First Impressions… They Count

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Your mother and your career coach probably told you at some point that “First impressions last.” And you know why they both told you that?

Because it’s true.

For better or worse, like it or not, people’s first impressions of anything—an individual, a store, a brand of shoes—completely shape and color their perception of it from that moment on. You’ve done it yourself before: have you ever tried a restaurant for the first time and were disappointed by the service or food?

Did you ever go back?

Did you tell anyone else how the place disappointed you?

When someone says they ate there and it was great, do you offer a contrary opinion? And does that other person’s positive opinion change your mind?

If you’re like most people, probably not.

Let’s agree, then, that first impressions count, and that memories of poor impressions not only last longer than memories of good ones, but they jump to the forefront of the mind when recalled.

So what can you do to manage impressions of your business? Keep reading, and let’s discuss how impressions are formed, and what you can do to keep them positive.

First Impressions Absolutely Matter

Go to google and search “first impressions.” How many results come back?

Tens of millions. And the lion’s share of those are all about the importance of first impressions or how to make a good first impression.

I’m not going to tell you that the quantity of google hits always equals importance (especially on the internet…otherwise, cat videos would be one of the most important things on earth). I am going to tell you, there’s a reason so many people are putting so much thought and effort into creating positive first impressions.

Because they matter.

Most of the time, first impressions are discussed in terms of individuals, as when looking for a job.

But they’re just as important for your business, too. First impressions set the tone for all future interactions with a customer. Positive or negative, that tone will carry over through all future contacts you have with that customer.

First impressions matter tremendously.

What Do You Get from a Good First Impression?

Whether for a person or a business, more than anything else, a favorable first impression gets you the benefit of the doubt in your future interactions with that individual. Make a positive first impression and that person will not only view you positively but will also view anything that goes less than well as an anomaly—if your customer thinks well of you and you miss a delivery date for them, they say to themselves, “Ah, everyone runs a little late sometimes,” and think nothing more of it.

But What Does a Bad First Impression Lead To?

A negative first impression sets the tone for future interactions, too. Only now, your customers expect things to go poorly, and even when you exceed their expectations they’ll see that as the anomaly. Exceed the expectations of a customer who has a poor impression of you, and they’ll think—“Well, they’re bound to get it right sometimes, I guess.”

The worst part? Both of these scenarios can be your business, with two different customers who have two different first impressions.

And all this trouble stems something called the Halo Effect

little girl dressed as an angel, another little girl dressed as a devil

Shining a Light, Whether You Want It or Not: The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a term from psychology. It describes how an impression about something in one area can influence opinions about it in other areas. The impressions can be positive or negative—though when negative, it’s sometimes referred to as the Horns Effect (halos for good, horns for bad…angels, demons, you get the idea). But typically, good or bad, the attribute casting the halo has little to do with the other attributes that benefit from it.

Typically, we see the Halo Effect in action with individuals. Celebrities are an easy example of how the Halo Effect works. That attractive start you love in the movies, who always seems so likable on late-night TV interviews? When she decides to speak out on politics, why do you think the average person puts any weight behind her opinion?

Because they see her as attractive and successful and likable, and the halo of those attributes can lead people to believe she’s intelligent and informed in her opinions as well.

Why do you think advertisers and marketers pursue celebrity endorsements?

A halo can also completely define how some people view your organization. For example, a company that’s in a hiring spike may be perceived as having a service that’s superior to similar services from other companies, and its management thought of as better, more innovative leaders—all because they’re experiencing growth. Meanwhile, a company that’s just announced layoffs may be perceived as having a service that’s sub-par, with managers who lack the skill or vision to lead it to success—all because they’re experiencing a downturn.

We know this isn’t necessarily the case. Sudden growth can be the result of simply picking up a very large customer with substantial needs (which may not even translate to financial success), while layoffs can result from recent automation or elimination of an unprofitable product line (which likely can increase an organization’s bottom line). Yet, staffing up or staffing down—with no other context—can define whether a company is perceived as successful or not.

And here’s the fun part: that can be two different customers looking at the same business—one customer that first formed their opinion during the downsizing, and the other during the financial upturn that resulted from shutting down the unprofitable product line, with each one’s first impression casting the organization in either a positive or negative light.

So what do you do?

young adults all on a phone or tablet smiling and engaging positively with each other

Get It Right From the Beginning

You’re clear now that making a good first impression is important, particularly when you meet customers and prospects. Where is that first impression made?

Start with the Digital

Today, most likely it a first impression will digital. Whether an email, your social media, or your website, a customer or prospect’s first contact with you and your organization probably won’t be in person.

Deals have been lost over amateurish-looking websites and unprofessional blog posts, so make sure your online presence, your voicemail—even your email signature—all reflect the image you want people to have of your organization. That website you got your office admin’s high school-age kid put online for a tank of gas and pizza? It’s not cutting it. The political meme you decided to make a point with on your company blog? You’re potentially putting off half the prospects and customers who read it.

You get one shot with people discovering and experiencing your organization online. Make sure you and your organization look your most professional and most capable.

Maintain It In-Person

Eventually, customers and prospects will interact with you and your staff. Ensuring you all present a memorable first impression in person is critical—at the end of the day, it’s the people who your customers are going to interact and form business relationships with.

How do you develop this?

Start with appearance. Although we’re all told “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” nonetheless people do make judgments base on appearances.

Live with it and work with it.

Dress appropriately and professionally for your field—if you’re working with bankers, for example, you’ll probably need to be in a coat and tie (or equivalent). If you’re working with carpenters, you probably want to meet them dressed more casually, with something more along the lines of khakis and a polo shirt. How you dress for these initial meetings can be critical. If you underdress for the bankers, they may not take you seriously. Overdress for the carpenters, and they may dismiss you someone who’s never worked outside an office and doesn’t understand what they do.

With appearance out of the way, I’ll also advise you to be on time for your appointments with any customer or prospect. It demonstrates to them that you value their time and that you meet commitments. Again, you’re trying to create an image for them of someone they can rely on—and showing up when you’re supposed to is the simplest way establish this.

Once you’ve shown up on time, as you interact with the customer or prospect, be polite and attentive. At the most basic level, the individual you’re meeting is trying to figure out if you can take care of some need of theirs. If you appear rude or distracted, do you think they’ll see you as someone who’ll stay focused on their needs? Also, remain positive when you interact. If you’re downbeat with a customer or prospect or spend time talking down competitors or other solutions, they’ll walk away with the impression that you’re negative—and most people don’t want to spend time around negative people.

And whatever else you do, prepare for the meeting. Make sure you have answers ready for their questions. You want them to see you as competent and expert so that later on—once that impression is established—they won’t think twice about the answers and advice you give them. Because they’ll trust you.

See how the first impression is formed? And with the Halo Effect we discussed, the impression they develop of you—competent, positive, or not—will influence how they see everything else about your business.

man with toilet paper stuck to his shoe walking into a job interview

Repair a Negative First Impression

So, something went wrong and the individual you were trying to impress walked away with a negative first impression. Maybe your website wasn’t what it needed to be yet. Maybe you got stuck in traffic on the way to your meeting. Maybe you had to rush to their meeting from a previous appointment and walked in under- or overdressed. Maybe you didn’t anticipate some of their questions, and your answers make you seem unprepared. And thanks to the Halo Effect, that negative impression will now seep into all their perceptions of you and your organization. All is lost, and you might as well write this one-off, right?

Not so fast…

Yes, you can’t undo a first impression. But you may be able to patch it up.

First, admit to the error. Do they think your website makes you look too rinky-dink to meet their needs? Tell them it was the first one you put up in order to have a web presence when you started, and you’re working with a designer to upgrade it to better showcase your organization.

Did you come to the meeting overdressed? When you show up and realize it, mention why. Maybe make light of it: “I’m glad I made it—I came straight over here after a meeting at our bank. We’re finalizing things to expand our facility, and you know how bankers don’t take anyone seriously who isn’t wearing a tie.”

Were you not fully prepared? Offer to pull more research for them and ask to schedule another meeting. (And then make darn sure you have every answer in place for that next meeting!)

I won’t lie, it’s a long, hard road repairing a bad first impression. But if you can win them over enough and maintain excellence for them after that, you can change that impression. If you’re lucky, it may ultimately even become a joke between the two of you: “Remember our first meeting, when I rushed in wearing a suit and we were touring that muddy construction site you were on? I had to get those pants dry cleaned twice before I could wear them again!” The good thing about a shared joke like that? It’s a point of connection, one about shared history that ends with a laugh—the kind old friends share.

The repair may not work every time, but it will work occasionally. Salvage what you can, learn from it, and keep moving forward.

man straightening his suit tie in the bathroom mirror

You Choose

All this work to create a positive first impression adds up to reinforce the reliability and competence of your organization and your team in the minds of your customers and prospects. It’s important because their first impressions will shape not just how they see you now, but how they’ll perceive every interaction they have with your organization in the future. First impressions will have a powerful effect on your success, so you have to answer one question for yourself and your organization:

What do you want that impression to be?

To read more about Communication Techniques and how to balance discussion, dialogue, and clarification, check out The Communications Cocktail blog.