I was checking into a hotel recently when I had one of those “aha” customer service experiences. The woman behind the check-in counter had her head down, looking at something on her screen, as I approached with my luggage rumbling behind me. Her head stayed down when I stopped at the counter. I waited.
Maybe she didn’t see me. I moved a little closer so that the button on my new shirt, the white one with the light blue stripes, was touching the counter. Nothing.
A full minute passed and I gently cleared my throat. She still didn’t look up. I estimated the distance between me and her to be around 28 inches. If I got any closer, I’d have to climb on the counter. Another minute went by, and I checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally left my invisibility cloak on. I hadn’t. So I finally cleared my throat and said, “Hi.”
Without looking up, she said matter-of-factly, “I’ll be right with you.”
Huh. She had known I was there all along. I don’t think I’d had the opportunity to offend her yet, so the only conclusion left was that she just didn’t care.
When she finally did raise her head and talk with me, she was smiling, pleasant, humorous and efficient – all the skills one would expect from a customer service professional. When our interaction was finished and I was walking to my room, it occurred to me that I still had a bad feeling about her. Despite the whole experience was largely excellent, I couldn’t shake that first impression.
It really shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. First impressions is one of the dominant themes in our customer service training programs. We will often spend upwards to an hour exploring that first five seconds of an interaction.
People judge you in the blink of an eye
An hour of training? Are first impressions really that important in creating outstanding customer service? Well, consider this: in 2006, Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov discovered that people begin to make judgements about us after just 1/10th of a second. That’s the blink of an eye, and it’s a little scary. Scarier still is the same research, plus that of Nisbett & Ross in 1980, telling us that first impressions don’t change over time – even when later evidence overwhelmingly tells us we’re wrong.
So, basically, if I were to walk into a room and your first impression of me is, “Well, he looks like a jerk,” I’m in trouble. Because if I don’t do anything to change that impression within just a minute or two, you will think of me as a jerk forever. I could save the world, and you’d be saying, “Yeah, sure he saved the world — but he’s still a jerk.”
The old sayings are true
The old sayings are true: “First impressions are lasting impressions,” and “You never have a second chance to make a first impression.” In the world of customer service it’s the one skill set you can’t ignore, because if you blow it, you can never really recover. The skills you need are many, but here are the big ones:
In a face-to-face interaction, your body language begins speaking long before your mouth does – and often before you’ve even seen the customer. Your smile, eye-contact (or absence of them), and your posture are being instantly recorded by customers.
Tone of voice
If you are on the telephone, the first impression customers get is through your tone of voice. Do you sound interested? Bored? Mechanical? This is one of the most neglected skills out there. The level of energy you put into your voice when you are face-to-face with a customer is not even close to being good enough when you are on the phone.
Your choice of words in that first five seconds is critical. They will either send the message that you care or that you don’t. There are better and worse ways to say everything. Choose the better ways.
The lesson goes far beyond customer service
The importance of first impressions can’t be overstated in the delivery of outstanding customer service. Nor should we ignore the importance of first impressions in our personal lives. Going to a job interview? Guess how long it takes for most interviewers to decide whether you make it to the next stage.
You got it. In the blink of an eye.
First date? Blink. First day in class? Blink. First day in the new job? Blink. Meeting the other parents at a sports event? Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink
Getting first impressions right probably isn’t one of those things that any of us should take for granted.