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Small Business Digest


Turning Reality Into Perception: The True Path To Growth

Every time people open their wallets or pull out a credit card, they have made a purchase decision.

By carefully weighing a number of decision-making criteria, they have determined which brand, which size, which color to buy.

Whether they are buying detergent or deodorant, a computer or a car, their ultimate decision to buy is framed by what they believe that product or service will do for them.

Sometimes that decision is based on their experience, but often times it is based on their perceptions of that brand and how that brand performs relative to its competition. 

Usually with most purchase decisions, the number of reasons or factors people consider before purchasing increases with the cost of that purchase.  However, through his work, Frank Ruppen, founder and president of Forward Associates, has come to believe that no matter how big or small the purchase, no matter many reasons there might be for or against the purchase, if people think hard enough about the decision, there is always one reason that represents the single most important determinant of the purchase behavior.

In his practice, they call this the Controlling Misperception SM. It is controlling because it fundamentally determines whether someone purchases it or not. It is a misperception because the belief about that brand, which if left unaddressed, becomes how the person perceives that brand. That perception may not reflect the reality of what benefits brand can actually deliver for the person.

As small business owners, identifying that single most important decision-making factor is critical to bringing about a desired behavioral change by customers. When companies isolate that factor, they can focus their sales, product development and other organizational efforts on addressing it.

When they think about it, when customers or potential customers choose not to purchase the product or service, there is a fundamental misperception about what the company sells that prevents them from buying more or at all. If companies can single-mindedly address that issue, they can begin to address their misperception. 

By convincing them as to what the brand can do better to address their needs; the company has turned the reality of the brand into the customer's perception. Now this is not to say that the other reasons why they don't buy are unimportant or that companies can ignore them. But, if the company doesn't overcome the misperception that fundamentally is preventing the customer's purchase, addressing all the lesser issues will not change their behavior.

This assumes of course that the customer is operating under false perceptions.  Oddly enough, many times the controlling misperception exists internally. The organization may have erroneous beliefs about what customers believe about the product, company or category.

The company may not understand what is truly important to them and significantly impacts their decision-making. When this occurs, the company is focusing efforts on the wrong issues and needs. This results in sub-optimal efforts to motivate the customers to behave they way the company wants them to - buying or buying more often. 

For example, a large discount retailer was considering entering into the grocery business. There was an internal belief that people did not want to buy food in the same place they were buying motor oil. Ultimately, they realized that their message of name brands at low prices resonated regardless of what was being sold. They are now hugely successful in the grocery retail business.

In another example, an organization called was trying to learn why Americans were not consuming their daily requirements of fruits and vegetables.  This organization was comprised of state and federal health departments; food retailers and manufacturers charged with helping Americans eat healthier through increased consumption of fruits and vegetables whether fresh, frozen, refrigerated, canned or liquid.

Each group hypothesized as to why past efforts were unsuccessful. Some cited the need for more education on number of servings and serving size, others cited cost and availability, while others wanted to inspire people with ways to prepare and enjoy more varieties.

But what it all came down to was that most consumers, despite the obesity problem in this country, actually believed that over time, their eating habits were fine, that they were in fact getting enough fruits and vegetables, they might just be eating too much of the "bad stuff".

Based on this new  "controlling" insight, this group has come together with a united message built around the idea that "More Matters"; that fruits and vegetables are the only food group that the more you eat, the more benefits you will incur.  They are in the process of rolling this program out nationally.

So now the big question is, how do companies unearth this controlling misperception?

· The first thing to do is start internally. Ask key people in the organization to list all tangible and intangible aspects of your product or service. Be sure to consider not just the product itself, but also distribution channels, pricing, performance, support levels, cost to produce, reputation, customer support, years in service, reliability, etc.
· Now rate the company in the absolute. Use a 5-point scale with 5 being the highest. In the following columns, compare the company to key competitors identifying where the company is stronger, equal to or weaker.
· Finally, and perhaps most importantly, add a column for what the company believes is important to the customer. Review the top needs and try to determine what is most important to them. Look to see how well the company is meeting their needs and whether competitors are doing a better job.

Now, this exercise assumes that the company accurately knows what is most important to the customers. And if the company is correct, they can see where they are falling short and fix those deficiencies. Or, if the company is superior to the competition, they can take steps to ensure messaging and sales efforts focus on pointing on how they are better and meaningfully different.

The Controlling Misperception in this case would be that the customers simply don't know about the key performance superiority.

But the success of those efforts is predicated on the company being correct.  In many cases, what the company believes may not be consistent with what the customers believe. The only way to determine this is to reach out to them and have a dialogue.

Ask them about the priority of decision-making criteria. When the company loses a bid, ask them why. Never accept the first answer. It is too easy for them to say, for example, we accepted the lowest bid. What they might really be saying is that there is not enough of a quality difference between the company and competitors to justify a price premium or items were included in the bid that they didn't want, need or were willing to pay for. Remember, this is probably more to learn from customers the company loses than ones that hire the company or buy products or services.

In todays faster than fast communications, perceptions are formed instantaneously. But by informing customers the truth about the company's brand and how it can better meet their most important needs; the business can turn their reality into their perception. And when that happens, behavior is changed and business grows.

Adapted from article by Frank Ruppen who is founder and president of Forward Associates, a business strategy and marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at

© 2016, Information Strategies, Inc.
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