Making a Good Impression

You have only seven seconds. That's how long it takes to make a first impression, say experts in business etiquette. If it's a bad impression, you have your work cut out for you. It takes seven seconds or less to give someone a bad impression and seven meetings to dispel it, says Ginny Pulos, a business etiquette coach in New York City. Bad manners can lose clients. Hilka Klinkenberg of Etiquette

You have only seven seconds. That's how long it takes to make a first impression, say experts in business etiquette. If it's a bad impression, you have your work cut out for you.

“It takes seven seconds or less to give someone a bad impression and seven meetings to dispel it,” says Ginny Pulos, a business etiquette coach in New York City.

Bad manners can lose clients. Hilka Klinkenberg of Etiquette International in New York City recalls a broker she worked with whose elderly client had recently died. The broker set up a meeting with the client's widow. When the widow arrived, Klinkenberg says, the broker came out to meet her in the lobby — a show of good manners, but then just took off to head to his office, leaving her trailing behind. “She was so offended she took a multimillion [dollar] account elsewhere,” Klinkenberg says.

Minding your manners has a big payoff. “If you make a positive first impression, you get a halo effect,” Pulos says. “That means if you do something that hurts your image later in the relationship, the client will likely forgive you.”

Etiquette coaches share their tips for making you an angel in your clients' eyes.

EYE TO EYE

Depth of experience and wise portfolio management don't count for much in crafting a great image (although it's hard to be confident if you're bluffing knowledge). “As much as 93% of the impact of face-to-face communication is your tone of voice and body language,” Pulos says. “If you're incongruent in your voice and body language, people don't trust you no matter what you know.”

The Preparation

  • If you're having a bad day, call a friend before a client meeting and talk about it. That helps restore energy to have a positive meeting.

  • Right before greeting a client, turn up your internal energy level, but “only a quarter of an inch,” Pulos says.

The Greeting

  • Smile and maintain eye contact. Looking away gives the message you're lying, Pulos says.

  • Stand up straight. Slouching gives the message that you really don't want to be with a person, Klinkenberg says.

  • Shake hands “web to web.” Men often avoid giving a full hand to a woman, says Juanita Ecker, head of Professional Image Management in Troy, N.Y.

  • Address by surname unless the client has told you otherwise.

  • Show “friendly reserve,” Klinkenberg says. “You want to be approachable, but serious and conservative.”

The Clothing

  • A business jacket. “A jacket is crucial for both men and women,” Ecker says. “As soon as we take it off, we lose credibility.”

  • Clean, scuff-free shoes. Keep an extra pair in the car for driving.

  • A flat shirt collar. Men should be able to get two fingers between the collar and neck.

  • Pantyhose for women, even with sandals.

  • No sleeveless tops and short skirts. “The more skin a woman shows, the more credibility she loses,” Ecker says.

  • A clean, unmarked briefcase.

The Meeting

  • Hold all phone calls during a meeting. Interruptions make clients feel unimportant.

  • Eliminate nervous habits, such as playing with a pen or twisting a paper clip. That says you may not really know what you say you know.

  • When you visit a client at their home or office, don't put your briefcase or papers on their desk unless you ask first. Don't extend the meeting beyond the time agreed upon. Don't make yourself more comfortable than your host.

The Conversation

  • Clarify what you hear the client saying. Paraphrase the client's answers.

  • Keep a list of open-ended questions handy, but be sure not to ask probing questions early in the conversation.

  • Use nonverbal prompts to keep the client talking.

  • Don't interrupt. “Men tend to interrupt women within the first six seconds of a conversation,” Pulos says.

  • Speak confidently. Don't put questions at the end of your sentences, such as, “We had a good meeting, didn't we?” Pulos says. Eliminate the following starters: I think, I hope, I feel.

  • Don't repeat yourself. It gives the message you're not prepared.

  • Avoid self-trivializing talk. If you make a minor mistake, don't say something like, “Why did I do that, that's so stupid,” Pulos says.

  • If you make a true mistake, apologize only once.

  • Take a public speaking course or head a committee that offers a forum to develop your in-person speaking style.

The Social Situation

  • Treat a client with kid gloves. “Don't introduce a client by saying, ‘This is my best client or this is my best friend,’” Klinkenberg says. “It tells other clients that they're less important.”

  • Don't break eye contact to look for someone else in the room you want to talk to next.

  • Use the “plus-minus-plus” strategy to end a conversation and move on to someone else, Pulos advises. “You might say, ‘I'm happy to have a chance to talk to you about XYZ.’ That's the plus. Then, ‘I have to meet a few other people this evening.’ That's the minus. Finally, ‘Can we talk more over lunch?’ That's the plus.”

ON THE PHONE

The minute your client can't see you, the tone of your voice conveys 80% of your image, says Susan Berkley, head of voice coaching firm, The Great Voice Co. in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

The Preparation

  • Make sure the person answering your phone says, “May I tell so-and-so who's calling?” not, “Who's calling?” The second response implies that calls are being screened and that the client may not be important to you.

  • Respond to every call within 24 hours, even if it's to have your assistant say you're out of town.

  • Set a mirror on your desk to remind you to smile during calls.

  • Pull a client's file before you return a call, so you don't have to put the client on hold to look up information.

  • Use a speakerphone only if continuing a conversation while you do something directly related to the call, and then only after you've asked permission.

  • Use cellular phones only as an emergency tool to notify someone you're running late or to do something on deadline.

  • Prepare your emotional state. Visualize the person you're talking to. Put a photo of the person on your desk during the conversation or even of a family member to remind you to be gracious, Berkley says.

The Conversation

  • Stand up. It adds more energy.

  • Know why you're calling. “Don't waste time with a lot of schmoozing,” Klinkenberg says. “Ask at the beginning if the client has a few minutes to talk. Get to know which clients like to chit-chat.”

  • Don't type on the computer while talking.

  • Soften statements. “Don't say, ‘I need your Social Security number,’” Ecker says. “Explain what you need to gather information for, then ask if they could give their Social Security number.”

  • Realize you don't know your true voice tone. “People never hear themselves as others do,” Berkley says. “Most people don't like their voice and create funny habits, such as speaking too softly or too loudly.”

  • Tape your voice both reading a script and in actual conversation and give it to three friends for feedback, Berkley advises.

  • Attack “verbal viruses,” Berkley says. These are the habitual use of nonwords such as “um,” “like,” “you know,” “well,” “OK” and “sort of.” To overcome, pause and take a breath. You can pause as long as five seconds without a listener noticing. Focusing on breathing will help get you to the next thought without the fear of silence between words. It takes about three weeks to cure a verbal virus, Berkley advises.

  • Slow down. Don't say more than three sentences without asking a question. Be alert to match your pace to the person with whom you're talking.

IN E-MAIL

Poor spelling, grammar and bad jokes in written communications can seriously damage your professional image because the offenses stay in front of a client. Yet many people treat e-mail messages as verbal communication.

  • Ask a client first if you can send information via e-mail. “Older people often have a secretary retrieve their e-mail because they don't know how, so you need to be careful not to send sensitive material,” Klinkenberg says.

  • E-mail should never be an early contact with a client. Avoid mass-mailing e-mails. If you do, make sure to blind copy e-mail addresses.

  • Include a salutation and an ending on e-mails. It sounds abrupt to omit them. Make sure the salutation matches the close. If you address someone by their surname, sign the letter by your surname.

  • Always address a client by his or her surname unless the client tells you otherwise, even if the client calls you by your first name, Klinkenberg says. Don't use first names unless you've done it in person first.

  • Avoid sentences that start with “I;” try to start with “You” instead. Start a letter with a specific reference to something the client said or did in the last communication. It shows you've been listening, Klinkenberg says.

  • Have an automatic e-mail reply that lets clients know why you can't reply immediately.

  • Never send an e-mail until you check it for grammatical mistakes and tone. Don't use all caps; it comes across as shouting. Don't use punctuation faces or jokes. They're often misunderstood.

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