The way people perceive information around them is unique to each individual. It’s based on a number of factors that people are born with and experience throughout their lives. In business, it’s vital to understand the role perception plays in communication. Successful businesses communicate with their customers, partners, stakeholders and employees by taking into account the different ways their messages may be perceived.
Perception is how people make sense of the messages they encounter in their daily lives. It’s an active process that the brain goes through when processing information. In business, perception affects how customers and other stakeholders assign meaning to your business and the messages you put out into the world. By knowing how perception works, you'll be able to clear up any communication misunderstandings before they happen.
The Perception Process
Perception and communication are tightly linked. While communicating with others, perception follows a three-step process:
In the first step, people select the information they want to perceive, and this affects the rest of the perception process. There are a number of different messages that everyone is bombarded with, and it’s not possible for someone to perceive each one. That’s why the brain selects specific parts of a message to concentrate on.
For example, if two people are watching a commercial about a local hair salon, they may both focus on a different aspect. One might concentrate on the different hairstyles the salon is able to do, while the other may pay attention to the location of the salon.
In the next step, people organize the information they have selected to perceive. Each individual has a different way they categorize their information, and it's related to past perceptions and experiences. For example, the person that focused on the different hairstyles in the commercial may be looking for a hairdresser for their upcoming wedding. If they have been researching local hairdressers, they may categorize this information with other similar ones they've researched.
In the last step, people assign meaning to the information they've selected and organized. Like all aspects of perception, interpretation is based on a number of factors the person has experienced. For example, if the hair salon commercial says that the location is within walking distance from a certain area, the person that's focused on location may interpret that to mean it's close to their house.
Types of Perception
There are four main factors that affect how perception varies between people:
- Past experiences
- Present feelings
If your small business sells handmade greeting cards, the way you communicate with your customers, employees and other stakeholders should take into account how they'll perceive your messages.
While it’s impossible to tailor your message for each individual audience member, you can target your messages to groups of people who may perceive your messages in similar ways based on each of the four factors.
Perception and Physiology
A person’s physiology is one of the factors that affect how they perceive messages and includes aspects like age, gender and physical characteristics. The age of your audience will determine how they view your products and services. Children perceive messages differently from teenagers who view things differently from adults. The way an individual once perceived messages as a child will change as they grow older.
Whether a person identifies as male or female will also factor into the way they perceive messages. A person’s present physical characteristics, such as their weight and height, can also have an affect on their perception. For example, a small child may perceive someone who is 4 feet tall to be enormous, while an average-sized adult may perceive that same person to be short.
For the business owner that makes greeting cards, it may be important to consider the physiological characteristics of their audience when developing their messaging. By understanding the age, gender and physical characteristics of their main audience segment, they can create messaging that's perceived as intended.
Perception and Past Experiences
A person’s past experience plays a big role in shaping their perception of communication. This is vital to understand in a business environment because it will affect whether or not your customers want to buy from you. Past experiences can include anything from someone’s childhood to something they did last week.
For example, if the people targeted by the greeting card business have only previously bought greeting cards from large companies, they may not appreciate the craft and handiwork of handmade cards. As a result, they might not be the right target. Instead of trying to target that segment, the business owner might decide to target prospects that frequent craft fairs or art exhibitions, as they may be more likely to understand and appreciate the work of a handcrafted card based on their past experiences.
Perception and Culture
A difference in perception can also be due to a person’s culture. People from the same nation, social group or geographical group often share the same social customs and values. This plays a major role in communication and business, especially when business is being conducted across cultures.
In some cultures, making eye contact is considered rude, while in North America it’s a sign of directness and openness. Similarly, in North America, it’s imperative to be on time for business meetings, while in other parts of the world punctuality isn't seen as critical. If the greeting card business owner is looking to partner with a company from a different culture, it would be wise to learn their social customs so that there are no misunderstandings while communicating.
Perception and Present Feelings
Perception and communication can be affected by the present feelings of the people you are communicating with. Their mood at the time of communication can affect the way they perceive your message. Whether you have a positive or negative mood during communication can affect the way you understand and interpret the way someone is speaking to you.
If the greeting card business owner is dealing with a customer that's having a bad day, they may not be able to say anything to the customer that would help them see the business in a positive light. The customer may perceive the business owner to be annoying or frustrating. However, if the customer was in a good mood, they might like the business owner and be persuaded to buy their products.
How Perceptual Biases Affect Business
The way people perceive communication often causes biases. In the Halo Effect, people see a positive trait about one person or entity and attach it to others. For example, a customer may think that all small business owners make high-quality products based on their experience with one business owner that made a high-quality product.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy causes people to believe something to be true when it actually isn’t. For example, if a customer thinks greeting cards are a sham, they'll believe that the greeting card business is trying to take their money. If the small business owner tries to make a sale, that customer may believe that the owner is trying to sell them a fake product. While they may believe it to be true, it actually isn’t.
Perception is the process by which people select, organize and interpret information, but it also includes inherent biases. In order to effectively communicate with their customers, partners and employees, it’s important for small businesses to be aware of how others may perceive their messages.
Anam Ahmed is a Toronto-based writer and editor with over a decade of experience helping small businesses and entrepreneurs reach new heights. She has experience ghostwriting and editing business books, especially those in the "For Dummies" series, in addition to writing and editing web content for the brand. Anam works as a marketing strategist and copywriter, collaborating with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, lifestyle bloggers to professional athletes. As a small business owner herself, she is well-versed in what it takes to run and market a small business. Anam earned an M.A. from the University of Toronto and a B.A.H. from Queen's University. Learn more at www.anamahmed.ca.