Why Perception Management is such a challenge

Expectation management is an important part of running a successful business. Nothing new in that.

Understanding what your customers not only want from you but their also understanding their expectations of buying from you can make the difference between a disappointed buyer and one who is so enthralled with the service they tell their friends, family + anyone who’ll listen about the experience. 

Managing Expectation is relatively easy, however – be objective, be clear about what it is the buyer is going to receive via the old classics of who, when, where, how and why. Set out a plan using whatever model you feel is best, eg SMART(ER) goals. Set these out in an easily digestible, succinct manner and everyone will be on the same page. 

Avoid ambiguity. Deliver as promised and all will be well.

In theory.

Alongside that, however, is Expectations’ lesser-known twin, Perception.

Managing Perception is a whole other challenge.

Perception is a much more sensitive + subjective beast as both the seller AND buyer will have their own perceptions on what was agreed will happen by who, when where, how and arguably most importantly, why. Even if these have been detailed in writing previously, sometimes things go awry…

Each of our perceptions of what was agreed upon, the “customer journey” and deliverables will be built upon the history and experiences we’ve had over the years. Our perception and perspective of the world and other people.

For a timely example – over the past year or so, I’ve now accumulated more sedentary desk-based lard than I’m comfortable with. I haven’t been into fitness for far longer than I’d like to admit (I use an excuse that after giving up smoking about 3 years ago, I developed asthma and now find it very hard to do anything remotely like the levels of cardio I used to do, like mountain biking (1))

Also about 3 years ago, I started a very good program of weightlifting alongside a sustainable method of dieting via tracking macros. I found a coach who had used another guy’s easily re-creatable mathematical formula for building numbers for tracking protein, carbs and fat intake for most lifestyles, genders and objectives (2).

Then I went on holiday and fell off the program. Then I started my own business and for various daft “reasons”, avoided getting back into it.

My experience and perception of the weights sessions was that it’s going to take around an hour to complete – one session 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Three hours a week. For some reason, having a super active mind and running a business means that taking an hour out of the working day is too much to bear as there are a hundred things I “need” to attend to instead. As well as eating biscuits.

So despite some awareness of slowly oozing into my chair as middle age approaches, I just never quite got back into it. I have a 100kg Olympic barbell bench kit and “selectadisc” dumbells sitting right behind my home office PC. Literally no excuse to not pick the things up. But I just didn’t. I have things to do (like write), I told myself (obviously I didn’t do much of that either).

After months of looking at myself get less like my younger beanpole slim self, this weekend I finally decided enough is enough and I have to make some changes.

Monday morning, I dusted off the old 12-week tracker spreadsheet, updated it with weekly dates starting from today, emptied all the old info, made space in my room and started #jfdi

Out of curiosity, I timed it from start to finish. I have never done this before in my life.

26 minutes.


But I’ve thought I had to spend an hour in the gym…

Well, guess what, kiddo, you imagined that and have spent longer writing this article than doing the exercise.

So, my expectation is that this will hurt a bit but if I stick to the program I’ll lose weight and tone up without having to make so much effort that I find it overwhelming. I can expect that I will have to give up an hour a day, 3 days a week to do this.

My perception is (was) “Gah, that’s SO much time I could be writing posts on LI or finding new clients etc). I don’t have time for that. Seriously, how do people have time for having a family let alone fitness??”

You, dear reader – have you ever had a moment in working with a client where you believe you’ve done everything right?

  • You’ve had the conversations about their needs and how your service can help them
  • You’ve agreed on a solution, they have the purchasing authority and budget
  • You’ve sent the proposal out detailing what your current understanding of the brief is, what they can expect to receive. It’s been signed/agreed on
  • You have the green light to start and you start delivering.

Yet at some point, someone says, “I thought we were getting something different to this?” or “This seems to be taking longer than expected”

For some reason, their perception of what was agreed is still different from what you perceived to be clearly laid out expectations in the correspondence.

Now the customer feels a jarring disparity between what they thought they had read and what is being delivered. Not good. It’s like the train has stopped in the tracks nowhere near a station for a bit too long and slowly everyone starts looking around for a reason that makes sense to them. A cow on the tracks makes sense. That time trains were delayed due to leaves on the track in autumn didn’t make sense and people got angry.



How to handle a mismatch in perception?

The first thing to do is the most important:

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Allow the fight or flight “chimp” to calm down so your logical brain can take back control of your mouth (or fingers tapping away furiously).

Secondly, ask more questions to drill into the more specific meaning behind the perception at issue. There’s no point trying to defend yourself or explain what was previously agreed until you really understand what the customer perceived they were getting from you. Otherwise, you’re just going to carry on trying to fix a problem that isn’t clear which doesn’t help anyone.

For example, a fairly disarming way to start the conversation is to say “I’m sorry you feel that way. Can we arrange a time to discuss what it is you feel isn’t going to plan so we can re-address this asap?”

Then ask deeper dive questions, mirroring their language if possible.

“Clearly, Dear Customer, there’s been some misunderstanding and I’d like to resolve this as soon as possible so we can adjust the deliverables to fit to your own expectations. Firstly, can I ask what it is that you were expecting that you feel you aren’t receiving from me/us/the team?”

“Your own expectations” here are not always the same as your expectations. The truth isn’t always as solid as we’d like to think. Repeatable, empirical studies help to create facts and can be referred to. The ‘Truth’ however tends to be shaped by whoever is writing history, no? This is why I recently commented on a friend’s post to say that facts don’t shape reality, perceptions do.

Whatever their answer, use their words to curate further questions to understand their perception more. This, in turn, will help you build a clearer understanding of what they actually want and will help you to decide how to progress. Or indeed whether it’s best for all concerned to try to agree to cancel the contract.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Clean Language (3) will help immensely in learning how to ask even more questions which have now come to light with your customer about what their perceptions actually are. Bear in mind as well that these perceptions may have changed since you started delivering your service as well – this is no-one’s fault, life has a habit of throwing curveballs at us all.

If you want to know more from me about this, please feel free to send me a personalised invitation to connect as it may be easier to demonstrate this in action by asking you lots of questions 🙂

(1) Lesser know fact about my life, I’ve biked The Lake District in the UK, parts of southwestern China where’s almost as mountainous as the other place I loved biking, Colorado Springs area. All absolutely breathtakingly beautiful once you get away from the crowds. The best beer is in the Lakes, however**

(2) Look up the 3DMJ Nutrition Pyramid on YouTube if curious – you’re looking for a quietly spoken guy in front of a whiteboard. The first 3 videos help mostly, IIRC.

(3) Clean Language is a thing: Look up the work of David Grove who wrote about this in the 80s originally. It’s not entirely dissimilar to NLP, and Sandler Sales training also uses this style of questions in its conversational techniques (which I also coach people to think about too) eg here

** Disclosure: I’m from Cumbria; I was hiking The Lakes not long after I started walking as a kid. I may be slightly biased. Depends how you perceive it 😉


(Images courtesy of Pixabay for CC0 Creative Commons use)

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