Ian Turner is Northern European General Manager at Nuance Communications, here he discusses the challenge of overcoming negative perceptions, something CIOs come across all the time, he offers his advice.

Surviving and succeeding in the current economic environment is to say the least, character building. We all face a prolonged period of tight credit, depressed markets and slashed budgets.

Our business prospects can however be further degraded by an intangible source, namely, unjustified negative perceptions of our products or services. This is much more than a superficial image problem; it can be insidious, deep-seated and have its roots both inside and outside the corporation. If we wish to succeed, we must tackle and overcome both the causes and effects.

Changing negative perceptions about your business’s products or services is far from easy. However, managed correctly, views can be changed and success will surely follow. On the other hand, if you adopt the wrong approach or fail to take the issue seriously then sustained negative perception can become a business-threatening reality.

Reversing negative perceptions is a challenge that I have had to overcome in my career and particularly in my current role as general manager in Northern Europe. Nuance is the world’s largest speech recognition technology vendor. We meet and do business with many people who enjoy a great experience when using speech recognition technology. On the other hand, there are others, who tend to be more vociferous, who assert that speech recognition “doesn’t work”. They choose to ignore the thousands of satisfied business, government and not for profit customers around the world who benefit from greater efficiencies and the saving of billions of dollars each year. My challenge/our challenge is to bridge the perception gap because it is essential to our ongoing success. How do we do that?

Inside - Out

When faced with the challenge of overcoming negative perceptions, first, I look inside our business and not just anywhere. I ask myself if I really believe in the proposition. Can I see the business value of what we are doing? In addition, I ask if I am emotionally connected with the offering. I firmly believe that if business leaders are not committed to what their business is delivering then they are not likely to be fully effective. Even a hint of negativity in the top team will shine out like a beacon.

The second and most important step is building a team of evangelists. I recently heard Tim Smit, CEO of The Eden Project, say “kill negative people …. because they get rid of your dreams”. I doubt this was intended to be taken literally, but the sentiment struck a chord.

In order to succeed in the rough and tumble of the commercial world there is no room for passengers. All the relevant people in the company need to be fully behind the vision of a successful product offering. Only those who are fully committed should be involved in design, development, sales and customer service. This requires tough decisive action to be taken swiftly or there is a risk the project and even the business will not move beyond mediocrity.

We should also examine carefully how we present ourselves and our products. We should look beyond the messages and examine carefully the way those messages are communicated. Let us not forget communications academic Marshall McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message”. It is a given that the messages need to be simple and easy to understand, but where many organizations fall down is how they communicate those messages. If we wish to bring the value of our solutions to life to help people to appreciate what we do, and gain an adequate degree of understanding, then we must think creatively. Why just use words if you have a full artist’s palette in your hands? Think creatively – at Nuance we use a range of visual and interactive tools that are designed to assist our existing and potential clients to be better informed and hence more likely to have balanced perceptions.

Outside – In

These internal steps are not easy and can take some time to get right, but when addressed can help to develop a powerful base on which to raise awareness of our business offerings. With this solid foundation, the process of changing views among external disbelievers becomes easier.

Our approach is fairly conventional and one which has applications across business sectors: we have not yet found the Holy Grail – but we are looking.

Take Pride in the Track Record: Customers for software-based business solutions tend to be increasingly cautious or, should I say, skeptical. At an early stage there is benefit in indicating to customers the level of trust placed in the product by others. If trusted global brands are using the technology it indicates that it is working and delivers value. Hundreds of blue chip organizations use Nuance technology to cut costs, increase efficiency and customer satisfaction, and boost the bottom line – including Vodafone, British Airways, Aviva, T-Mobile, and Bank of America.

Explore Commonalities: After we have covered the spectrum of current clients, we are aware that there will be a spoken or unspoken observation: “That might be fine for them but ‘our’ business is different.” Of course, all companies are different, but there are often areas of commonality, whether it is a desire to increase productivity, cut costs or that they all use the voice channel to interact with employees or customers. We pinpoint common and core activities; highlight common aims and illustrate how similar approaches can deliver relevant benefits.

A Disciples Team: Sales and marketing staff can inform prospects what we do, why we do things in a particular way in using speech technologies, but they do not have to believe us. I regularly bring in our engineers and developers to take to a different level the exposition of offerings. In conjunction with the sales staff, we show how our design, development and configuration processes start and end with a business problem. Committed and knowledgeable engineers and developers can be very persuasive promoters.

Focus on Strengths: This sounds obvious but during detailed discussions on specific issues, perhaps revealed by overt prejudice, some of major facts can be overlooked. At Nuance, we and our prospective clients should not lose sight of the fact that we are a billion dollar business with leading global brands as repeat customers. They are a key strength and in many cases our most powerful advocates.

Risks: Most, if not all, of our clients know there are design, development, implementation and maintenance risks. There will have been errors of commission and omission. There will be horror stories and those prejudiced against our offerings will be familiar with most, if not all. We can reduce prejudice by being up-front about prior difficulties especially if we show how we have learned from the past and can offer low risk or “no-risk” methodologies of implementation.

Raising the Stakes: Our technology is in use in many sensitive environments – particularly healthcare where the accuracy and quality of Nuance’s products needs to be of the highest standard to ensure patient care is not at risk. Not all organisations may be able to point to a life and death example, but if it is possible to show how trusted the company is in mission-critical environments then surely that trust is an important counterpoint to some negative perceptions.

What about the competition?

Over-focusing on the competition is all too easy particularly if they are fuelling negative perceptions. It is important to bear in mind that winning the business is about wholehearted competitive activity. In my view, the first point of competition is to “tell the story” to a potential customer to explore and hopefully dispel any negative perceptions; the second is believing that it is possible to overturn a negative view. I accept that sometimes we will not be able to change everyone’s mind – but unless you try, you will never know.

The pursuit of success for our business is not a destination - it is a journey. We often find the satisfaction of converting one disbeliever into a customer can be quickly followed by starting at square one with the next skeptical prospect. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that if a business leader has faith in what their company is doing and is backed by a unified team of passionately committed employees, the organisation will not only continue combating negative perceptions and reinforcing positive views, but also will severely challenge the competition in the process.

About the author:

Ian Turner is Northern European General Manager at Nuance Communications