Slips of Perception

It is a well-known fact that two people can witness the same event and come away with vastly different impressions.  When they meet, they will point at each other and exclaim “That’s not how it happened!”  For a prime example of this, just get my sisters and me in a room together, discussing any given childhood experience.  You wouldn’t believe that we could possibly be describing the same thing.

Some of this phenomenon can be accounted for by lapses in memory, but most of it is the result of differences in perspective.  Culture, prior experience and personality all play into a person’s perceptions.

Among the most famous examples of this is the “young lady or old lady” optical illusion.  As a child, I remember being fascinated by this.

optical illusion

My naughty father reinforced this point by drawing a light bulb and claiming that it was actually a picture of a fat lady bent over with her butt crack (the filament) showing.  I wish I could reproduce this here, but I have exactly zero drawing talent.  Stick figures are as far as I go.

Differences in perception are exacerbated by failures in communication.  In my generation, this was inculcated in us in school by means of such games as “telephone,” wherein one person whispers a phrase in another’s ear and the recipient passes it on to the next person, the next, and so on.  By the time the message reaches the opposite end of the room, it is ludicrously mangled beyond recognition.

While attending a training class this week, I found myself thinking about the skewing and skewering of the facts by miscommunication and variations in perception.  I had to laugh at myself when I realized how ludicrously wrong I had received and interpreted the intended message.

The training class was divided into groups to do an exercise.  One member of my group wrote the days of the week on slips of paper and had everyone draw one to determine the day on which each of us would serve as leader.  This is a photo of the slip that I pulled:

M slip

At first, I was piqued to have drawn Monday, meaning I would have to lead first.

You can imagine how confused I was when the instructor began leading the group.  That’s when I realized that I had been looking at the slip upside down!  Duh! My day is Wednesday!

W slip

I was pleased to learn that I had a few days to prepare.  But I was truly gobsmacked when I learned that a different class member would be leading on Wednesday.  I had to stop the speaker and ask for an explanation.  That’s when I was informed that my day to lead was actually Thursday!!  Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that Monday was an instructor-led day and that the other four days of the week had been numbered.  I had drawn Day 3, which would be Thursday.

3 slip

I wish I were making this up, but sometimes I have to be reminded that truth is stranger than fiction.

Never assume that your point of view is superior to that of another.  While differences in perception are often chalked up to matters of opinion, it is also quite possible to be completely and flatly wrong.

Lesson learned.

The Peppermint Purse

peppermint purse

We were out to dinner at a popular family restaurant chain a few nights ago when we happened to sit near the front door, in view of the “claw game” that kids play to try to win a plush toy or other trinket.

Playing this type of game, which is rather ubiquitous throughout the United States, involves inserting coins and then using a joystick apparatus to first move the claw over the desired prize and then lower the claw to grab onto it.  At that point, the claw picks up the prize, raises it over the delivery slot and drops it to be received by the player.  The claw then resets by moving along its track to return to its initial position.

The only problem with this game is that it takes both luck and skill to get that claw to grab the prize firmly enough to successfully carry it to the delivery slot.  More often than not, the claw brushes over the prize, grabbing only air and delivering exactly nothing to the player.

Those who have played this game on the midways of carnivals and county fairs know that the apparatus is often set to virtually guarantee that the player does not win the prize.  Both on the midway and in truck stops and restaurants, I have seen players who have not been kids for some time plow a roll of quarters into these games in an effort to “win” the one prize on which their hearts are set.  More often than not, they come up empty handed after paying for the prize that they did not receive several times over.

These mechanical amusements are legal in public places because they are considered “games of skill” rather than gambling.  I would suggest that one could dispute this assertion.

There were quite a few families with children eating in the restaurant the night we were there, and of course many of the kids wanted to try to win a toy.  While we were enjoying dinner, we were treated to quite a show.  It seemed that every family approaching the game won a prize.  If they tried two or three times, they won two or three prizes.

We were smiling as giggling kids and happy families trooped past our table on the way out to their cars, children proudly bearing their stuffed toys.  As it was just a few days before Christmas, we could not help but wonder whether the vendor had reset the apparatus to aim perfectly straight and true.  Surely all these families didn’t happen to possess just the right eye-hand coordination needed to perform the difficult feat of hooking a toy.

As if that weren’t enough, we were flabbergasted when one couple not only successfully grabbed the desired toy for their child, but also managed to cause the claw to knock over a second toy so that both of them were dumped into the delivery slot.

The lucky family started to leave with their booty when my wife began admiring one of their prizes, a plush purse colored and shaped like a peppermint candy that she thought would be perfect for our little grandniece.  She accosted them as they walked by our table, asking if she could buy the prize for three dollars.  They generously said we could have it for one dollar, as that’s all it cost them to win it.  My wife was delighted with their generosity.

As fate would have it, the restaurant manager observed this little transaction.  After the winning family left the premises, he walked over to our table and gave my wife back her dollar.

After all my years as a manager, I consider this tiny gesture to be one of the finest examples of customer service I have witnessed.  I have no doubt that the manager played some part in ensuring that the claw game delivered to the holiday shoppers coming through.  But to take the extra step to refund the dollar paid by my wife goes above and beyond.  And it only cost him a dollar.

I am willing to bet that the manager took that dollar out of his own pocket, not from company funds.  As a result, he has earned a repeat customer for his (frankly) relatively low-quality establishment.

I fully plan to use The Peppermint Purse as an example the next time I have an opportunity to train employees on principles of customer service.  I never cease to be amazed about how the smallest things can have the greatest impact.

Then, on Christmas Eve, it happened again.  My wife had ordered two pair of shoes online and they arrived in the mail.  To our surprise, when we opened the package, we found that both pair were defective.  One of those “pairs” consisted of a right shoe of one size and a left shoe of another!

My wife went online to complain.  The company has a policy that the purchaser must pay the postage for returning any goods.  Well, I’m sure you can understand our position that we shouldn’t have to pay the return postage when the goods were defective.

On the company’s website, my wife was able to live chat with a customer service representative.  When she explained the situation, the rep offered to have two new pair of shoes sent out immediately.  As for the defective shoes, not only were we not asked to pay the return postage, we don’t have to return them at all.  The rep suggested that we donate them.

So, let’s summarize what the company accomplished here:

  • In light of its own error, the company relaxed its return postage policy so that the wronged customer would not incur any expense.
  • Immediately offered to make the situation right by replacing the defective merchandise.
  • Furthered its positive image by suggesting that the defective merchandise be donated to people in need.

The end result:  A satisfied customer is a repeat customer.  And I now have yet another example, which I shall call Left Shoe, Right Shoe, to share with my future employees.

I believe that those who say that customer service is horrible in this country have got it all wrong.  Sure, there will always be employees who don’t care and who are merely going through the motions.  I blame this on employment mismatches (faulty recruiting practices and ineffective or nonexistent employee development programs), insufficient “soft skills” training and squeamish management who use every excuse to avoid the disciplinary process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Managers tend to latch on to the horror stories, much like the claw reaching for the plush toys, expending all their energies on finding ways to correct errors after they occur.  This is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.  Better results, with fewer customers lost to agent errors, could be obtained by following the examples of those who are doing it right.

Mr. Peppermint Purse and Ms. Left Shoe, Right Shoe have valuable lessons to teach us.