You never get a second chance to make a first impression…
It’s one of the most over-used expressions in the world. But being a cliché in no way diminishes its power. The statement is overused because it is so indisputably true. It is also universal. It applies to everyone. And to every business.
Any organisation seeking new or expanded client opportunities needs to understand the importance of perception. Your website, your marketing materials, your logo and your reputation all contribute to an initial impression. Even the quality of the card stock you use in your business cards sends a message. Nothing is off limits. In face-to-face situations and sales encounters, perceptions are based on more personal characteristics – everything from your physical appearance and the words you choose, to your tone and affability. Any number of factors, it seems, can influence how a potential client perceives you and your business.
From our win/loss reviews, Gelst has learnt how – and how quickly – perceptions can make or break a deal. Here is a sampling of paraphrased responses we’ve had to questions about how executives make decisions.
- The organisation appeared to be too action-oriented. I didn't think the power balance would be quite right.
- We didn't want a purely technical solution. But it seemed that was what the company pitching to us provided.
- In our first meetings, I didn't sense the enthusiasm I was hoping for.
- The provider’s team made a good impression – but we thought we could never afford them.
- In the bidding process, it seemed the provider was too inflexible.
- The organisation appeared to be more interested in boosting its own margins than in helping us solve our problem.
- During the oral presentation, I didn't believe the provider’s team members really meant what they said.
Trust. Commitment. Sincerity. Energy. Flexibility. Consistency. Value. Affordability. These are just some of the characteristics on which your customers – and potential customers – judge you. There are many more. Clearly, your organisation’s brand is a critical channel for shaping your customers’ impressions. But perception is based on more than your brand. It’s about the confidence you display. It’s about the expertise you have built over time. And it’s about the human qualities you bring to the table.
Harnessing perception’s potential
Studies show that it takes milliseconds for people to form impressions of others. Think about that. In the mere blink of an eye (literally), people decide whether you are a friend or foe. Whether your company is successful or not. Knowledgeable or not. Ethical or not. Worthy of their business or not.
Rushing to judgment without a reasoned and well-thought-out opinion seems so unfair. Until we realise we all do it. We simply can’t help it.
Recognising the universality and importance of perception is the first step to harnessing its potential. Initial negative impressions can hurt you. But positive impressions can bolster your standing with customers and potential clients. Even negative perceptions can be managed and reversed. It may be true that you don't get second chances to make a first impression. But you do get more chances to make a better impression. That’s the golden opportunity.
To be sure, managing perception is not easy. That’s especially true for an organisation – in which a group of people, together and individually, represents the persona of the business. Every employee has strengths and weaknesses, a specific role, their good days and their bad days. Employees are typically a company’s most valuable asset. But they can behave in unexpected ways. That unpredictability can be bad. It can also be very, very good. The more people (and the more marketing channels) you have, the more opportunities you have to create the marketplace perception you want to have. To make the most of those opportunities, you need to skilfully manage as many aspects of perception as you can. And you need to trust that the qualities that attracted your team to your business will shine through with your customers.
An even bigger challenge for some companies involves overcoming a lack of perception at all. You can’t win new client work if your company never makes it to your customer’s list of possible contenders. And you can’t build your business if the people who perceive you in the right way aren't the decision-makers you need to influence. But here, too, lies an opportunity. If you recognise that you’re not making an impression – or impressing the wrong people – you can take steps to change the equation. Rather than having to overcome a negative impression, you get to start with a clean slate. That means you have a one-time chance to create and manage the impression you want to convey in the market.
The art and science of perception management
You want customers to recognise and appreciate your skills and experience. But you can’t present your CV to everyone who walks by. What you can do is shape others’ perceptions of you, get buyers’ attention, and set the stage for an interaction that produces the results you want. It’s critical that you do whatever you can to manage others’ perceptions of you. If you don’t, someone else will.
As a first step to creating the perception you want in the marketplace, you need to ask yourself two very basic questions. At first sight, the questions seem simple. The responses are anything but. Answering them honestly can have a profound effect on the impressions others will ultimately have:
- Who am I?
To candidly respond to this question, you’ll need to examine your strengths and weaknesses, your track record of success and yes – as unpleasant as it might be – your failures. You’ll also need to look at yourself or your organisation through the eyes of your customers and prospects. Be honest about how the people you want to reach currently perceive you. You can’t build or change perceptions if you don't understand your starting point.
- Where do I want to go?
Answering this question may be easier than the previous one. You may know, for example, that you want to grow your business by 30% over the next three years. Or you may aspire to be recognised as an expert in your field. Perhaps you want to attract a new, younger, customer base or, on the contrary, more senior clients interested in establishing a long-term business relationship. Maybe there are two or three companies that you’d love to have on your client roster. Building the right impression of who you are in the marketplace requires you to think hard about who you want to be in the marketplace.
Armed with your responses, you’re ready to work on creating a perception that aligns to who you are and who you want to be. This turns out to be as much an art as it is a science.
First, the art. There are many things that influence how others will feel about you. And many of those are out of your control. The person you’re trying to reach may be having a bad day and projects those negative feelings to you when you walk in the door. Perhaps your potential customers have had bad experiences with other providers in your line of work, and assume you will only offer more of the same. Or perhaps they have heard unfounded rumours – maybe from your competitors – about cost overruns, lack of discipline or substandard service. All these scenarios put you at a disadvantage. But these roadblocks are not insurmountable. They just require a more nuanced approach – an approach that is based on the art of interpretation and course-correcting. To manage how others perceive you, you need to master your own powers of perception.
Second, the science. Shaping the perception of your organisation is an in-depth process that requires a disciplined and structured approach. It’s also an ongoing endeavour. A fantastic initial perception is great – but only if it can be sustained. To meet the needs of your customers, you continually evolve your business. You need to make sure that customer perceptions are keeping pace.
You may want to start by analysing current perceptions of your organisation or assessing the effectiveness of your communication channels to identify gaps that you need to fill. Simple but effective steps like improving search engine optimisation (SEO) or your presence in social media can make a big difference. Sometimes, more sophisticated, complex and costly programmes are needed to influence buyers over the long term. The key is for you to understand the value of each potential action and prioritise those accordingly.
Marketing certainly needs to be involved in a strategic way. You may find you need to relaunch your website, create a new logo or campaign, or publish blogs or newspaper articles to improve your visibility. A robust marketing strategy needs to ground those efforts. Human resources may also play a role in aligning everyone behind a 'new face' of your company. In certain cases, you may need to bring in new talent with fresh ideas and new capabilities that the market craves. You may need to train team members or departments on brand messaging or presentation skills. You might need to rethink the roles each person plays in creating a consistent, positive impression. If your front-desk receptionist is unfriendly or your legal department is known in the market as 'the deal prevention team', these are where you may need to start.
At the end of the day, perception management is a team sport. Everyone and every area of your business play a part in getting people to notice you. In the right way.
Gelst can help you marshal the resources you need to not only define who you are, but also become who you want to be. We understand the power of the first impression. And we know how to help you take full advantage of second chances.