Its an old adage: You only get one chance to make a first impression. In the 21st century world, where your company’s reputation is fragile and customers fickle, you need to do everything you can do to create the best possible experience for your customers and potential clients. These customers will often make purchase decisions based on their first impressions of your business. And you may not have considered where that first impression happens.

It struck me recently as I collected yet another rental car for yet another business meeting in another city. I may not be in the market for one of the small, entry-level run-around cars I usually rent, but in a few years, my eldest daughter will be asking for a car. I won’t need to go and do test drives. I have driven nearly every one of the cars I’d consider buying for her, and know exactly which ones are good and which ones are not. And yet, not one car company seems to do any advertising or value add to people like me, who rent their cars from rental car companies. What a wasted opportunity. It’s too late to try and advertise to me later – the first impression was made through a rental experience that they did nothing to enhance.

What first impressions does YOUR company make, that you might not be considering?

There are three first impressions your company may not be taking as seriously as you should:

Your Employees

Many companies spend huge amounts of money on marketing their products and building their brand in the eyes of their customers and clients. But very few spend the same amount of time, energy and resources on building their employer brand. The “employer brand” is the reputation a company has in relation to its current and potential staff and employees, but although many companies have marketing, PR and advertising departments, these are most often focused on customers, and not on staff. Yet, your staff provide the most emotional and relational first contact with any potential customers – be it as shop floor assistants, sales people, receptionists or call center operators.

Of course, you realise the importance and value of staff training, good management and putting the right people on the right job. But, have you considered what happens after your offices are closed, and the lights switched off for the night? Your staff go home to families and friends. Some of them drive home in cars bearing your company’s logo. Do you know if they drive badly, cutting people off and instigating road rage? Some of them wear shirts, ties and other clothing emblazoned with your branding. Do you know where they go, and how they act while representing your company in this way? As they stand around the barbeque on a weekend, they will talk about work, their boss, their company. Do you know what they’re saying? And more significantly, what are they saying about you on social media?

Admittedly, these incidents may have a relatively small effect on potential customers and future staff. But, for just a few people, this may be the first impression your company creates, and where you can, you should be managing this. Who knows what subconscious image is getting attached to your brand in people’s minds. Remember that there is a new generation of young people who are not just watching your adverts and blindly using your products or services. From a young age, they’re being taught to be discerning consumers. In a world awash with images and information, they’re not going to spend time finding out who you really are. The first impression your company makes is likely to stick – and be decisive.

This is not just about updating your company policy on what can be said, or how your staff use their personal social media profiles. You can’t solve a first impression problem with policing alone. This goes to the heart of how you manage your staff experience.

Your Website, online presence and IT team

Talking of a new generation, how much emphasis has been put on your IT strategy, as part of your connection strategy for new consumers and staff? Most companies simply leave their IT department alone to “do their thing” with your company’s technology. Today’s young people will only give you 15 seconds when surfing the Net – just a quarter of a minute to impress them enough to stay and look at your website, your app or your social profile.

In order to protect themselves from viruses, many IT departments implement draconian firewall solutions. But at what price? Driving customers and potential staff away? Making a bad first impression? One of South Africa’s major banks has such an anal IT department, that has put so many firewalls in place, that you cannot even reply to their own emails – their own company’s logo, embedded as an image in emails they send to you, cannot be sent back to the bank. These sorts of IT decisions are not merely technology issues – they are strategic issues that should be dealt with by senior leadership. The IT tail should not be allowed to wag the organisational dog.

Your Security

As a final example of how badly companies can manage first impressions, let me conclude with one of my personal bugbears: security. Many large corporates have outsourced their security operations. In particular, visitors arriving at these corporate offices are greeted (although that is a euphemism) by security personnel who most often do not have accurate reference information, treat the visitors as potential terrorist suspects and generally provide a shocking first impression.

By the time you’ve cut through the red tape, signed in twice (or even more times, as different layers of security are not integrated with each other or with the actual company’s reception), dealt with incompetence and bad processes, you arrive at your scheduled meeting flustered and frustrated (often to a knowing smile from your host). Is this what you want for your company’s guests?

The Director of First Impressions

A few years ago I read a book about exciting young employees. One option suggested was to create sexy job titles. “Director of First Impressions” was suggested for the company receptionist. Whilst this is may or may not be a worthwhile approach to staff motivation, the title itself interested me.

The first impression your company makes is so vital and critical to your long term success that it probably actually does merit Board level involvement and direction. At least, these are important questions to ask: What is the first impression people have of your company? Where do these first impressions happen? Are you happy with the current first impressions your company is making? How can you influence these first impressions and improve them? At what level of your organisation should these decision be made?

Whatever your answers, I’d suggest one thing: Make your first impressions count!

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