Chocolate Pillow | Transference – why you may be the reason people hate your brand!
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Transference – why you may be the reason people hate your brand!

23 Aug Transference – why you may be the reason people hate your brand!

I have written many posts that delve in to the psychology of consumers and for this article I wanted to tackle the process known as transference and how this can affect a guests’ perception of your brand.

For those without a psychology background, transference is the process of taking the perceptions of one person or experience, and transferring or ‘projecting’ those on to the current person or situation.  It sounds like something that would be obvious to some but perplexing to others, but it really is quite straightforward.  Take for example my experience with a certain hotel brand (okay, it’s Hilton).  I stayed with them at a hotel in Manchester (as a clue, its the big one with a bar on the 23rd floor!).  This was a stay several years ago, but I have never been to a Hilton since, nor will I be inclined to do so in the near future; transference is why!

To summarise the stay of me and my husband, we had a really terrible time, particularly for the money we paid.  We witnessed poor housekeeping (returning at 6pm to an unserviced room which was not even cleaned properly when we checked in, unless of course patchy black mould was in the colour scheme of the bathroom tiles and the dripping mould from the shower soap dish was a built in water feature!), poor food safety and handling (simply relighting the chafing dish fuel to heat up the stone cold breakfast, using meat tongs to serve vegetarian items) and poor customer service (as soon as I said I wanted to speak to someone about issues with the room, I was told ‘well you are not having any money off your bill’ as the immediate response, and then being denied a manager despite them being stood less than 5 feet away!); we returned as guests of the general manager to find an even worse state of affairs and were simply told that because we booked on Thursday for the Saturday, they had no time to inspect the room, and they were short staffed so things were difficult for them (as though my time of booking was the reason the stay was poor). To put the ‘cherry on the cake’, the refund of accommodation received for a very poor standard of room (the hotel was only about a year old when we went) went on to the credit card used to hold the booking, which was a family members card and not mine – despite me paying on my card (we had to hold the booking on a credit card but paid with debit card) – the result was us out of pocket and my family member a few hundred pounds lighter on their credit card bill. Those of you who know me personally will know that I can complain very succinctly and sometimes fairly rigidly; put simply, if you do something wrong, I will tell you!  But I am very forgiving and often very willing to give things a second chance, but if you get that second chance wrong, then you will be very unlikely to receive my business out of choice.  And this is what happened with the Hilton.

This is where transference comes in – when booking a hotel, holiday or anything to do with a hotel, I will avoid the Hilton at all costs – the brand does not even register on my radar and is always skipped over when choosing a hotel.  My in-laws love the brand with loyalty cards and a Hilton credit card, but I hate it.  This is because the experience I had at the hands of a team of less than 5 employees, left me with such a poor emotional response to the scenario, that I have no faith in the brand as a whole.  Yes, it only took the actions of a few people to put me off an entire world-wide brand employing thousands upon thousands of people, that is trusted and utilised by millions of travellers every year!

This is why it is vital to understand the importance of transference when dealing with complaints.  Poor handling of a guest complaint can result in them transferring the experience to the entire brand.  For me, if I stay in a Hilton, I will not only be very apprehensive of all service aspects, but will be ‘on red alert’ for any issues that arise.  This is because I have a firm belief that any issue will not be dealt with properly or correctly, and that the rooms will be poor and the awareness of standards will be almost non-existent.  But I cannot help this.  It is because the situation affected me emotionally (to say it annoyed me was an understatement as the stay was to help my husband recuperate from an operation and also to celebrate our anniversary).  Due to this emotional attachment, it is inevitable that I will avoid the brand.  This is also a process known as projection – projecting past experiences on to the current ones.  If I were to stay in a Hilton again, I would likely look for the same faults and be very apprehensive of how a complaint would be handled – this is human nature!  By creating a pattern of events with my first experience of the brand, a psychological impression has been made and an imprint left on my psyche, unfortunately it is a negative one.  Had it been an amazing stay with a real wow factor, then things would be vastly different.

So how can you avoid transference and/or projection?  Put simply, you can’t!  It is how we learn and interact with the world as human beings.  Take for example the person who sees a woman in a tracksuit behaving erratically and then shouting at them.  They will then expect the next woman they see in a tracksuit to behave erratically as a link has been made between the sex of that person, their clothing and their behaviour and these factors combined will make any similar person seem to behave in the same way, even if they are not!  If you meet a person who is dishevelled, a bit smelly and very dirty who is aggressive, what will you do when you next see a person who is like this?  You would naturally be a bit defensive and anticipate that they will be aggressive, even if they never are!  In simple terms – what you experience with people or situations, forms an unconscious expectation of the people or situations that are similar in the future!

Within hospitality, it is important to understand that your guests may have transference and projection from prior interactions with your brand.  If I went to a Hilton in America, I would likely anticipate poor standards and lacklustre service, even though my prior experience was thousands of miles away in the UK with entirely different staff.  On a similar note, it is worthwhile pointing out that if I expect low standards, I am very likely to subconsciously ‘create’ low standards as I will always be wanting the current situation to match my prior experience as it causes an internal conflict if this does not happen and causes me emotional conflict that my psyche will want to avoid.

There is no ‘cure’ for transference, and you can only work to recognise it and help to re-mould the expectation if it is negative.  If I had gone back to the hotel and had a much better stay the second time, I would be more open to the brand (I am actually that closed off to it that a favourite hotel of mine actually re-branded to Hilton and now I won’t go back there!).  You should note that the first time someone has a negative experience, you can correct it by re-forming their opinion by removing the stereotypes they have formed (i.e. dirty room complaint – make sure the room is spotless the second time around!).  You need to respond and address all issues they raise and then act on them and show them you have done so.  It is believed that it takes only 2 or 3 experiences to create a stereotype – if you consistently have dirty rooms, then that is what my expectation becomes after just 2 or 3 stays.

Transference applies to staff too – think about how you deal with a business man compared to a regular guest and compared to the man in trackies who walks in stinking of beer – do you actually treat them all the same and have the same opinion of them all at all times?  Unlikely… and this is because of transference and projection.  I bet you interact with them all differently as well… this is because of projection and transference because you instinctively behave in a way that you believe fits in to their ‘pattern of behaviour’.

So next time a guest complains, think about how damaging your handling of the issue can be to your brand if you fail to get it right!  Then think about how you interact with them in future – if they complain and come back again, do you honestly stand there and think ‘everything will be fine this time’ or do you think ‘Let’s see how long it is before they come down and complain again’!  Transference and projection are powerful things but recognising how they hurt your brand in a complaint scenario will also help you to change perceptions!  You cannot stop it happening, but you can be the one person who starts to change their opinion!

As a final note – Transference and Projection are also very useful tools, that can be even more dangerous – create an amazing impression and give fantastic service and you will likely have loyal brand/hotel guests for life, particularly if their expectations are always met and the wow factor keeps appearing; but beware that one time that those expectations are failed, or drastically challenged with a negative experience as the projection of such a good impression on to a poor experience, can create an even bigger complaint.  Put simply, either keep wowing your customers or they will likely become very unhappy!

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Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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