If you’re familiar with the British sci-fi fantasy series, Doctor Who, you know that a common plot device is the use of “perception filters,” in which aliens attempt to alter reality to reflect what they want you to see. A favorite episode is with actor/comedian James Corden, who lives on the first floor of what appears to be a normal two-story building – only the building does not have a second floor, just a scary alien machine parked on top of it with a perception filter designed to hide its existence.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use perception filters to influence how investors and financial analysts think about public companies? I am sure many management teams would love to use something like a perception filter to ensure that only positive things are said about their companies.
Alas, we all know this isn’t possible. And yet, one of the more interesting things I have observed over the years is how many management teams believe they already know what investors think of their companies – as if they have a perception filter firmly in place.
While many C-suite executives and corporate IR professionals dialogue often with the investment community and glean valuable insights from their conversations, it is a mistake to assume that investors will share everything that is on their minds. As Peter Drucker, the celebrated author, educator and management consultant, once noted, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
How, then, can management truly gain insight into what investors think? Enter the perception study, a tool designed to gather unique and candid feedback. It is only through the use of an independent third party that companies can truly get to the heart of what investors think. Third parties are able to create an environment that protects anonymity and are better positioned to share tough feedback with management.
Designing a Perception Study
There are many ways to design a perception study, which at its core, seeks to determine how investors view the company, its strategy, management team and IR program. Perception studies often are particularly useful before and after major events, such as an investor day, or when a company is in the midst of transition.
In most cases, many investor responses are surprising. Also in most cases, a good perception study pays off handsomely by revealing tangible and actionable items, along with nuances, of course, that facilitate communication and potentially valuation improvement.
Perception studies create opportunities to:
- Streamline business models that have become too complex.
- Simplify messaging to better resonate with the investment community.
- Improve an IR program in ways a company might not have seen.
- Provide benchmarks for future comparison.
- Let the investment community know that the issuer cares.
Dichotomy of Opinion
In a recent perception study we conducted for one of our clients, we found a fascinating difference of opinion about the company, with views that converged around common themes, but were almost polar opposites of each other. Interestingly, this dichotomy of opinion often was expressed by the same participant in the study.
For example, investors praised the management team’s ability to articulate the company’s investment attributes, but at times felt they could be too “promotional” in doing so. Investors also liked how the company positioned itself to capture emerging trends in its industry; at the same time, however, they believed the actions management took to take advantage of these trends made the business too complicated to grasp.
Perhaps most importantly, investors felt the company altered its strategy too frequently. While many praised management’s ability to pivot when the facts on the ground changed, the rate of transformation left investors and analysts wondering if management had a clear roadmap for the future, which, in turn, made it difficult, if not unnerving, for many of them to invest.
The perception study created an opportunity for our client to:
- Clearly articulate its business strategy, highlighting its vision for the future.
- Help investors understand exactly how management perceives the path to value creation.
- Simplify its story and improve consistency in metrics presented.
- Provide a candid discussion of business performance, both positive and negative aspects.
Understanding what investors and analysts truly think is a fundamental responsibility of the management team and board of any public company. Such knowledge provides tangible results and can serve as catalysts for positive change.
Jeff Misakian is senior vice president at PondelWilkinson.
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