“Perception is all there is. If the customer thinks that he’s right, then he is right” said Tom Peters (remember him?) many years ago. Of course what Peters was seeking to draw out was that although reality – the facts – might suggest that the customer is not always right when he or she thinks they are, in practice we all make decisions based on our perception of situations – our view of them – in which our emotions, rather than solely our heads, play a very significant role. This is of course true of all the stakeholders of any organisation. Although we may identify and describe some of these stakeholders as entities – corporate customers, regulators, institutional shareholders and so on, in reality an entity consists of people, and it is those people who have perceptions and make decisions, some critical to us, based on these.
So the perceptions of our stakeholders are absolutely critical to our organisations. Negative perceptions – whether in our view accurate or inaccurate – can have a substantial, prolonged and devastating effect on our business if not understood and addressed. Likewise positive perceptions, if sustained, can have a really good effect over time – on our brand, reputation, ability to retain customers and so on. Not surprisingly, the latest 2020 version of the EFQM Excellence Model with which some readers of this post may be familiar, retains from earlier versions a key focus on stakeholder perceptions in the Results section of the Model.
But…. and there is a very big BUT…..one of the most difficult tasks is obtaining reliable insights into stakeholder perceptions. Many organisations carry out, or have carried out for them, perception surveys of some of their stakeholder groups, particularly customers and employees, and attach a lot of importance to using these to identity improvements and track progress over time. But in my experience I have never ceased being amazed at the naive idealism that characterises many of the users of these surveys. In far too large a proportion of them I’ve observed that the focus is almost entirely upon the results of these surveys and how they can be used, and hardly any focus on the methodology used to obtain them, and the confidence that can be placed in them. Keeping in mind that surveys of stakeholders – whether they be investors, regulators, customers, employees, suppliers, communities etc – will always be of people – and hopefully having some level of self-awareness ourselves, then we can immediately start to identify some of the things which may affect those people when they engage in surveys – or indeed in any form of perception based feedback. The list is almost inexhaustible. Examples include when they are asked, how much time they have available to respond, how they are personally feeling at the time they are asked, whether they attach any value to the process in which they are asked to engage, whether or not they have confidence that the organisation asking them for feedback will actually use it, what messages they really want to send, the nature of the relationship they have with the organisation and how they might want it to play out in the future. And so on and so on…. And that is just related to situations where those being asked for their perceptions are the right people to ask, e.g. in a corporate customer organisation, etc.
So if perception data is to be useful and actionable, then it is important that we can put a high level of confidence in the accuracy of it, that is that it represents the true perceptions of those we ask or from whom we receive unsolicited feedback. In terms of surveys, possibly the ones in which the highest level of confidence can be placed are those for employees conducted independently and largely anonymously for large organisations on a regular basis, where the questions asked represent not just what is important to the employer but also to the employees, where people are allowed time and space to engage in the survey, and where it is clear to them that the employer takes the feedback seriously and acts upon it. At the other end of the scale, in my experience, are supplier surveys where the respondents often feel that potentially they have a lot to lose by providing negative feedback, and from institutional investors who often only care about providing feedback where they consider the form of it that they chose to use may result in influencing a development or change that they want, irrespective of the effect upon others.
So in conclusion my plea to any engaged in designing or operating processes aimed at gaining feedback from stakeholders in a systematic way, is that they spend considerable time in considering the methodology to be used, understanding the risks and shortcomings attached to any process used, and that they also ensure that those risks and shortcomings are taken into account when perception results are received, analysed and acted upon.