A friend was flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles. After a 45-minute delay in taking off, they then had to make an unexpected stop in Sacramento. The flight attendant announced there would be another 45-minute delay, and if they wanted to get off the aircraft, they could re-board in 30 minutes.

Everyone got off the plane except one gentleman who was blind. My friend noticed him as he walked by and could tell he had flown this flight before because his guide dog lay quietly underneath his seat. Just then the pilot approached the man and called him by name.

"Keith, we're in Sacramento for almost an hour. Would you like to get off and stretch your legs?"

Keith replied, "No thanks, but maybe my dog would like to stretch his legs."

All the people in the gate area came to a complete standstill when they looked up and saw the pilot, who was wearing sunglasses, walk off the plane with the guide dog. People scattered. They not only tried to change planes, they also were trying to change airlines.

Unfortunately, perception equals reality for many. But perception and reality have very different meanings. The problem happens when perception becomes a person's reality. They see what they expect or want to see, disregarding what is actually true.

Psychologist Jim Taylor wrote: "Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. … our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is.

"But it's not," he adds. "The problem is that the lens through which we perceive is often warped in the first place by our genetic predispositions, past experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, preconceived notions, self-interest and cognitive distortions."

For example, take a car accident. You can ask several people who witnessed the accident what happened, and many of them saw it differently. That's why eyewitness identifications often become problems in crime investigations. The National Academy of Sciences recently convened a panel of experts to undertake a comprehensive study of current practice and use of eyewitness testimony. Bottom line, they found that eyewitness accounts are often wrong.

An article in the New Yorker magazine cited neuro­scientist Elizabeth Phelps, who concluded in a 2011 study that when an event is particularly exciting or traumatic, the memory is seared into the brain, often at the expense of the peripheral details. But as Phelps' study showed, just because witnesses are confident about their version of events does not mean their accounts are accurate.

Businesses and organizations need to pay attention to how they are perceived by customers and prospects. Does your target audience see your signature products as innovative, well-priced, useful and available? Are customers swayed by comparison advertising that presents your goods as inferior or not worth the cost?

In reality, you may have the best products, the best people and the fairest prices, and still have a negative perception. One bad online review can rapidly sway public perception and destroy years of building a good name. The most difficult part is that the review may not even be true. And you have to work harder than ever to repair the damage, not necessarily knowing where the information is coming from. It's not fair, but it is reality.

Be aware of your public profile and use every option available to keep your reputation positive. Put customer service at the top of the list for every employee, from the factory floor to the sales force to the executive suite.

Mackay's Moral: Be careful not to let your perceptions be based on deceptions.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.