Trend Lines: But I didn’t really mean it that way

July 8, 2014 

Recently, a friend and I had a very early flight out of Atlanta so we decided to stay the night before at a hotel close to the airport. We chose a major chain hotel that you all know. When we arrived, there was a big sign at the front desk. “XXXX Inn Welcomes (my friend’s name) as our VIP Guest of the Day.” Great! Since we are both loyalty program members of this hotel, we were excited. We were thinking this is something special. We were thinking a free night’s stay? An upgrade to a suite? A certificate for dinner?

Turns out her reward for being VIP Guest of the Day was a paper bag with a bottle of warm water, a diet Fresca, a tiny bag of barbecue potato chips and an even smaller bag of gummy bears! It’s a month later and we’re still laughing about her great honor.

This experience got me to thinking about the idea of “impact” versus “intent” as it plays out in the business world. All too often, what we intend with our actions does not get the impact we expect. In this case, I’m sure the hotel intended for the VIP status to be perceived as something special, an honor for a guest in their loyalty program. However, the impact of their actions was just the opposite. The honor turned out to be a big and ongoing joke that diminished the perception of the hotel.

I’ve looked for this in the last few weeks. Take the recent signs at a well-known dollar discount store advertising 12-packs of soda “3 for $9” -- the sale is a good intention. What the sign doesn’t say is that you can’t mix Coke and Pepsi products so when you go to check out and the drinks don’t ring up on sale, the impact is a dissatisfied customer and a frustrated sales clerk muttering something about how this happens all the time.

I also got a coupon in the mail from a major department store, but when you read the fine print, all the good will goes out the window with the restrictions and limitations and hoops you have to jump through to redeem the coupon. Again, a dissatisfied customer is not the desired impact. And I’ve written before in this space about how the well-intended policies managers set often have a negative impact on both customers and employees.

So what can you do to assure your customers and employees are impacted in the way you intend? First consider perception, which is a psychological process -- a very private arena. Your intent is rooted in your own mind. That intent becomes public only through your actions, what you do and say. Those actions then are interpreted through the perceptive process of someone else -- again, a very personal and private process. Don’t assume the impact is what you intended. Check it out by asking for feedback.

Second, enlist the aid of others to get different views. Before you implement a promotion or a policy, play out all possible scenarios. How might your actions be received? How might the wording be interpreted? What are you missing? Are there negative possibilities that you don’t see? And finally, remember the gummy bears. If you can’t do it well with something that will truly be perceived as valuable by your customer or your employee, don’t do it at all.

It’s better to do nothing than to do something that will be perceived as a lasting joke.

Jan Flynn teaches at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.

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