Some home entry gates are enticing, welcoming and warming. People imagine that, once opened, a charming path leads to the grand homestead. Other gates are old and dilapidated, where it is imagined that, upon entry, the path beyond is riddled with potholes, obstacles and wilting weeds guiding the way to a rundown shack.
First impressions are the gate of a business. Customers make up their minds almost immediately (seven seconds is what some researchers have discovered) and it is those little things that make the big difference.
In today’s highly competitive business environment, it is not good enough just to be the cheapest (and nor should that be the goal if a company wants a decent bottom line). Each individual organisation requires a point of differentiation – how it can stand out amongst the competition. Strangely enough, one of the most effective starting points is perfecting the basics. It is in the perfecting of these foundational elements that new customers will be attracted and where existing ones will return. In today’s business world of dismal customer service and poor presentation, it does not take much to stand out from the crowd – and that is before even considering core business differentiation.
The following are some of the basics that many businesses neglect:
- culture of personable professionalism
- staff presentation
- response times
- order and cleanliness
- keeping promises
- energetic communication
- Culture of personable professionalism
Underlying all first impressions is the company culture and, like it or not, the culture that exists in a business is a direct reflection of its leadership. The author recently dined in one of Brisbane’s top restaurants. The food was wonderful, but the service he labels as detached professionalism. Yet another down the road had the mix of professional and personable right. He has been a patron there for years.
Customers want staff to be professional, but also to be friendly and interested in them as a person. Talking about their dog, their work or their family speaks volumes to customers. If leaders are not demonstrating this and the business is all about productivity and profitability, then the business will miss this point of differentiation.
Being personable starts at an internal level within the company. It is about leaders and their people connecting at a personal level while they are doing their work. It might also mean establishing a regular social activity or a weekly meeting where leaders and staff eat and drink together to foster a feeling of community. If employees are connecting personally and are happy in their work, it stands to reason it will flow out to customers.
Customers return to companies where they feel they are valued as a person, not just valued for the money they spend. A company’s culture will not change overnight, but establish a vision for it, make plans for changes and introduce one thing at a time.
- Staff presentation
Presentation here is about how staff ‘present’ to the customer in language, appearance, interest and so on. Unironed shirts, unkempt hair, a waitress asking “what do ‘yous’ want?”, a receptionist using the ‘f’ word when customers are in reception, a salesperson disinterested in the customer… no doubt, readers have experienced similar. This is a big one for first impressions. The first interaction with a company should be the customer experience that invites the person through the gate.
People love promptness. Even if the initial reply is a message that says “I will call you tomorrow at 10am”, prompt communication is one of the basics that many neglect and will set a business apart instantly.
- Order and cleanliness
Customers will quickly form first impressions around order and cleanliness. When customers walk through the door, will they see order or chaos? Things should be tidy, with a friendly atmosphere that welcomes people through the gate; it should not look like no one cares. For example, if a tradesman turns up to a customer’s home in a filthy vehicle, looks like he slept in his clothes or leaves a mess upon his departure, the customer will more than likely judge the company to be unprofessional and think twice about using it again.
- Keeping promises
“I will have the quote to you tomorrow.” “I will give you a call this afternoon.” “Our technicians will be there at 4pm.”
It is a strange thing, but customers actually believe what staff say they will do. Then, when they do not follow through, it dents trust. Break enough promises and a business will fully shatter trust.
- Energetic communication
The initial contact with a potential customer at the gate for many companies is via the phone. The energy and corresponding voice tone communicates either a friendly welcome to come inside or a ‘go to the next gate’. Ever called someone and he/she sounded like he just got out of bed? Or have callers felt like they have just intruded on a receptionist’s day or encountered a dreary voicemail message?
Leaders must work on themselves and their employees to raise personal energy when communicating, whether in person or via the phone.
Will a business always get the basics right? No. Humans are involved. But business owners and leaders can make a commitment to perfect the basics through an incremental and improvement change process. Establishing written standards, exemplary leadership, social activities with employees, key performance indicators, customer surveys and reward systems all play a part in creating a company that is different purely based on treating people with respect, which in the end all boils down to common sense.
Leaders need to create a gateway to their business where customers love to return. There is never a second chance to make a first impression.
Ray Hodge speaks and consults to government, businesses and organisations. His emphasis is on improving critical efficiencies to dramatically increase key results. He has coached and provided consulting services to leaders and teams for over 25 years. Ray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on o403 341105.