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First impressions…last chance?

Management | May 1, 2014 | By:

First (and fast) impressions can have lasting impacts on customers and business relationships.

First impressions are often lasting impressions. When you meet a business acquaintance for the first time—a customer, a colleague, a vendor or a manager—you make an impression on that person. When a potential client or customer (or future partner) comes into contact with your business for the first time, your business conveys a powerful impression as well. Those initial first impressions can dramatically influence the course of business relationships well into the future.

What kind of first impression do you and your business make? What do people remember about you after that first contact is over? Use this list to help assess the first impressions you’re making now—and to improve the first impressions you’d like to make in the future.

First contact: your building. What kind of impression do people receive when they see your building for the first time? What’s the condition of your lawn? Your gardens? Your entryway or foyer? What kind of signage have you placed near the road and near the building’s entrances? Do signage and maps give visitors quick and easy directions to your offices and shops? As you take a fresh look at the appearance of your building’s exterior, don’t ignore the impressions visitors might receive from their other senses. For instance, Is the texture of your sidewalk inviting? Clean and uncratered? Are people confronted by any unusual smells or noises when they approach?

Your office. When visitors enter your office for the first time, what do they see? Piles of paper or fabric samples? Books stacked neatly on a corner shelf? Low light? High-intensity light? Dust? Fresh paint? Comfortable, inviting chairs? Soothing artwork? There’s no right or wrong arrangement for your office; just be sure that the image your furniture, fixtures and style conveys is the image you want conveyed. Having an office in an industrial area doesn’t mean that clutter and disorganization are acceptable to clients.

Your assistant. When people enter your assistant’s work area for the first time, what do they see? What’s the overall appearance of the work area? Is it an extension of your office and your professional image? How would you describe your assistant’s
overall demeanor? Is she able to focus directly on the needs of the visitor, or are there constant distractions from other people or by machines? Does he offer a warm, cheerful greeting? Does her desktop appear inviting and organized? What kind of help or assistance can he offer to visitors? If she can’t answer technical questions or address installation concerns, can she help by offering amenities such as coffee or soft drinks and a comfortable waiting area?

On the phone. What do your operators say when responding to phone calls? What tone of voice do they use, and how fast do they speak? Do they offer specific help to callers right away, or do they simply offer to transfer calls to someone else? What’s the best way (in the caller’s opinion) to provide assistance? And what happens when callers are placed on hold? Do they hear music in the background? Does the operator break in every twenty seconds or so to check on the status of the call? Dial your office sometime and listen to the spoken and unspoken messages of your receptionist.

On paper. What unspoken message do you offer to people you greet on paper? Do you, for example, convey an attention to accuracy and detail through “letter-perfect”
correspondence, with neat, one-inch margins? Is your correspondence free of smudges? Is the type-face and density pleasing to the eye and easy to read? Are your paragraphs relatively short and highly organized, giving readers important information without drowning them in text? Does your correspondence have a coordinated appearance that promotes your company’s distinctive image, message and brand?

On paper, on the Web. What image do your communication and marketing products—brochures, business cards, newsletters, websites, blogs and other published materials—convey to the first-time reader? Do the typeface, layout and logo reflect the overall marketing brand you want the public to recognize? Are your colors carefully chosen to complement that brand and message? What key headlines, statistics, facts, projects, accomplishments or capabilities do readers see that first time? If your material contains images, what messages do they convey? Would a first-time reader, perhaps researching the purchase of a new product, be motivated to look deeper? If you’re not sure how your communication vehicles are perceived, whether it’s your website or an ad in a local paper, ask current customers or employees to critique them for clarity, cohesion, message and image. If their comments aren’t what you expected, look more closely at your communications.

Meetings: many first impressions at once. What kind of an impression do your meetings make on participants? Are you, and all your employees in attendance, on time and completely prepared? Are you there personally to greet guests, particularly those who have never attended one of your meetings? Are the chairs comfortable? Is the table inviting? Are refreshments available? Are necessary materials such as notebooks and pens convenient to participants? Are handouts assembled and ready to distribute? Have you provided an agenda in advance—and do you stick to that agenda during the meeting? Do you sum up any further actions needed before the meeting ends? Are participants asked to evaluate the outcomes of your meetings?

And then there’s you. What kind of impression do you make when people first meet you? Do you look them in the eyes? Do you smile? When you meet people for the first time in your office, do you symbolically clear your desktop or walk around to the front of your desk to greet your visitors? Do you offer a firm but relaxed handshake? What will people notice about your physical appearance, your clothing, your facial expressions, your body posture? Do you offer affirming welcoming conversation and casual banter when you meet people at business events or luncheons? Think about people you’ve recently met—what did you remember about them, and why? What do you think people remember about you once you’ve said hello? It’s not easy to ask friends or co-workers to weigh in on this particular subject, so you’ll need to develop some new and tougher ways of observing yourself and your actions.

We all make first impressions on other people every day, personal and professional, face to face or through written and oral communications, in offices and public spaces. It’s not only in the workplace that first impressions are important, but they can be the most important for businesses.

First impressions can easily become lasting impressions—or last impressions, if a potential customer isn’t impressed. The subtle, often unspoken messages you and your business convey at a first meeting can overshadow the actual conversations and information you exchange, however excellent your products and services are in themselves.

It’s true that you only get one chance to make a first impression. It’s not true that you can’t overcome the repercussions of a less-than-stellar first impression with prompt action, quality work and dedicated customer service—but why make your work harder? Do a thorough audit of your professional images and messages, perhaps at the same time each year that you do your financial audits. They’re likely to be equally important in the long term.

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