By David Kossoff, Kepner-Tregoe

As the saying goes, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” … but that is precisely what we do as consumers every day.  Whether it is judging the quality of a product from its packaging, the quality of a service from the image of the shop from the street, or the quality of an experience from the accent of the person answering a phone, we establish expectations and make quality judgements long before we really know what the company has to offer. As business leaders we can either fight this natural inclination because ‘that’s not right!’ or we can learn from it and recognize that in modern business, perceptions are often more powerful and important than actual performance.

Product quality isn’t just what’s in the box

Most customers will make the decision on whether to buy your product before they ever see what is in the box.  The perception of quality starts before the customer makes a purchase in the form of promotion, packaging, presentation, price and reputation (the P’s of marketing along with a few other things).  Its not any individual factor, but the combined perception of all of them together which establishes a baseline expectation on the quality of your company’s product.  Customers are also influenced by previous experiences with yours (and other’s) products and the reputation of your company’s brand overall.  

Quality services have more to do with environment than capability

Service quality is a bit different from physical products and often stylistic preferences and personal biases play a large role in establishing perception.  Most of the quality factors for products also apply to services: promotion, presentation, price, reputation and past experiences.  Additionally, customers will often place a large value on the environment in which the service takes place (is it clean, well lit, fresh smelling, etc.) and the expected duration of the service engagement (am I going to experience this for a few min or a few weeks?).  Ironically, these factors often have little to do with the skill, experience or competency of the person providing the service and therefore aren’t good indicators of service quality, however they often have a big impact on the purchasing decision that is being made.

Quality experiences lead to repeat business

While customers make an initial quality assessment when they are making the decision to do business with your business (or not), what is more important is the lasting impression that your company leaves as a result of the holistic experience of doing business with the customer.  The one caveat to this is that not all elements of the experience will be remembered equally.  Customers are likely to remember extremes, both good and bad – forgetting the majority of the experience elements that simply “meet expectations”. From the perspective of a business trying to retain customers, this is an important point – you should focus your energy on avoiding negative situations and emphasizing a couple of really positive points.  For all the ‘stuff’ in the middle, good-enough is… good enough.

Avoiding dissidence

Along the same lines as managing experience extremes, customers are expecting a consistent level of quality when engaging with your company and take notice quickly when they encounter something inconsistent with their expectations.  For example, the quality of a product should be consistent with the brand perception and the quality of the presentation and packaging.  Customers who open a high-quality box to find a low-quality product are likely to feel disappointed. Conversely, a high-quality product in a low-quality package is likely to cause confusion.  Likewise, service customers don’t expect the best quality technicians to work in a messy shop environment or a high-quality shop environment to provide low-quality service.  The lesson here is to avoid creating dissidence between perceived quality and the quality provided so your customers have the right expectations and receive what they expect.

The issue of perceived quality vs. performance is becoming increasingly important in modern business environments where customers have greater access to information and opinions not just from the company but from other customers.  As business leaders, we need to learn from our customers behavior and realize that people do judge a book by its cover and use this lesson to make the holistic experience engaging with our company consistent and congruent with how we want to be perceived.