Making a Winning First Impression

In sales, a prospect’s first impression of you is a bell you can’t un-ring. If you mess up at “Hello, my name is …” you’re done for. Clients don’t decide to wait until their second impression. Think about how quickly you make assessments of people, say, in an airport, in a restaurant, in the car next to you at a red light. Whether you want to or not, you sum them up in seconds as this or that type: smart, dumb, rude, wimpy, obnoxious, narcissistic, etc.

Now put yourself in the customer’s place: It’s you, the sales professional, who is being mentally sliced and diced in the first few seconds of being in the customer’s vicinity, whether that’s in person or over the phone.

Customers make their quick-turnaround evaluations of you based on things like professionalism, character, competence, attire, demeanor, tone of voice, and more. In person, that initial impression is largely based on appearance and body language. If first contact happens over the phone, your inflections and your tone will inform the customer, correctly or incorrectly, of who you are.

If you want to be successful and build productive long-term client relationships, the first impression is crucial. Again, when it comes to effective sales communication, the time you’ll have to come off as likable and make a good, solid first impression is short; this is especially true during outbound calls. But it also holds true for inbound calls. Of course there are obvious pitfalls to avoid, like making awkward or inappropriate statements, tripping over your words, mispronouncing names, asking inappropriate questions, and being longwinded.

As important as what not to do is what to do to in that first encounter, such as:

  • Arriving on time—not late; not much too early—to an appointment. In any business, punctuality goes a long way toward looking professional and winning someone over.
  • Knowing and using the customer’s name immediately in conversation. This says, “I know who you are.” It also shows respect and creates a level of intimacy that’s not forced.
  • Giving the customer your full attention. Don’t hog the airwaves. Give them the opportunity to say what they have to say. This is another way to gain trust. Your silence says, “I’m listening, and I’m open to any questions you might have.”
  • General appearance. This includes, clothing, hair, and hygiene. You know that tie everyone says is “fun”? Don’t wear it to a business meeting. Likewise, don’t do some crazy, trendy thing with your hair. And make sure you smell good without dousing yourself in perfume or cologne to the point where people can smell you long after you’ve left the building. In other words, this is not the day to let your freak flag fly. Just dress well (business casual usually works), shave, neaten your hair, and accessorize moderately.
  • The handshake. In person, the handshake can make or break you. Too firm and you could come off as a bully, contentious, cocky, or competitive. Alternately, it should not be wimpy. A weak handshake says, “I’m insecure” and “I’m not good enough.” Oh, and don’t do the two-handed, hand-sandwich handshake. You know, it’s a regular handshake until your second hand comes in for the kill on the back of their hand. That is the handshake equivalent of a hug and should be reserved for people who aren’t your potential clients. No high fives, or fist bumps, or fist bumps with explosion either. That just goes without saying. It might sound silly, but practice your handshake with someone you know well to get it to the right calibration for first-impression optimization.
  • A marriage of verbal and non-verbal communication. While you’re using your words to good effect, don’t forget to smile; not like a maniac, not like the Cheshire Cat, just a nice regular, approachable-seeming smile. And make eye contact. Don’t look down, sideways, or up at what might be the customer’s distracting toupee. Don’t nod like a bobble-head doll when they’re speaking—that makes you look too eager to please and/or a little on the crazy side. Never finish the client’s sentences for them. Look the prospect in the eye while conversing. As with the handshake, this is something you can practice on people if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
  • Being prepared. You’ll have less anxiety and more authority when you’re well-versed in who the customer is, what their business is, what their needs or possible needs are, and what you have to offer. The more you know, the more at ease you’ll be, and the more chance you’ll have of prevailing.

Making a winning first impression must be part of your overall sales methodology. Think about how you handled the meet-and-greet in your last sales meeting. Did that person become a client, or have you never heard from them again? The first impression doesn’t account for all won or lost opportunities, of course, but without a good one you’re sure to get nowhere in the blink of an eye.