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Political strategist Lee Atwater said perception is reality when talking about the importance of public relations to campaigning. He was a consultant for the U.S. Republican Party and best known for his work on George H.W. Bush's campaign in the late 80s.

The phrase is just as pertinent to business, as perception dictates how a customer will identify with a company's offering, the quality of its product, and ultimately whether or not they want to engage with them.

Unfortunately most companies do an inadequate job of managing their perception (or reputation) and instead focus their energies on handling threats that have already surfaced.

People see things very differently remember the 'Laurel vs Yani' audio clip or the 'gold or blue' dress test? So do business owners some think they're doing really well with their reputation when in fact they aren't doing well at all and vice versa.

We call this the perception-reality gap, the space between what is perceived and what is real, and if not managed properly can cost money or ruin reputations.

Managing perception

This is why it's important to proactively manage how people see your business and why you need to close the perception-reality gap.

Strong positive reputations attract better people, customers are more loyal and they buy broader ranges of products and services.

Companies with a great reputations are also perceived as providing more value, which often allows them to charge a premium, and in the case of raising capital or a public listing have higher price-earnings multiples and market values and lower costs of capital.

And if you're still not convinced then everything is only a Google search away.

So what influences a customer's perception of your business?

There are three main prompts:

  • Advertising or marketing Influencers Personal experience.
  • Advertising or marketing are the campaigns your company runs and offer implied perceptions about your products.
  • What you say about your brand/company and the messages you deliver help others form opinions.

The impact of influencers

Influencers are the people that surround an individual and have a massive impact on their decisions. Whether in person or via social media, human nature is such that individuals listen to the opinions and thoughts of those around them

If you experience firsthand the quality of a product or service or the responsiveness and usefulness of a customer service channel, it will positively or negatively impact your perception. This is personal experience.

Perception is distinct from the actual character or behaviour of a company and may be better or worse, but how can we manage our perception?

Firstly audit all your communication channels, inbound and out, internal and external. You may be surprised to find the message the person answering your phones gives doesn't align with the type of business you want portrayed. Ultimately you need to establish a best practice that goes right throughout your business.

Secondly take a reality check. Talk to your customers and suppliers to see what they think and how they perceive you. Also talk to your staff as they're your frontline advocates. Is there a gap in what you think people see and what they're saying?

Lastly you need to devise a strategy. Decide on what communication channels to use and stay on top of them. Find your point of difference and tell your clients this story and don't be afraid to be different.

The key actions are to make sure you understand your audience, when you need to communicate with them and how, and then be consistent.

The dead giveaways of a company that's not on top of its perception management are blogs on a website that are years old and the latest social media posts that date back to previous months.

How your business is perceived, both internally and externally, starts with you.

As the well-known U.S. president Abraham Lincoln said, character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.

Image: The chimera of human perception of reality - John Quintero Villar