Perception is everything

November 8, 2012 by Erik Bernstein

I recently got into a discussion with a family member who’s worked in hospitals for some 20 years that made me realize the world outside of our circle of crisis managers still has little idea of the importance of controlling perception as a means of crisis management. In her workplace, every single employee, from paediatricians and surgeons to the guys that mop the floor, is being put through extensive customer service training. Literally thousands of workers are being forced into classes and taught to use language and respond in ways that sound more like what you would expect at a high end retail store than anything I’ve ever heard at the doctor’s office, and her question to me was, “why?” To her, and many others being pushed into the programme, it was a waste of time that was “better spent” caring for patients.

So, what exactly is the point? Well, here’s the thing – scare off too many people and you won’t have any patients there to care for.

First impressions are the strongest
Especially in an organisation like a hospital, you’re fighting an uphill battle from the start. No matter how excited Granny is to get her knee replacement and head back out on that dance floor, there’s still a level of dread that fill any person I know when they’ve got to go under the knife. Heck, most of us are a bit nervous even going in for a flu shot (even if they won’t admit it!). From the moment patients pull up in the car park or speak to the folks at the front desk, their impression of your organization is being formed. If their perception is that those people are a bunch of jerks then guess what? In their mind, everyone from there on is probably a jerk, and their thinking and reactions will reflect that to the point where their perceptions become much more difficult to manage.

Do they care?
Nobody wants to feel like they’re dealing with an organization that doesn’t care about them. I see this all the time in social media, where businesses in crisis will send the same mass canned message out in response to inquiries, drawing the ire of everyone that reads them in the process. Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you’re handling hundreds or thousands of other people at the same time. No, that doesn’t mean people will cut you any slack. When that doctor comes into the room, the last thing you want is an attitude gleaned from watching too many episodes of House. Even if they’re providing the best care on the planet, when the patient perceives them as callous and disinterested they’re going to go home and tell everyone what an awful doctor they had. Same for anyone else dealing with members of the public. Companies like Virgin Airlines have literally built themselves on the back of providing better service than the big boys, essentially stealing their customers simply by treating people the way that they would like to be treated. Oh yes, the Golden Rule has applications far outside the schoolyard.

Social, social, social
We are social creatures, and as such, we share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Years ago this meant you would go home and tell your friends and family about your terrible experience, maybe a few people at the workplace, and that was that. Now, social media has widened that circle immeasurably. Not only can people broadcast their negative feelings to thousands upon thousands of others, but they can easily find and connect with others who have had similar problems with your organization and combine their voices to amplify the message. Add to that the fact that all of us are carrying around a phone that also happens to act as a high quality recording device and camera and the risk of a brief negative interaction becoming the latest viral video is very real. It doesn’t take some Bond-esque moves to capture dirty laundry on tape and then air it, just a quick reach into the pocket and tape is rolling.

Before I invest in a company, choose a service or buy a product I search for impressions on the ‘net and across social media, and you can bet your potential customers or investors are doing the same. There are too many alternate choices out there for just about anything to risk alienating anyone. Especially in today’s economy, who can afford to lose business to the competition?

Bottom line, perception is reality. If a doctor’s caught on tape ONE TIME talking too loudly in the halls about how sick they are of these damn patients then guess what? Public perception is that EVERY doctor feels that way. It doesn’t matter if he just pulled a 16 hour shift, it doesn’t matter if he’s ordinarily the nicest person in the universe.

The perception created by a single slip affects the whole organization and, even it really is a singular occurrence, when I head to the ‘net to check you out and a negative YouTube video is the first thing I see, I’m taking my money elsewhere. Enough people do this, and you have a business no more.

Put your reputation first, it’s just good crisis management.

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