Customer behavior is driven by more than logic. The perceptions customers have of your brand, its products or services, and its values can have a serious impact on how they interact with you and how they buy. In fact, fostering positive perceptions can help you build a “sustainable, loyal, and growing customer base,” according to Forbes.
In marketing, ‘customer perception’ refers to customers’ awareness, their impressions, and their opinions about your business, products, and brand. Customer perception is shaped by multiple variables, including direct and indirect interactions with your offerings.
Today, perception impacts buyer decision-making and is a “huge success factor in the retail industry,” Deloitte reports. Brands who monitor and understand customer perception and its contributing factors can better identify opportunities to improve customer experiences. In fact, Forrester defines customer experience (CX) as “your customer’s perceptions of their interactions with your brand”. By 2020, ‘customer experience’ will overtake ‘price’ and ‘product’ as the key brand differentiator, HubSpot reports.
What is the customer perception process?
Modern business leaders emphasize improving customer experiences, but “most companies have no idea if they are creating value for their customers,” Forrester finds. Another Forrester analyst observes that value for customers is actually “customers’ perception of what they get versus what they give up”.
CX professionals who want to see themselves this way—that is, ‘through the eyes of their customers’—must begin by understanding the three phases of the customer perception process. The three stages—sensing, organizing, and reacting—are simple in concept, but difficult to understand in terms of how they truly shape the behaviour of consumers and even business buyers:
Sensing: Characterized by the physical senses, customers use this stage to accumulate ‘knowledge’ about a product, service, or brand. This may apply to facts such as clothing sizes, but also product smells, taste, and touch.
Organizing: During this stage, customers make sense of the information they’ve attained, interpreting its value based on context, personal beliefs, perceptions of themselves, and other highly subjective factors. At this stage, customers will categorize the object of their critique and compare it to other objects within their chosen categories. For example, a consumer hoping to buy a winter coat may prioritize coats by price, but also color and thickness, during the organizing stage.
Reacting: Customers will act based on the sensing and organizing stages, but also internal and external stimuli ranging from personal history to online reviews. Although each reaction and its contributing factors are different, buyers tend to go through similar processes of evaluation before making their decision.
CX professionals who understand these three phases are better equipped to impact customer perceptions in a positive way. However, it’s impossible to capitalize on every contributing factor to shape customers’ behaviour. As Forrester observes:
“Customers make trade-offs between these value dimensions. They are willing to give up value in a less important dimension if they get high value in another, more important one. But customers have a threshold for how much they are willing to give up depending on their context.”
Value for Customers: The New Frontier for CX Professionals
Why is customer perception important?
Perception does more than impact each individual sale; it shapes the long-term relationships—good or bad—those customers establish with your brand. As a result, every touchpoint your company has with customers must affect their perception in a positive way.
Businesses that shape positive brand perceptions among customers are more likely to impact potential customers in indirect ways as well and establish themselves as remarkable compared to other brands in their space. As Forbes observes:
“We live in an era where the perception of a brand is no longer reliant on the quality of a product. Instead, a brand’s reputation is reliant on the perceived value to its customers and expands much further than whether or not the product works.”
How The Perception of a good Brand helps your company’s effectiveness?
To improve customer experience and differentiate your brand, you must have positive customer perceptions. Brands must therefore understand which elements have the broadest and most profound impact on customer perception. These elements can be both tangible and abstract, but each has the potential to be shaped deliberately by CX professionals.
Some tangible factors that influence customers’ perceptions include:
Price: Price should always be part of a comprehensive marketing plan. However, marketers must understand that context impacts customers’ perception of its value—lower is not always better, as often seen in luxury markets where it’s reflective of the product’s true worth.
Quality: Quality can apply to multiple attributes in a product—attributes whose importance will differ from customer to customer. Marketers should understand what feature most distinguishes their products or services, and which are most desirable in target markets.
Branding: Logos, artwork, and even packaging all deliver a message about your company and your brand. Marketers should ensure these elements meet and exceed customers’ expectations, helping your brand to stand above others.
Service: Service quality will make or break customer perception, where even companies with superior products miss out if their service is poor. Customers are more likely to write online reviews after highly positive or highly negative service experiences, which can improve or exacerbate brand awareness.
Some less-tangible factors that influence customers’ perceptions include:
Advertising: What you say about your company, the mediums you choose, and how you deliver your message can drive customers in both positive and negative directions.
Reputation: Brand reputations are built over time and can be quite durable. They are formed from customer experiences with products and services, but also secondary interactions from third-parties (e.g., media coverage). While marketers attempt to measure their reputations online, sudden events can impact reputation without warning.
Influencers: Influencers are people whom customers trust, and are among the biggest factors impacting customer perception aside from the customer’s own personal experience. Customers who have first-hand experience with your product, service, or brand are most likely to sway other potential customers during the organizing stage.
Brands have some ability to measure customer perception quantitatively, but this data is best understood and more profound when explained from the customers themselves. Having conversations with customers helps to illuminate customer perceptions by probing and clarifying to uncover the heart of the ‘why’ behind their perceptions.
Start Building your Understanding of Customer Perceptions
“48% of American consumers do not trust businesses—an increase in distrust since 2016. With so much distrust in businesses, marketers have a responsibility to positively influence consumer perceptions, especially if they have a strong value proposition that clearly improves the lives of their customers.”
Perception establishes the meaning about a product or brand when a consumer makes initial contact. In marketing, this is described as consumer information processing. At this stage all of the senses are engaged in receiving brand marketing communicate messages. In marketing literature, four distinct stages of perception occur during consumer information processing: sensation, attention, interpretation and retention.
The Sensation Stage
Sensation describes what occurs when a person's senses are initially exposed to the external stimulus of a product or brand marketing. The sensory receptors of a consumer are engaged by product or brand cues through sight, sound, smell, taste and texture. For example, Starbucks engages all the senses in its sensory brand marketing. A customer who enters a Starbucks coffee shop may hear the sounds and smell the aroma of the grinding of fresh coffee in the store.
Background music and a unique store design round out the experience of the taste of hot or cold coffee and food products that can be enjoyed in-store at quaint cafe tables.
The Attention Stage
In consumer information processing, attention occurs when a person lingers and gives mental processing capacity to the external stimulus from a product or brand. Selective perception is when a consumer pays attention to messages that are consistent with her attitudes, beliefs and needs. When a product is inconsistent with these factors, the consumer will withdraw attention.
The Interpretation Stage
Interpretation occurs when a person assigns a meaning to the sensory stimulus from a product or brand marketing. Comprehension is aided by expectations and familiarity. A consumer scans his memory to retrieve previous experiences with the brand or a similar brand. Store-brand marketing frequently capitalizes on the interpretation stage when product packaging design contains logos, colors and other elements that are similar to national brands that consumers are generally more familiar with.
The Retention Stage
The conclusion of the consumer perception process is the retention stage. This is marked by the storage of product or brand information in short-term and long-term memory. The marketer's goal is to provide positive stimuli in the proceeding stages that translate into consumers storing the information about the product or brand into long-term memory.
Tips to Enhance Consumer Recognition
As a small business owner, you can enhance the chance of being recognized by consumers during all phases of the perception process by:
Incorporating social media into your marketing mix. Social media can get people talking – and keep them talking – with sometimes lightning speed.
Being accessible as much as you can. There’s no doubt that social media has lulled consumers into thinking that businesses are available 24/7. If you’re not – and don’t care to be – make sure you communicate your availability so that consumers know when they can reach you.
Engaging with customers both online and offline about your product or service. While social media addresses a wider audience, personal engagement allows business owners to create one-on-one relationships.
Ensuring that your employees remain your company’s best brand ambassadors. With every phone call they answer, every email they write and every face-to-face sale they close, your employees are the public “face” of your company. Do periodic training or motivational sessions to ensure that everybody on your team stays “on message” so that customers see constancy and consistency – no matter which stage in the perception process they happen to be.
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