How do first impressions influence you? For the last few weeks I’ve been even more sensitive than usual to the their impact, probably because of the wide variation in quality that I experienced. Here are a few recent examples:
We were fortunate to time a stay at our Florida retreat during Minnesota’s last cruel winter onslaught. This trip we wanted to spruce up the yard, so knowing little about landscaping in tropical climates we started with a visit to the most established operation in town. When we finally found an employee, she seemed peeved that we interrupted her plant-watering project. She informed us that only the owner could answer our questions, took our phone number and told us that the owner would call us. Since we were already there, we wandered the yard, but got confused by the disorganization and poor labeling of stock. We drove a half-mile to their competitor, Gulf View Landscaping, and were completely drawn in by a very knowledgeable, friendly and service-oriented employee. We returned the next day with sketches of our yard, and she patiently guided us through the process of finding the right trees and shrubs.
Several days later, a recurring back problem flared up and I hoped to find a local orthopedic or health service for relief. The operator at the first clinic that I called, again, sounded like I was an interruption in her day. In no uncertain terms she made it clear that there was no way they could possibly help me; end of conversation. As it turned out, the second resource that I called also couldn’t help, but the operator sounded genuinely concerned; she suggested several alternatives and offered their phone numbers. If or when I am in need of health services in that part of Florida again, which provider do you think I will call?
Despite horror stories about the air carrier we used getting to Florida, we had a positive experience that trip. On other occasions, however, we hadn’t; the carrier’s on-time and service quality is inconsistent, and not surprisingly, Zagat rates it among the ten worst airlines in the world. The day after my return from Florida I flew Sun Country to Michigan; as usual whenever I fly Sun Country, greetings were positive, and the flight was on time, friendly and comfortable. I have only positive memories of Sun Country experiences, and would choose it for all flights if that was an option. (Truth in disclosure: a family member is a Sun Country flight attendant.)
I’ve walked away from many service establishments never to return, and you likely have too on account of poor initial treatment or impressions; there are usually just too many alternatives. Sometimes a first impression is the last impression.
Here is my advice on ways to convert first impressions into competitive advantage:
- Recognize its importance; as Will Rogers put it: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
- Recognize the value of those who deliver first impressions, many of whom are the “unsung heroes” of our businesses: receptionists, operators, clerks, restaurant servers, etc. Accord them the status and credit they deserve, and hire and pay them accordingly.
- Do some “managing by walking around.” When greeted or treated unprofessionally I’ve often wondered if owners or managers are even aware of their missed opportunities to cash in on positive first impressions. Make sure that you are, and take appropriate action.
- Measure what matters. In addition to observation by walking around, invest in reliable measures of customer perceptions. Make sure that those who play a role creating first impressions know the scores and take responsibility for keeping them high.
- Analyze reasons for unsatisfactory first impressions, and take appropriate corrective action. Bob Mager’s rubric for analyzing performance problems comes to mind: people don’t know what performance is required (tell them,) they don’t know how (train them,) they don’t want to (improve motivation,) or there are barriers of some kind (remove the barriers.) (Mager, Robert F. and Pipe, Peter. Analyzing Performance Problems – Or, You Really Oughta Wanna; The Center For Effective Performance, 1997)
- Align staff, structure and systems (including hiring, performance management, training, measures and especially compensation) with your intentions. As Upton Sinclair said: “It’s hard to get others to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.” No matter what nice customer-centric verbiage is posted, for example, if a service employee’s recognition and pay are not connected to it or maybe even incent the opposite, first impressions will suffer.
Oh, by the way: the owner of the first landscape company that we visited did call us back – a week after we purchased and planted our new trees and shrubs from its competitor.
Hats off to all our service providers, especially our “first providers!” Most workers want to know that they make a difference. Let’s remind them and remind ourselves just what a big difference they make.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as a single deed.”
Photo credits: homebusiness.uk.com and Anton Diaz / Flickr