Monday, September 14, 2009

Managing your first impression

The other day, I had breakfast with a great friend of mine. We were talking marketing (he is in real estate) and the topic of image and first impressions came up. We were discussing what is appropriate to wear and how your appearance can affect the image you want to portray.

Image is a funny thing. The PC thing to say is that image doesn't matter. That it's the substance of the work you do that is important. In an established relationship/partnership this is true but in the initial stages, we all make little assumptions about the people we meet based on how they look and present themselves. And while this may not make or break a particular deal, early on, it can be a factor in how a relationship progresses.

Any first impression that I make, my goal is simple: show that I'm on the same level as the person I'm meeting and create enough initial trust that we can proceed in our conversation. My ultimate goal is to create an open communication with the person. I don't want to have to overcome an initial impression of any of the following: he is lower than me, he is higher than me, he thinks he is better than me or he is not confident in what he is saying.

While our breakfast conversation didn't lead to any definite conclusions, we did come up with some basic guidelines, which turned out to be pretty common sense.

Consider your circumstance
Most of the time, how you dress depends on what your job is, where you are meeting, when you are meeting and who is going to be there. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? If you are a graphic designer working with a surf shop owner that you've known for years, you would probably dress different than an account executive meeting with a potential client for the first time. While mirroring can come across as fake, insight on whom you are meeting with can be helpful.

Dress up to dress down
I remember the first time that I did some customer visits in Texas when I worked for Agilent Technologies. I had a new suit, a great tie, newly shined shoes and felt great! I came in from headquarters to meet with some of our sales team who were going to show us off to some of their top customers.

I stepped out of our rental car at the sales office and before I could shake our sales people's hands, they told me to lose the jacket and tie before I scared off their clients! There were two valuable lessons here. First, if you know someone that is familiar with the clients you are about to meet, it is always worth the time to do a little extra research. The second lesson is that it is better to scale your attire down then up. Yes, I could have shown up with the jacket and tie in the car and put them on later. But this way, they knew I was taking the visit serious and was ready for whatever.

Be yourself
If you are trying to establish long term relationships and want to build credibility, one of the worst things you can do is make promises that you can't or won't keep. That includes the image that you are selling someone about yourself.

Clearly, you need to consider your circumstance and meet the minimum requirements. But if you are absolutely not a shirt and tie guy, don't do it if you don't have to. If you like to dress up and wear the latest styles, go for it when appropriate. Things like Bluetooth earpieces, jewelry, and sun glasses are generally not required in business meetings. So if they are not your preference don't worry about them. The point is that you don't want to start your relationships off with a lie. If you do, you'll have to continue those lies until either you come clean or get found out!

When I was with the Idaho Stampede, we did a visit to a Utah Jazz game to go behind the scenes and observe how their game operations worked. Our staff was trying to decide what to wear (casual, business casual, business formal, etc.) One of my colleagues suggested we dress for the job we want. Good advice...just make sure you know what job you want.

Not everyone is going to like you
The truth is you can't please everyone. If you think you can, get over it. In fact, I could make an argument that you don't want to please everyone.

There are such things as undesirable customers. Those are customers that monopolize more time then they should reasonably need. They may negatively promote you or your organization or create additional stress. While you can't avoid this all the time, you can certainly be sure that your first impression doesn't mislead them into undesirable behavior.

Your first meeting is probably not their first impression
Finally, keep this in mind. No matter how well you plan, coordinate and tailor your first meeting, the first impression of you probably came before your meeting. It may be from a referral, your website or a Google search. For the most part, you can control these elements but be sure to consider each in your personal marketing plan. Google search yourself and see what's out there. Get some feedback on your website and see how easy it is to use and what people think after they've been there. Being proactive is your best bet here.

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