First impressions: getting it right the first time with customers

By Chris Bucholtz

I love the saying, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and not just because I enjoy figures of speech that are expressions of the blindingly obvious. I also like the fact that this old saw is usually trotted out after someone’s made a horrible first impression, when it’s no longer of any help.

So, instead of using the saying as an alternative to “I told you so, you slob,” let’s use it as a cautionary term. It is true – the first impression someone has of your business carries weight out of proportion to its place in what may become a sequence of interactions. In fact, it can be the event that terminates any sequence of actions that you hope to have (in other words, it can cost you that customer’s business), so it’s a smart thing to set yourself up for a good initial interaction.

But these days, the location of that interaction may be hard to predict. There are multiple avenues by which that first impression can be conveyed. So where do first impressions between you and your customers occur? Let’s limit things to a B2B context; with big B2C brands, the first impression may come from exposure to customers through mass-media marketing, pushing the initial impression far from the actual people within the business. That will not work for B2B buyers.

In B2B, there are a few primary channels where customers make initial contact with a business. Getting the experience right for the customer can make or break your relationships. Here are four that spring to mind:

1. Sales Calls

The least optimal time to make that first impression is during a cold call. In the words of CRM guru Brent Leary, “people like to by from people they like.” In a sales call to a prospect you’ve never talked to before, the prospect isn’t really sure that they like you yet – and they’re inclined not to like you, because the ulterior motive of the call is all about getting them to do something for you. This is never the way a relationship should start – but your sales team has to make these calls.

Making a good impression on the customer is all about information. Social media is great for learning about the prospect, but personal information is nowhere near as useful as business information. Sales should arm itself with as much information as possible, and then use that initial contact to engage the prospect in additional information exchange – and make sure it’s a two-way conversation.

And, as should be readily obvious, your staff should be on its best behavior – they’re interrupting someone’s work day to have a conversation. They need to do so in a respectful manner. Part of that is being polite, but part of it is learning as much as they can about the prospect before the call – that’s respectful of the prospect’s time.

The impression you need to leave is that you’re concerned with the prospect’s business – and knowledgeable enough to help.

2. Content Marketing

Increasingly, the first impression buyers get comes from content marketing – typically, white papers, but increasingly other, more creative bits of content, like videos or publically-available presentations. (You can include speaking engagements here as well, but that’s an entire subject on its own, on which much has been written already.) One of the major mistakes in creating this content is the failure to appreciate that the subjects of these piece of content fall on different parts of what I call “the education funnel.” Some pieces of content merely explain the problems your product or service solves, or discuss high-level concepts; these are at the top of the funnel. Others – TCO comparison guides, product data sheets, how-to’s and so on – are well down the funnel.

Anything at the top of the funnel may well be a prospect’s first exposure to your business, since it’s a strong possibility that a web search may surface it if your keywords are well chosen. This is a first-impression moment and it’s not a great time for a sales pitch.

Instead, go for quality. Think about what your customers need, the issues that confuse them, and the best practices that enable companies to address those issues through the use of whatever it is you sell. Once you identify those things, make sure that they’re addressed by writing talent that’s both up to the task and understands your objectives.

De-emphasize your company in your top-of-the-funnel content; don’t hide the fact that your company’s providing it, but remember that this first impression is more about the customer and his needs than it is about your need to sell to him.

The impression you need to leave is not only that you can help solve your prospects’ problems – it’s also that you understand them, and can help them gain insights into better understanding those problems as well.

3. Website

When a prospect visits your website, he or she may has probably already heard of you and is looking for the full story on your company. This is your chance to show off your best to that prospect. Unfortunately, many businesses instead show off clear evidence that they haven’t really thought about their websites since 2003.

The website is your front door. How you greet callers is important – and, more than that, how easily you enable callers to navigate the information on the site is important too.

You have to have the right information – and you have to make the experience of finding it a positive one. So while the content and appearance of your front page is important – and makes the initial impression – the totality of the impression comes from how effortless it is to learn what prospects need to learn while they’re there.

Also, it’s important to create the site with your company’s attitude in mind. If you’re a freewheeling company in a fun space, make sure the site reflects it. If you’re trying to convey a sense of stolidity and security, make sure the site does that. The worst thing you can do is make an impression through the website of your business that then is a direct contrast to the next interaction the customer has with the business.

The impression you want to leave is one of a business that’s got a handle on its business, knows how to present information, and understands what information is most important to potential customers.

4. Social Media

The more businesses that adopt social media strategies, the more frequently their prospects’ first exposure to them is through social media. But this is a bit of a wild card: is the first impression delivered by someone from your company, or is it conveyed by a customer – and is this customer pleased or peeved with you?

There’s only so much you can control with regard to what is said about you, but you certainly have control about what your business says via social media. While having a strategy in place for conveying messages about your business is important, it’s also important to have a strategy in place for your employees, who may be using their personal accounts to talk about your business, too. Make sure they understand that the things they Tweet or post may be the first exposure prospects have to your business – and make sure they know that means they could be the ones who draw prospects in or turn them off.

That isn’t to say that everyone in the company has to make happy talk on social media. In fact, the entire idea of people buying from people they like can be accelerated through employee use of social media, but only if those employees are authentic in what they say and are cognizant of the impact they can have on the perception of their company.

It’s also vital that you recognize the two-way nature of social media. Messages to you need to be answered; a failure to respond is the same thing as admitting you don’t care about the prospect’s concerns, and that’s a great way to kill a relationship before it’s ever born.

The impression you want to leave is that you’re authentic in what you and your employees say, open to conversation and ready to listen.

These are just a few of the first-impression opportunities that exist. As we create more touch-points with customers, we create new make-or-break moments in our relationships with customers. The key is to realize where those moments are happening, to understand their importance, and to be conscious about how you react when the customer first shines the spotlight on your business.

4 thoughts on “First impressions: getting it right the first time with customers

  1. Hey Chris – Great thoughts. I agree with a lot of what you said. First impressions are last impressions, and they frame a customer’s outlook on your entire company. It’s important to get it right, no matter what medium you’re communicating on. Framing that first impression sets you and your company up for success – or failure. Studies have shown that almost 50% of customers are

    I think one of the most important things you can do is have information. This will help you shape the first impression and every one following. Organization is the key component there. Businesses need to invest the time, energy and effort required to bring in the right people and the right organizational tools to shape the customer experience the way they want to.

    It’s important to listen on all fronts, respond to customers, and reach out frequently. The customer experience at every touchpoint is just as important as crafting your basic sales or marketing outreach. Great customer experiences can turn your customers into salespeople.

    Thanks for starting the conversation, Chris.

    John-Paul Narowski, Founder – karmaCRM

    • John-Paul –

      Thanks for the comments. It’s amazing how these simple, human things can be forgotten as we try to scale up the process of interaction with customers. And I agree that the only way to do this is by getting information on your side.

  2. Hi Chris:

    Now… I realise i have written a few long posts. So I try and keep this short. I have spent all weekend in sugar-land. And I must say… our blog interaction was my first impression of sugar. 5 star!

    then it when miserably down-hill. so rather than get going in sugar technology.. I had to resign self to watch videos. no hands-on. boo hoo.

    however, its now monday morning, and finally I have received help from a lovely gentleman via email. Yah!
    What did I need help with?:
    “logged onto sugar’s developer forum”. I was having one of those “consumer harrasment experiences ” articulated in the various SugarCON videos on your web page e.g. I could not get logged on, to get help, and could not tell anyone i needed help (as that required a login)… arrhhh..

    So now Monday midday, 3 days have already passed,
    and I learn some very BAD news.
    1 I have the comparison feature chart between sugar and
    2 I have the comparison feature chart between sugar COMMUNITY and sugar subscription.

    and we have a problem housten.
    The problem is, it appears sugar is leaving a key player out their ecosystem, me, a developer, an implementation expert.

    I wanted to perform a simple “proof of concept” test. Can I develop an app as quickly as i can in SF in sugar. The short answer looks. NO.
    – narda
    – fineto
    not, no it took longer. it is no, NOT possible.

    Sugar’s community edition is not a full edition. How may anyone perform an OPEN evaluation (independent) if they cannot see all the goodies. No a 7 day time trail is useless. If I do work, I want to be able to keep it. 7 day.. at least SF is 30 days. both not acceptable.

    Sugar has NO on-demand developer edition. How on earth can a front liner quickly create an app, a situational app. they need to create a webserver.. a blah.. etc.. who knows.. I have not managed to work it out. So I feel a right twit!

    THIS IS HUGE. This is a major gap. How can you say your OPEN if I cannot even evaluate… or build a play app for testing.. and get to keep it…

    Housten.. we have a problem.

    conclusion of test:
    3 days past, and I dont even have the technology by sugar on my mac, to start building. I would have built 3 apps in land by now.

    Housten.. we have a problem.

    and to end my post
    Paul Greenberg’s point sugarCon video presenation “Era of Customer Engagement” — which was absolutely BRILLIANT – 500star Paul!

    this first time experience
    the context of the this first time experience

    was on the back of me spending my beautiful weekend watching SugarCON videos … and hearing… repeatedly…
    ** Sugar CEO.. is PRing heavily OPEN OPEN OPEN…
    ** all about the customer experience, and how that matters…
    ** all about ecosystem…

    are people knowing your product intimately – not valuable to sugar?
    cause if they are, that has not been my experience.

  3. first impression, is often, at the point…..
    WHEN the individual’s try and “do/interact” something with your product
    (a trial version, a demo version, a you tube video etc..)

    not just reading.

    but doing – intereacting.

    this is a KEY understanding. So people who design websites, put all this effort into whitepapers.. and minimial into DL .. get going ability for newbies. Flawed.

    Open-source communities mastered this about 5 years ago. make i REALLY EASY for individuals to grab your stuff… get to know .. and make it REALLY EASY for them to dialogue with you.. once they have grabbed….

    once they have experienced… then they will not want to go.
    so give first.

    rather than the product focused model, was take first e.g. i take your cash then i give you my product.

    why is this so, from a human being perspective?

    reading = rational mind. most people will buffer you.. if you fail there.. extend trust
    experience = if you fail there, to your blog post, your GONE… or it will require you to actively rebuild trust if they cared sufficiently to voice their annoyance

    experience accomplished typically pre – pre – pre salesrep interaction
    e.g. watching you tube,
    e.g. or trying to DL and work with your product to “test” it out

    a case in point on “working with product” i recently heard in a you tube presentation was …. by Paul Greenberg (gdaddy of cRM) example of his card scanner in his “Era of Customer Engagement” presentation delivered april 2012 at sugarcon

    fyi – you can rebuild trust with anyone. this is why I dont advocate living by these sayings…. “first impressions….”
    best reference and content ive used in corporate is Stephen Covey’s son’s work “Speed of Trust”.

    Just an alternative thought.

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