Nailing the First Impression

April 14, 2022

Business is about building relationships, and it only begins at the first impression.

Whether it was Irish poet Oscar Wilde, American humorist Will Rogers or just someone who worked in advertising on Madison Avenue, whoever coined the phrase "you only get one chance to make a first impression" was right on the money. For a small business, there aren't often second chances to make that first impression with customers. 

"You really only get one chance, and today customers are looking for convenience and speed of service," says Kevin Davis, president and COO of Fast Change Lube and Oil.

Davis tells NOLN that greeting customers promptly and performing the service is crucial to establishing a long and lasting relationship.

"If a customer has to wait too long that is a problem," he says. "One mistake is simply not making it clear what they need to do. Some shops have them drive in, others customers just pull up – but that needs to be clear as soon as they pull in the lot. While it may only be 30 seconds, for a consumer today that can feel like an eternity." 

The customer should never have to seek out an employee, and failure to greet every person as promptly as possible could result in that person simply walking out the door. 

"Failure to acknowledge or greet your customer in the first few minutes will immediately create an adversarial relationship and one that you will have to work your way back into the good graces of your customer. But it is more than a simple greeting," explains Olivia Hensley, founder of Smart Marketing, which trains small business owners on critical marketing techniques. 

She tells of a client who struggled with Groupon customers, immediately assuming they were cheap and responsible for dragging down the shop's profits. 

"Service Advisors unknowingly displayed slight body language, a tone crept into their voice, they averted their eyes, as other subtle tell-tale signs of displeasure kept creeping into their demeanor," warns Hensley. "The results were a self-fulfilling prophecy."

First impressions aren't always on the floor.

A common misconception of first impressions is that they occur only when the customer crosses the threshold into the parking lot or enters the premises. In fact, it can occur before a customer arrives at the shop. A welcoming website is more important than ever, but the first point of contact often is still made over the phone.

Phones should be answered just as a customer would be greeted when they walk through the door.

"A lot of shops don't realize at that the first impression occurs over the phone," says Davis, who is also president and CEO of coaching service Quick Lube Expert. "A customer might call to know how much the service costs, and how long it might take. Whoever is answering the phone needs to be educated and ready to answer questions, but they should pick up the phone with a smile on their face."

The importance of being welcoming whether in-person, over the phone or online via email or text, is all the same. Since the start of the pandemic customer service has declined greatly and consumer satisfaction remains a serious issue. This is where a shop that goes the extra distance can win over customers, who unfortunately have come to expect less today. 

"It is the era of the labor shortage. Stores and businesses are understaffed, and workers and consumers are stressed out," explains Hensley. "Human kindness, connection, and respect are in short supply."

That is why a good first impression to your customer can really stand out – now more than ever. 

"Smiling, listening, and acknowledging within the first few seconds will set the tone for a better interaction and can be unexpectedly disarming for today's consumers," Hensely continues. "There are no do-overs with first impressions so be certain not to squander it this important and easy way to sway your customer.  

Master the greeting.

Ensuring that every customer feels like the most important one can all come down the greeting, but employees shouldn't just be told to be friendly and respectful. They need to be trained, and this training can be just as important as any other part of their job.

"It is like being shown how to tighten a filter," says Davis. "During the training process you need to explain why we are committed to offering friendly service."

Davis suggests that trainees shadow the manager and properly take in how to greet a customer, what questions to ask and how to address concerns. 

"You can't assume that the training is complete either," he adds. "The manager needs to monitor their progress and there should be something that can be measured. Everyone needs to know where the end zone is and the manager has to help them get there."

In some cases, employees may not realize that they are showing the wrong attitude. 

"Perception is reality. I may think I am friendly, but I may not have a smile on my face," explains Davis. "I may think I was warming and friendly. Sometimes the only way is to ask the customer is via surveys or by reading reviews."

Fixing a Bad Impression

In a perfect world, every first impression will be perfect. Unfortunately, the world's not perfect and there are going to be times when that first impression is less than ideal. In some cases, it may not be the shop's fault. An angry customer having a bad day can create an unwelcoming atmosphere for others, and such a situation may be out of the shop's control.

However, regardless of what may be the problem, it is up to the shop to move to damage control if the first impression wasn't the best it could be.

"Small businesses are particularly susceptible to being dropped by customers over small issues for one-time bad experiences," says Hensley. "There is one ace in the hole that small businesses have. They can create interpersonal relationships that large businesses cannot. Work on solidifying a good and sincere relationship with your customers, and you may be lucky enough to retain that customer when things don't go so well."

A key to building that relationship is addressing any problems quickly and directly.

"We might call and follow up with what we did wrong, and try to make sure the customer knows we want to fix the problem," says Davis. 

That can include offering a gift card, and seeing if their next service meets their expectations. 

Building on the First Impression

The other consideration is that a first impression is the foundation on which a relationship is built, service still matters. The best greeting and the cleanest shop won't win over customers if there are problems later in the service. 

"You can wow them with the first impression, but you have to follow through with the second impression," adds Davis. "Because anything I've done that is a problem later has erased the goodwill. This is why I recommend asking customers go online and leave a review to ensure we met their expectations."

Business is about building relationships, yet it only begins at the first impression says Hensley, who adds, "I tell my clients all the time, customers will find a way to work with people they like and look for ways to NOT work with people they don't."

About the Author

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is Michigan-based writer and NOLN freelance contributor who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He lives in the land of cars not far from one of Henry Ford's estates.