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First Impressions: The Seriousness of Touchpoints in the Customer Experience

By Renie Cavallari Founder & Chief Inspirational Officer, Aspire Marketing

First impressions happen in a nanosecond. They are not singular moments. They tend to build on each other, and once they are formed, they are hard to shift.

They come together to tell your true story as seen through the viewer's perspective.  Shortly, you will have an impression of me as an author. The same is true for your guests as each impression leads them, both consciously and unconsciously, on an experiential journey that concludes with what they think, feel, expect, and most powerfully, believe about us, whether true or untrue. With impressions, the truth is as the viewer sees it, period.

Much like the opening act of a play, these impressions unfold as a variety of touchpoints. The line outside the theater; the ease or chaos at the box office; the ticket takers and greeters; the tone of the "shut your phone off messaging" and, the rising of the curtain for the first act which captures the set, story, and characters. For most of us, every touchpoint along the way builds or depletes our experience. If we aren't happily engaged and connected by the first act's curtain close, the impression is set and there is little to no recovery or mercy if we haven't liked the experience.

First impressions are collections of moments that happen all over the place and long before our first meeting. Our impressions are personal. If you are an on-time person, think of your first impression when someone is late. Maybe you are particular about how people dress? Think of your first impression of the person who shows up disheveled. In both of these instances, the person may be extraordinary, those first impressions not being a reflection of who they are. The first impression starts what I call, "My Book on You". The 'book' is the collection of impressions and it is formed early and tends to hold its theme throughout 'the read'.

From the moment a potential guest explores your website, sees a single comment on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Instagram or other social media post, your fingerprints are establishing impressions that tell your story. Today, first impressions are ongoing impressions. They build your DNA for better and for worse.

Impressions define your brand. Impress me or die.

Hello Colombia

Recently I visited my 64th country, Colombia. I have a serious wanderlust problem, so I tend to have my service travel expectations in check. And even for me, this was a rough trip. American Airlines had more human error than I have ever experienced; so many delays I stopped counting as it wasn't helping my attitude, missed connections with no options, lost bags and worse yet, indifferent and far too many service departments who evidently can't talk to one another. 

Bad impressions, one after another. It was so bad that one customer service person started giving me $250 vouchers as she couldn't believe the mess. (For the record, she was the only one of two proactively engaged customer service agents of the 16 service agents I got to know over a twelve-day vacation. Total hours lost: 105; the equivalent of 4-plus days, or 36% of my vacation, but who's counting? Everyone.

Impressions unconsciously answer the question "how shall I engage?"  from a guest's perspective. Shall I beg for assistance? Be kind? Indignant? Cry? How we handle guest challenges forms their strongest impression… it determines the answer to the most important customer question you face: Can I trust you?

Welcome to Medellin…

After understanding that our luggage was still somewhere in Miami, we jumped in a cab and began our 45-minute journey to town.

As I arrived the hotel, there was a dog sniffing all bags. It gave me pause, but I came to get used to it, primarily because of how the whole procedure was executed.

The security officer (and he was definitely an officer) was always smiling and friendly. He was trained to not just ensure safety, but also to make guests feel comfortable and that he was there for them. He was genuine with words of welcome, and the dog was unintimidating and doing his job. It was my first impression…

They also had a woman security officer with a metal detector wand. No different than the process at TSA, she went to work. It felt awkward, but she was both welcoming and engaging. Another first impression…

In our world, we have real security challenges and how we execute against them is vital to ensuring that people feel safe, but also not afraid or uncomfortable.

At the same hotel, the front desk team was always understaffed. Upon arrival and throughout our two stays, there was always a line regardless of the time of day. Part of this challenge was that the front desk was also the concierge. You can imagine the time it took to get someone checked in, offer them their welcome drink, hand them their key, and offer to help them with any information, activities or dinner recommendations. 

Hotels have rules; some real, and some just old ways of doing new things. When the polite gentleman told us they would call us with our dinner reservation options, we knew that there was no way they would be able to get to it as there were at least 3 check-ins behind us. I'm no math whiz, but considering each check-in was taking approximately 22 minutes (I'm a strategist so I watch things like this), and who knows how many people would be joining the line, we didn't have much confidence in hearing from anyone anytime soon. In the end, we never heard from anyone. And realistically, how can anyone, including a superhero, keep up with that service demand? 

Lines make people nuts and they make first, middle and lasting impressions.  Guests lose confidence and start calling, thereby making new lines and further tying up staff. The impression one gets is "who is running this place?"

14 Ways to Make Better Impressions

  1. The single most important controllable impression is how you make a person feel. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness. They matter more than most people realize.

  2. Be proactive: When guests see you proactively reacting to a buffet, so nothing is running low at the 15-minutes-before-closing-it-down mark, they notice. When guests see the "line building at the front desk" they notice how quickly back-up steps in. They wonder, "If Trader Joe's can figure out line management, why can't a hotel?"

  3. If your website is not interactive and intuitive to navigate you are sunk. I don't want to have a lobotomy trying to book a room, and I am not interested in your 27 room types. Make it easy, and I will buy. Don't believe me? Ask Apple.

  4. Don't offer services you can't deliver. Every employee knows and it just lowers your rating. Only management is delusional.

  5. Train your people and have reasonable expectations of what they can deliver based on the tools, technology and operating realities they face. I know it sounds obvious, but ensure everyone is smiling, competent at their job, and can actually provide the help they offer.

  6. How a front desk person connects with people in the check in line sets the tempo of their impression. It begins the confirmation of their pre-arrival perceptions/impressions (remember "My Book on You")  The front desk is your opening act.

  7. Be sure you have checking-up processes with your guests. Make it a supervisor's job, someone with the authority to deal with issues immediately. It doesn't have to be a call. If you have a big breakfast crowd, there you go. This proactive approach pays off in your endless pursuit of correcting a bad review 2 weeks later. No one checks out anymore, so it doesn't happen like the standard was written, except for the Forbes Shoppers (flag tip).

  8. All 1st impressions are about the human connection.  It is a must to be authentic and present with the customer in front of you.

  9. Want to piss off a customer quickly? Show them you are not listening. This impression has a huge ripple effect, as it sets the tone that the guest is best served to repeat themselves. Having to call back to double check something causes wasted manpower time and redundancy of effort. This all hits your P&L.

  10. Engage beyond the 5-foot rule. I am not sure who decided that 5 feet is the right number to engage, and I can't find any research anywhere that says it is at this point that a guest feels neglected. If you can make contact in a polite way, go beyond 5 feet. Engagement builds connection. Connection builds trust.

  11. Believe what people say on social media and do something about it. Stop defending, explaining or excusing the feedback. The best way to kill a bad impression is to make sure it is never mentioned again. Then it's just one person's opinion.

  12. Leaders' impressions should follow this rule: How do people feel when you walk into a room…and how do they feel when you walk out of the room  These are power impressions, the ones that last and the ones that define who you really are.

  13. Leaders need to understand that service is a culture. Yes, there must be training so people have the skills and processes to do their service responsibilities but how people respond, what your people say, how they do their job, what they think about your guests and their role in service delivery reflects your guest experience. That means service reflects leadership. When they are writing something bad about your people, they are mostly speaking about the way they see the management of the hotel. It's a painful truth.

  14. Arrival: the first 5 minutes at your hotel sets the tone for how this guest interacts.  If there is trash out front (and please move the trash cans away from the front door), people will unconsciously think, "Is this place clean?" A line tells us "This place is understaffed" and "Where is the management?" A sassy front desk agent sets the tone and makes guests more difficult in their interactions. If your hotel has an unusual odor, people will wonder, "Is that the food?" Our brains are amazing computers and they are powered by our senses. What we see, feel, smell, taste and hear tells us what we think. These thoughts are our impressions; these thoughts write 'My Book on You'.

First impressions establish our overall impression as they are a collection of all impressions. But the impact first impressions have is they create the narrative to 'My Book on You' and provide answers to our most important questions:

Can I trust you? Do you value me?

It doesn't matter if it is a guest, a first date, a new client target, an employee's first day, or the top dog's staff meeting. Your actions are my impressions. People are always watching. It's a lot like going to the theater.

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