DEANS OF BUSINESS

Use a customer perception audit to watch the signals your business gives out

Posted May 25, 2012, at 2:55 p.m.

When a business needs help with accounting, a certified public accountant often is retained for their expertise. When things do not add up — cash flow isn’t what it is supposed to be, inventories are too low or too high — we see the signals right away. Unfortunately, business owners and managers often do not perceive the signals their businesses send out to consumers.

Consumers also see “signals.” Most are visual (more than 90 percent), others are vocal or come from the sense of smell. These upfront signals create perceptions and expectations that strongly influence what a consumer believes about your business and you personally. If the signals are favorable, you’re likely to win at business; if not, the game may be lost. Even worse, those who have unfavorable impressions not only do not come back, but are likely to tell five to 10 or more people about their experience.

To avoid this situation and to improve your odds of winning, it is advisable to conduct or have conducted for you a “customer perception audit” (the other type of CPA). This “audit” is designed to spot those negative signals that directly set consumers’ attitudes toward your business. These signals create perceptions that are difficult to change and to overcome.

Many businesses do not realize there are signals that can be sent before a consumer even enters your business or encounters your service. For example, what happens when a consumer calls your business? How long does it take to answer the call? Is it a professional, welcoming response? What does your business look like on the Web? Is your website attractive, informative and easy to navigate? Is there a customer contact link, or phone number listed? What does your signage and the front of your building and-or door look like? What signal does this sight send: clean and appealing or dirty and unattractive? Speaking of doors, are they freshly painted and-or is the glass clean? Clean reflects fresh and new. Consumers like that signal.

Once they are in the door, what do they see? Is the floor clean and-or carpet clean? If there is a plant, is it healthy or attractive or sending off the signal of death? Are your business, merchandise, and customer service personnel sending positive signals and impressions? Unless you’re in the antique business, consumers prefer new, clean and uncluttered. All of these signals create an atmosphere of acceptance, which, combined with great customer service, will help you command premium prices and repeat business.

Another set of signals focus on lighting and color. Is the lighting adequate and appropriate for your type of business? There is no bigger turnoff to a food service customer than a light or ceiling fixture displaying dead flies or bugs. Likewise, if you’re dealing with senior citizens, your lighting must be bright and all printed materials have type a little larger on a good contrasting background. If you’re selling upscale or expensive premium products, is there an upscale color deployed? Black, gold and silver are perceived as giving the upscale signal; orange, yellow, and red the “price/promotion” signal; and green and blue for environmental products and services. Are your colors appropriate to your product, pricing and marketing objectives?

What signals do you give out that tell customers you want them to come back? In our highly competitive marketplace, more than the sincere “thank you” is required. Do you have “bring them back” signals such as a percent-off or money-off your next purchase thank you promotion card? Customers want welcome-back incentives and consider these your signal of valuing their business.

One of the most difficult signals to deal with is the appropriateness of an employee’s attitude and demeanor with consumers. This can be especially challenging in a family business if it is a family member that is sending off the wrong signals. Kiss-of-death signals are things such as paying more attention to someone on the phone than to the customer in front of you, or employee-on-employee disagreements or confrontations. Place yourself in the customer’s shoes and you will quickly discover unacceptable signals.Yes, sometimes the only solution is to change personnel to send the right signal and satisfy and retain the customer.

If you do not wish to hire an objective third party to conduct a detailed customer perception audit, take the time to develop your own checklist. Walk through all the points of encounter as if you were the customer. Ask yourself, how did your business do? What needs to be fixed, improved or immediately changed? A customer perception audit is likely to improve your customer retention and overall business performance.

Ronald A. Nykiel, dean of the College of Business at Husson University, is a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors, has authored a number of books on management and marketing, counseled the President’s Commission on Executive Interchange and chaired a governor’s revenue forecasting commission.

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