© Ravi Wazir, 2020

Bridging Execution Gaps caused by Perception Challenges

In business, as in life, things rarely go according to plan. We plan one thing and something else “happens”. Invariably gaps exist between planning and execution. There are many factors which influence the smooth execution of a plan. One of these factors is the alignment between our perception and that of others.

As with all business challenges we experience, those based on our perceptions also broadly involve two main types that we should initially concern ourselves with. They are those challenges clearly within our control and those over which we have little or no control. While it is true that whatever has to go wrong will, we must still approach the execution of a plan by identifying which factors we can control and to what degree.

I was recently conducting telephonic interviews for a standalone restaurant. For a few of the positions, my target candidates were people who were then serving at five star hotels. Our offer to them was a greater level of responsibility and decision making than they presently had... or were likely to have at even two levels higher than their current positions. We were earlier of the opinion that presenting potential candidates with this logic coupled with a salary raise would have them salivating at the opportunity.

Logical enough? Sure! Easy enough? Absolutely not!

It turned out that most candidates were hesitant even to progress discussions, beyond their first point of contact with our company... the HR department. Those that were “open” were looking to be compensated at two or three times their present income. This was obviously difficult to absorb by even a well budgeted restaurant chain. On delving further, I discovered that it was the perceptions of these candidates that led them to believe that a transition from a five star hotel to a standalone restaurant would be a step down in their career. Their hesitation and unrealistic salary expectation stemmed from this perception of a “downgrade”.

This is just one example of the many perception based workplace challenges that we experience every day. In this case our plan to present logic alone was limited in its ability to draw in talent. Thus we experienced difficulty in executing our hiring initiative. We were basically confronted with candidates whose perceptions far outweighed reality. Our first response had only focused on their role and salary. Only when we understood this, did we realise that we needed to work on managing our candidate perceptions as well.

Subsequently we chose to augment the content of our presentation with something that we discovered was both relevant as well as important to the candidates. No spiel or false promises, just a greater focus on the brand aspects – the lens through which they perceived us – that we had neglected up till then. What they wanted to know more about was the company and brand background, its existing brand presence internationally and future intent. This information reassured them about what they were getting into and with whom. It armed them with more holistic information that was necessary for them to make a decision to join or consider joining us.

Once we did this, we met with success. Ironically every person hired eventually was one who appreciated the logic i.e. they recognised the long-term benefits of experiencing a greater level of responsibility and decision making earlier in their career. So the logic did work! But only when it was dovetailed with a deeper brand related presentation, which in this case was pivotal to the successful execution of our hiring plan.

As individuals, all of us are naturally prone to our beliefs which may often not be well founded. It is these beliefs that lead to perceptions and often cause gaps between planning and execution. Such gaps may occur both in our own businesses as well as those of others.

In the hospitality industry all people groups – entrepreneurs, employees, vendors and customers, 360 degrees around us are constantly interacting with one another. All of them are guilty of allowing their perceptions to control their decisions... at one point or another.

We must be aware of this so we can understand where other people are coming from and wherever possible, do something about it.

Let’s take a look at some perception based scenarios which cause gaps between planning and execution...

Scenario 1:

A particular customer has always had a great experience at your hotel. He now expects the same level of experience at the very least... every single visit. Next, out of conviction, he introduces his guests to your hotel while highly recommending it.

Out of human error, more than one mishap occurs and he is not just severely disappointed but also embarrassed. The reason is that he attached his personal reputation to this lapse in experience.

We all know that human error is inevitable, regardless of how well the brand standards are documented within a particular organisation. Having documented Standard Operating Procedures are simply of no consequence if they are not well implemented.

It is thus far more important to first explain the rationale of these procedures to one’s team in relation to every moment of truth from the guest’s perspective. Next, their regular practice must be encouraged. This is essentially the crux of actually “delivering” a brand experience. Unless your team “perceives” the merit in this, they will neither be willing nor able to execute your SOPs well. Only once this happens, can the guest “perception” of your experience be achieved. Even then, an expectation of zero error is unreal, but... at least the process would have begun.

Going forward, listening to your guest, directly and through your front line employees gives you clues on how to further evolve your brand promise and be better aligned to the needs of your guests.

Scenario 2:

Many entrepreneurs complain about the difficulty in sourcing good people. They highlight how most candidates lie about their accomplishments, capabilities, salaries, intentions etc. How they create false positive perceptions about their candidature and then fail to deliver.

Yet these very entrepreneurs lie unabashedly to attract a “good” candidate. They create false positive perceptions about their company’s accomplishments, capabilities, turnover, future plans etc., and then complain when things don’t go as planned with the employee.

The reality is that it is normal for most people (employers and potential employees) to present themselves to one another with putting their best foot forward. In fact someone once said that an interview (in an extreme situation), is a discussion between two liars... both trying to convince one another by stretching the truth.

The way to find a median path will be for both sides to give each other an allowance of space for this. For example, if a person is actually at 100 units and exaggerates about being at 150 or even 200 units you might choose to accept this. If however, the person is at 10 units and claims to being at 1000 units then the deliverables will not be met, the gap will widen soon enough and the relationship is unlikely to survive.

Deliverables always work best both ways in any relationship. An entrepreneur believing that making timely payments is his only deliverable will be just as mistaken as an employee who believes that showing up on time is his only deliverable.

While on the subject of hiring, a typical part of the process is that of a reference check. Such a check must be conducted by the right person asking the right questions. If this doesn’t happen, it is likely to lead to a skewed decision on your shortlisted candidate. More importantly how you deal with these reference check findings is crucial.

Let us consider a situation where an ex-employer is pivotally biased towards his ex-employee. By pivotally I mean a statement (either positive or negative) about the candidate that influences your “perception” enough to conclude your decision for or against the candidate. Human bias in such decisions is inevitable, particularly in India. We automatically become positively or negatively predisposed towards a candidate when we accept another’s biases about him. We compliment ourselves on our “findings” and justify our decisions accordingly. If a candidate draws praise from an ex-employer, we compliment ourselves on our own “good judgement”. If a candidate draws criticism from an ex-employer, we also compliment ourselves on our own “good judgement”.

Sadly, our new formed perception may take its toll only later in our relationship with the candidate. If the reference has positively and disproportionately praised the candidate and you hire him, you will eventually pay for not doing your homework when you discover that he is unable to deliver. If the reference has negatively and disproportionately criticized the candidate and you don’t hire him, you will eventually pay for not doing your homework because you know deep within that you might have lost out on a really good employee.

Rather than letting someone’s opinion cloud your judgement, establish the facts. Whether you know the ex-employer or not, remind yourself that like you and the candidate, the ex-employer too is a human being subject to biases. Check yourself rather than sabotage your own organisation by creating a gap between the planning and execution of your hiring initiative.

Scenario 3:

An economy Udipi restaurant’s expectation of a guest is to finish eating in lets say 20 minutes... and leave! Guests accept this and so when a waiter places the check before them while they are still consuming their meal, it is considered alright. Pulling this off in other types of establishments has not been easy for the brands concerned.

When Cafe Coffee Day for instance started offering the check alongside as well, guests initially found it hard to accept. But subtle repetitive communication to guests by their service staff slowly made it acceptable to them.

Coffee shops in India had by then long been facing the consequences of customers just hanging out for hours without buying “enough”. Over time, guests discovered that CCD was in fact respectfully bringing to their attention that a certain period of time had lapsed since their first order. They also realised that the establishment was paying for this time and that subsequent orders from guests at regular intervals would help them rationalize their costs.

Some patrons though, still consider this practice unacceptable. Most however, realise that it is only fair for an establishment to co-relate its high costs such as real estate etc. per hour with their guest’s consumption / billing per hour. This is a wonderful example of not just a good plan to address this challenge but more importantly a well executed one. Considering it involved changing consumer mindset... one of the toughest things to achieve in the business, it is a great accomplishment.

All these scenarios highlighted how people’s perceptions play a role in their decision making. We saw how these decisions in turn sometimes lead to gaps between an organisation’s planning and execution, and also how some of these gaps can be filled.

A customer’s decision on which brand to buy from, an employee’s decision on which organisation to pursue for work, an entrepreneur’s decision on which vendor to appoint are just few examples of the multitude of the perception based decisions that happen every moment in the hospitality ecosystem.

Understanding and adapting ourselves to the needs and wants of various types of people in the marketplace is the first step. Once we do this, we inevitably align our thoughts, words and actions more effectively with theirs. This is what proficiently bridges the gap between planning and execution!