a construction site.
One looked to be the boss and he was yelling at a foremen. Boss to foreman: “I don’t give a D*** if he is the best welder in the state. If he doesn’t come to work, he is no good to me. Find me the second best one in the state. If he doesn’t come to work, find me the 3rd best one. I don’t care who you find me. If your sister will come to work, and you can teach her to weld, then hire her!”

When I heard this conversation, I was fairly young. But, it stuck with me then, and now. Who cares who you are or what you say can do. You are no good to anyone if you can’t deliver right now. Just because you are the best. Don’t get too cocky. Someone is ready to take your place, even if they are second best. Companies and Customer Service people really need to learn this story.

Lauren Modeen


Thank you for the excellent thoughts and examples. You shed great light on the importance of never losing sight of what is really important and what will result in the best outcome in the end.

John Peppard

Great story and oh so true. Sometimes I feel that I’m surrounded by people that “Big Time” other folks based on the me’ism of human nature. Appearance sometimes rules the day. My feeling is that people forget what they think they hear,;forget what you say, but NEVER forget how you made them feel.

R. Anne Hull

In the 1980’s Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke wrote a classic customer service scenario of the “touch points” that customers (users) experience that builds their impression of the whole organization.Now we call it “branding.” We form our impressions by individual interactions with a person (who represents their organization) and tend to hold on to them. Each of us have had great experiences, but we tend to remember and tell others about the bad ones. The book is “Service America” with lots of examples relevant to public service.

Don Carr

Seems to me the important point is NOT that the organization jumps onto the Social Media bandwagon. Aanybody can do that. The real point is in using it to actually ENGAGE. Anyone who friends the organization, signs up as a fan, or follows the outfit on Twitter becomes a customer for THAT reason, in addition to whatever other relationship they may have with the organization. When they post comments and questions, they expect a response in kind. THAT represents an added workload most organizations fail to take into account as they engage. So the worst thing about government agencies engaging Social Media is NOT that they don’t do it, but that they don’t know how to resource themselves to do it, and they fail to actually interact with their Social Network customers.