The perception a company creates in the minds of customers and employees alike can make or break the relationship. Communicators work so hard to build perception – call it the brand promise – but are we spending enough time ensuring that actual behavior matches the perception?

United Airlines tries to create a perception of value, as in we value those who fly with us a lot. Take their policy of boarding first class and top status flyers across a red carpet (which I believe creates the wrong perception for the throngs of mid-level status flyers). Or, take their new policy of automatically putting all status flyers on the upgrade list. No reward for those who proactively request upgrades. Frankly, I’ve only rarely received an upgrade in trade for my own proactivity. But now, it will be damned near impossible to get one.

United bills this as a convenience to the regular flyer, something for which we should thank them. I see past that. It simplifies things for the gate agents. Just another reason why my perception is turning sour – they don’t really care about me as a frequent flyer. Reinforced by this week’s travel.

I printed my boarding pass at home, arrived on time. The flight was on time and my boarding pass showed me in seat 12D, the one I personally chose because it was in the expanded seating area and an exit row. They changed the plane at the last minute, and upon boarding I discovered that my seat was now in the cattle call section of the plane (smaller plane). If they really cared about delivering service that matched the perception, they would have looked carefully at that row to see if they needed to move any of their status flyers.

Here’s another example of mismatched perception. The trash and recycling collector that serves our neighborhood bills his service as including recycling collection. Even provides us with flyers that explain what we can put in our recycling bins for curb-side collection.

Imagine the surprise of the homeowners when they find out that he is actually combining the trash and recycling into one truck and dumping it at a facility that doesn’t even take recycling. This is what I’ve discovered in the past two months as my husband and I have been investigating.

The HOA board swears that we don’t actually pay for the service. But, does that really matter? Hasn’t the vendor created the perception that he’s handling recyclables appropriately? His service is clearly missing the perception mark.

Now for an employee example of missed perception. What if your employer suddenly decided to outlaw cotton pants? One of my prior employers tried this one time. After working diligently to create a perception of the company being a good place to work, develop and progress, the CEO decided to ban cotton pants. It created such uproar it hit the front page of the local newspaper. If Twitter had existed back then, I cannot imagine how bad the fallout could have been.

Perception is everything. If this is true, then we need to ensure that corporate actions actually match the perceptions we work so hard to create. Particularly in today’s environment of crowd commentary and instantaneous messaging, we cannot afford to have individuals demonstrating behavior that is out of sorts with the perception.