Ask an Expert: You've got to impress clients from the get-go

Q: Help! I own a small consultancy business. A new client e-mailed me a few days ago but the message ended up in my spam folder, as did her follow-up. Now she won't return my calls. How can I get her back? — Aaron

A: You probably can't.

The new client concluded, fairly or unfairly (but fairly, I think) that if things are going wrong already, at the start of your working relationship, it does not bode well for work down the road.

But I suggest that a bigger issue is at play, namely, the value and power of first impressions. And especially in this economy, first impressions are more important than ever.

Back in my UCLA days, I once got a job as at a new pizza joint. My roommate at the time gave me some advice that has served me well ever since. "When you get a new job," he told me, "work extra hard the first month. Do extra without being asked. Say yes to everything. They will see what a good, hard worker you are, and forever more will look at you through that lens." I must say that I have since found this to be quite accurate.

The old saying is true: You don't get a second chance to make a great first impression.

Think about the e-mail fiasco above. Do you think that the client would have walked away if this had happened a few months into the relationship, after she had seen how valuable Aaron's work was? Of course not; she might have been annoyed a bit, but she probably would not have cut him off.

And today, in this battered economy, my sense is that potential customers seem to be even more fickle, instinctively knowing that it's a buyer's market out there. "I can always take my business elsewhere, and probably find what you are selling cheaper anyway," they seem to be thinking.

So you gotta make a superb first impression.

But in this e-world, don't think that first impressions simply come from face-to-face meetings. Far from it. Your great first impression has to take into account all of the following:

Website:Make no mistake, these days, people judge you as much by your website as anything else. If you don't have one, or have one that looks like your teenage daughter created it, or it has say a '© 2003' at the bottom, or is otherwise dated and/or unprofessional, you are losing potential clients, no doubt about it.

E-mail:Do you respond to emails in a timely manner? What about the form of your emails? If you use lower case letters (as far too many business people do), or you don't use proper grammar, spacing, or punctuation (again, far too common), or if you fail to appreciate that email is hardly different than a business letter, then again, you are making a bad first impression.

Storefront/ Office:You might be able to get away with having a disheveled office or store if you are some sort of artist, but even then, I doubt it. People will judge the quality and professionalism of your business by its physical appearance, like it or not.

Phone:Often, the first impression that people will have of your business is how they are treated on the phone. Do they get a real person or endless voicemail? Is the real person they speak with friendly or cold and aloof? And if you think this is not really that much of a concern, think about the last time you ended up in voicemail heck and how you felt about that business.

Signage:The very first thing anybody may notice about your business is it sign or signs. What does it say about your business if yours are old, dilapidated, out of date, or are hard to read?

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