Perception is Reality

Carolyn B. Nankervis |

APPLETON, WIS. — Lately, I’ve heard the phrase “perception is reality” used in several different, unrelated conversations. Since she was the first person who I heard mention it, I called Diana Van Brunt of Westbank Cleaners, Austin, Texas, to ask her what she meant.

In essence, it’s how the customer interprets someone’s actions or words, she says. “If you ask someone to wash the dishes, they may choose to run the dishwasher, or wash them in the sink, or use disposable plates. It’s the perception of washing dishes.”

I’ve reviewed tens of thousands of mystery shop reports and have seen how a single experience can alter a customer’s perception.


Reality: The computers at the front counter aren’t working.

Mystery Shop Report: The customer service representative (CSR) greets the customer with a smile. He tells the customer that the computers are being worked on and that he is taking extra special care to be sure that her silk blouse will be taken care of, the gravy stain will be removed, and it will be ready on Wednesday. He gives her the handwritten receipt, noting the stain and the day the blouse will be ready.

Customer Perception: The customer thinks the CSR did a fine job and had a positive attitude.


Reality: The computers at the front counter aren’t working.

Mystery Shop Report: The CSR sighs deeply and averts her eyes as the customer approaches. She then explains that without her computer running, it’s not going to be easy for her to check in the silk blouse. If the customer must drop it off, she will hand-write a receipt, but handwritten receipts are just that. “Well, I will do the best I can,” the CSR says. “By the way, are there any stains?”

Customer Perception: The customer is concerned that her $300 silk blouse will be cleaned correctly. In fact, she is worried that she may never see it again. She thinks, does the CSR really know what she is doing?

Take a minute to ponder a customer’s perceptions and what it means to business.

Here are some additional responses I have seen. The CSR:

  • Explains why the customer won’t be getting a ticket, and that a handwritten ticket is almost as good as a computer-generated one.
  • Offers a detailed explanation of the age and usefulness of the store’s computers, including who is responsible for the shutdown.
  • Does not take the garment and sends the customer to a competitor.
  • Does not take the garment and sends the customer to another location.
  • Tells the customer that it’s her choice to leave the garment or not.
  • Tells the customer to come back tomorrow, when she hopes the computers will be working again.

I have two reactions when I see these reports. The marketing side of me wants to cry. The customer service side of me wants to scream.

Marketing knows that spending money on advertising to be sure a customer has a positive opinion can be dashed in a single encounter. Customer service knows that creating a positive and consistent experience for a customer is not easy when the staff is inexperienced or untrained. It’s no wonder that “perception is reality” is so widely used.

In business, the simplest solutions are usually the hardest to implement. Ideally, front-line staff should be hired because they like people. The expert presser probably isn’t going to be a sharp customer service representative. Don’t hire or promote people who don’t want to be around other people. Good problem-solving and interpersonal relationship skills are critical.

Training to a consistent company standard helps immensely. Role playing is probably the most effective way to practice handling customers and achieve some consistency when dealing with situations or events. It’s rarely used because it’s difficult to administer and employees hate it. Reviewing a mystery shopper’s report, then discussing it can be almost as effective. The added bonus is that no customer was harmed during the event.

Understanding that customers are going to interpret words and actions differently can be extremely enlightening. Thus “perception is reality” is a type of shorthand for good customer service. What to do? Simply put, spend money to pay and train staff, use senior employees to help the newer ones, perform mystery shopping to keep the pulse of customer perceptions, and above all, solve the customer’s problems.

About the author

Carolyn B. Nankervis

MarketWise Consulting Group


Carolyn B. Nankervis is president of MarketWise Consulting Group, Appleton, Wis. Her firm specializes in small-business market research and highly detailed mystery-shopping programs. She can be reached at, 920-735-4970.


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