Performance Management: Moving Beyond First Impressions

Performance Management: Moving Beyond First Impressions

Key Fact #1: First impressions are powerful, but they can also lead to a downfall.

As a leader of a team, or as someone who interacts with customers or clients on a regular basis, you probably already know how important first impressions are to customer experience (CX). But they are equally important to your internal clients – your employees and teams, and as such form a vital component of performance management strategy.

But first impressions come with a dark side. The moment you slip below the standard of expectations that the first impressions have established, you stand a good chance of generating disappointment, and the memory of disappointment lasts much longer than the pleasure of the first impression in the hearts and minds of people.

Here’s a small-scale example, but see how easily it translates up to larger organizations in any industry, both externally to customers, as well as internally with employees:

Key Fact #2: Excellence must be maintainable and sustainable.

A new restaurant opens with great fanfare. New and exciting dishes are presented, and management and staff do everything they can to welcome patrons and ensure everything is to their liking. Their goal is to make an excellent first impression so that the customers will want to come back and dine again.

But two weeks later, when customers come back, they notice things have slipped a little. The food selections are not quite as good, the staff is less attentive. The sparkle has gone out of the experience. This might be because the restaurant now has bills to pay, and management is more focused on the bottom line and saving money where it can.

In this “new restaurant” scenario, a bad thing is happening. The opening night visit may have exceeded expectations, but in so doing, it established a level of expectation for the future. The restaurant must now match or exceed that first night’s experience, or it will partially fail in the eyes of the customer. This is because the emotional impact of disappointment is stronger than that of surprise and elation. A nice surprise is a pleasant experience, but a bad situation speaks directly to every human’s instinctive fear. Something bad is happening (even if it is just disappointing service), and this will imprint itself upon memory far more strongly.

Consistency is Better than First Impressions

Key Fact #3: To understand consistency of experience you must always keep data from past experiences in mind.

Very few organizations can regularly exceed customers’ expectations. You can do it once, perhaps, but outperforming yourself regularly requires a great amount of money, time and insight. Apple was able to do this for a while, largely under the guidance of Steve Jobs. Every year, its products, like the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone, surprised the world with new innovations and ease of use. But even Apple has not been able to sustain such a tradition. The Disney Corporation and Tesla both seek to continually amaze and are good role models to observe. Tesla, and Elon Musk’s other ventures have had their setbacks, but their attitude of “fail forward” puts these in an interesting new light.

For most organizations, though, it is more important to place energy and focus upon consistency of experience, which involves maintaining a more manageable level of excellence that people can rely on every time.

Going back to the restaurant example, when a customer comes back to the restaurant that second time, and the service was as good as the first, they will be cautiously impressed. If they return a third time and the service and food continue to be as good, there’s a strong chance they will become loyal customers and ambassadors of the business. The same applies to professional services and companies of any size.

But what is often overlooked in management consulting literature is what the definition of excellence really means in terms of consistency of experience. It requires a forward-looking definition of excellence, certainly, but it must also factor in the data from customers’ past experiences, because that’s what the customers will be judging against.

It’s a hands-on, continual exercise, not a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. It requires metrics, feedback from customers themselves (either direct via survey or questioning, as well as indirect via social media discussions) thorough planning and involvement of people at all levels including the senior executive.

Key Impacts

  • Excellence should not be defined as “the best you can be.” It should be “the best you can maintain.”
  • Analyze and measure performance by keeping in mind a customer’s past experiences not just their future ones.
  • Even in this digital age, people are still guided by basic instinctive emotions, including fear and comfort.