Fair or not, you have only mere moments to make an initial impression on prospective customers and clientele.  Within the first minutes of the encounter, business partners and customers are making rapid assessments about your appearance, your intellect and your business acumen.  Your ability to set up positive expectations can win you the opportunity to build long-term business relationships.  Your inability to do so can end business before it begins.

The importance of projecting an image of professionalism in those first moments cannot be overstated.  How you come across in the first five minutes or less will set the tone for much of your future interactions.  Here are some ways to ensure that you are communicating the right level of professionalism.

After being on time, your dress will be the first statement you make about yourself and your business standards.  Dressing well communicates a certain level of respect for your own business as well as for your potential client.  Appropriate attire allows the attention to remain focused on your business rather than on your person.

Personal posture is one way to express confidence and create a strong business atmosphere.  Standing tall says that you are engaged with the world around you and are ready to handle things.  Poor posture communicates disinterest to others.  Keeping your head up and your eyes fixed on others lets them know that you are interested and attentive to those around you.  These seemingly small clues can help you gain or lose the confidence of potential customers and clients.

At the start of your meeting, greet the other person with a smile and a firm handshake.  Use their name and be sure to give your own name in a clear voice.  A strong voice marks you as a confident person.  During the discussion, be sure to face the speaker and make regular eye contact.  Occasionally, ask pertinent questions to demonstrate your interest in what others have to say.  At the end of your meeting, always express your thanks for the opportunity.

Making Connections
Not every business relationship will be formed in a conference room, however.  Today many business connections are taking place over the phone and via the Internet.  More virtual connections can mean that you have even less time to make that all-important first impression.  You want to maximize the few seconds that customers give to visiting your business webpage or social media outlet.

When putting together your website or creating content for your social media presence, keep the concept of professionalism in mind.  It is possible to be enthusiastic and polished at the same time.  You want to be seen as genuine, but focus on being personable rather than on the power of your personality.  A professional web presentation that is engaging can emulate those important connections that happen in face-to-face encounters.

Apart from a smart web presence, a way to build the attitude of professionalism is to maintain your own appearance, as well as the appearance of your office space.  An office space that reflects high standards will influence how business is conducted.  Similarly, a sloppy office will result in sloppy business interactions.  One example of this might be how promptly and pleasantly phone calls are answered.  According to a ClickFox brand loyalty survey, nearly half (48 percent) of customers determine their own level of loyalty during the very first business interaction.  Handling phone calls professionally matters.  Customers who have to wait on the phone don’t feel like their business is important to you.

Whenever you are out on business calls look sharp and be sure to treat every member of the client’s office staff with courtesy.  Every person you encounter has family and friends that could be potential customers.  It isn’t only clients who are evaluating you, the support staff is also forming an impression.

Identifying Potential Customers
In order to expand your customer/client base you will need to identify your potential customers and reach out to them.  There are tools for determining who your most likely customers will be and who would benefit most from your services.  Now you can develop promotions precisely tuned to those whom you wish to reach.  Your web presence should reflect the values that matter most to your future (hopefully) business partners.  Once you’ve uncovered your target audience, your communications with potential customers has a better chance of making a lasting connection.

But targeted promotions and market segmentation are not the only way to expand your business clientele.  You have opportunities every day to connect with prospective customers.  It can happen with your seatmate on a plane or talking to other parents at children’s sporting events.  It could be at the gym or at a neighborhood gathering.  Simple conversations that happen every day could become business opportunities if handled well.

The important thing in social settings is not to force business into the conversation and not to overwhelm the other person when business comes up naturally.  On the other hand, don’t lose these valuable opportunities to reach into a new sphere of influence.  As with the initial business encounter, you will want to practice professionalism – which is to say, good manners.  Don’t do all the talking.  Listen well to the other person and use verbal and non-verbal cues to let them know you are interested in them and what they have to say.

During these encounters be listening for some point of connection.  It may not even be directly related to your business.  Maybe they enjoy reading a certain author, like Thai food or follow a particular sports team.  Make note of that.

Then within a week of your social meeting, send them an e-mail reminding them of your conversation.  If they like coffee, tell them about a great coffee shop they may not have tried.  If they follow sports, send them a link to a great article on their team.  This connection could turn into a business relationship.  At the least, it can become an opportunity to get on the radar as a referral when they are talking to their friends.

Long-Term Relationships
As important as first impressions are in the business world, they only get your foot in the door.  It will be your business performance over the long haul that wins you successful long-term relationships.  Quality is still the number one way to build customer loyalty.  Customer surveys consistently show that over 80 percent of people remain with a company or brand because they believe in the quality of the goods or service.

There are ways to work on building loyalty, however.  More than 30 percent of those surveyed report that customer service is a number one reason for remaining with a particular brand.  Understanding what great customer service looks like, then, is critical.

Close to 50 percent of customers will become loyal if the business appears to go beyond expectations in resolving issues.  This means handling issues quickly and effectively.  Your customer service is your business lifeline.  You need an easy way for customers to register complaints and you need to be accountable for swiftly addressing them.  Customers who view you as responsive will continue the relationship and will recommend it to someone else.

Rewards programs are another way to maintain long-term relationships with your clients and customers.  You may choose to reward business referrals, customer feedback or even dollars spent, but reward programs do influence customer activity.   Half of those polled say that rewards have increased their business spending.  And most people surveyed say that they would give companies more business if the rewards were greater.

From the initial encounter and throughout your business relationships customers and clients will be forming assessments about you and your brand.  It is important to start well and then to live up to the expectation that you create.  The truth is a first impression allows you the privilege of a business relationship.  The quality of your business performance will live up to, exceed or disappoint that first impression.

Kristi Bailey
Director of Communications

As Director of Communications for the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce, Kristi Bailey is responsible for the management, development and design of Chamber publications including newsletters, electronic correspondence, annual products and news releases. She also is responsible for website content. Ms. Bailey also assists staff in the development of marketing materials.