First impression: One chance to establish trust

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They say first impressions are lasting impressions.

Years ago, I was being courted by a large, national company to become its sales rep for the northeastern United States. It was a desirable job with a good salary and commission plan, a company car (boy, those were the days) and a liberal travel allowance.

The VP of sales invited me to breakfast at the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia to close the deal. As we were eating in the plush surroundings of the old, aristocratic building, he pitched me on the merits of the company and the benefits I would enjoy as a valued employee.

As he talked and got more excited, a spittle of egg drooled down the side of his mouth where it stayed for most of our conversation. It mesmerized me; it’s all I saw or could think about as he worked hard to persuade me to accept the position. I wanted to say something, but I was afraid I’d embarrass the guy.

I told him I’d like to think about it for a day or two, but, in the end, I didn’t accept the offer. I knew I could never work for someone with so little self-awareness, sitting in the middle of the stately Bellevue-Stratford wearing his breakfast.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people won’t remember what you say, but they’ll remember how you made them feel, and that guy made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

It may seem like an irrational decision on my part, but I believe that ridiculous spot of egg spoke volumes about him, and probably about his company, too.

I know I made the right decision.

And that’s the power of first impressions, folks.

It is said that you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and although I think you can work to recover acceptance in some cases, you’re most likely going to sink or swim based on your initial encounter with a prospect.

That’s because first impressions are all about establishing trust, and once you burst that balloon, it’s hard to resuscitate. People buy from people they trust, and without gaining that trust up front, you’re not going to get very far in the sales process.

According to Sun Tzu, every battle is won or lost before it’s fought, and that predetermined outcome is based on preparation and strategy.

Back when salesmen were only allowed to wear dark suits and dress shirts (unlike their female counterparts, who had a bit more freedom in their sartorial statements), a tie was your only wardrobe-means of individual expression.

Accordingly, every morning I would pick out a tie based on the day’s activities and the kind of impression I wanted to make. If I wanted to be strong and aggressive, I’d wear a red tie; if I desired to be seen as energetic and creative, it would be yellow; and if I needed to show support and patience, I’d pick out a blue one.

Clothes reveal much about you at first glance, and as a professional salesperson, your choice of attire will go a long way to help produce a good first impression.

Or at least the impression you want to make.

I once owned a company that built and sold advertising on municipal bus shelters. Because I didn’t want people to know I owned the company (since people treat you differently when they know you’re the owner), and because I spent part of my work week visiting sites where we were installing new shelters, I dressed down.

Unless I was meeting with a banker or a large, more formal advertiser, I wore pressed khakis, work boots, a collared work shirt (button-down, of course) and a tie.

That was my look in those days, and it was a very comfortable look, both for me and, generally, for whomever I was with. However, my salesmen were required to wear suits, and saleswomen dresses or pant suits.

And so it came to pass that I was on a trip with one of my salesmen on our way to visit an out-of-town client. I was in my usual, relaxed garb, while the salesman wore a dark suit, starched white shirt and tie.

I was at the wheel as we traveled down a large interstate highway, and we were late. Naturally, as is business as usual for we misunderstood and forsaken drummers, canvassers and knockers, I was pushing the speed limit by what I thought was a reasonable amount.

Unfortunately, the cop who pulled me over didn’t agree.

He asked for my license, registration and insurance card, and went back to his patrol car to check me out on his nifty, dashboard-mounted, compact computer. After a few minutes, he returned to my side window and asked me to step out.

“Oh, crap,” I thought. “What now?”

He led me around to the back of the car and handed me my paperwork.

“I’m not going to give you a ticket,” he said, looking me square in the eye. “I should give you a ticket,” he continued, “since you flew through the posted speed limit by quite a bit. But I don’t want to make you look bad in front of your boss.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I could’ve ended up with egg on my face.”

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