Tell Me What Really Happened

When you call an airline and try to rebook a flight, minutes can seem like hours. When you are calling in advance of a natural disaster while the Weather Channel is spinning apocalyptic predictions and the news ticker is scrolling by saying that the three major airports you can fly into are closing, those minutes can seem like days.

Those perceptions turn into realities that you tell your friends and family. Or maybe you tweet and Yelp! about your experience. You exaggerate the facts. You’re human. It happens.

This past weekend there were thousands of airline passengers who experienced this scenario with Hurricane Irene. And many recounted their perceived experience as fact to anyone who would listen.

Except one.

Jordy Leiser, the chief executive and co-founder of StellaService, a company that researches and ranks customer service, asked himself; “what is really happening?” and set about to find out. He devised a survey to evaluate performance that methodically queried the airlines over multiple media between 12 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday. The results were interesting, if not surprising.

The most significant thing I gleaned from the survey is that we are moving beyond perceptions, surveys and reviews from customers and into a realm of fact-based feedback. Twitterstorms and paid Yelp! reviews have made it easy for large companies to dismiss the relevance to these opinion-based reviews. But fact-based information, collected dispassionately, methodically and scientifically is harder to ignore and not easily explained away with a PR campaign or free beads.

The large companies are no longer in charge of the data and they are feeling the frustration as evidenced by the email sent by American Airlines spokesman Patrick Martelle in response. Yet many continue to fight a battle of facts with perceptions.

This is where mystery shopping can step in. Obviously customer perception remains something you want to manage, but when you change an operational procedure or a response as a result of knowing how customers factually experienced your product or service, the need for managing negative perceptions drops precipitously.

Manage what really happens — not anecdotes — and you also manage perceptions.