First impressions count

Mar 01, 2004

Last week, I took my oldest daughter Christy (she’s a high school junior) and one of her friends on a day of college tours. We went to three schools and took the guided tour at each. I was proud at how they had the entire day mapped out in advance— precise MapQuest directions connecting the admissions office at each location and a schedule of when the tours were conducted. It was a real eye-opener for me— and I’m not just talking about the tuition costs! The first school we went to did a horrible job in just about every way. The class descriptions were printed on Xerox paper and hard to find amidst all of the offerings on display in the admissions office. The tour guide who greeted us five minutes AFTER the tour was supposed to start was a slovenly chap with a speech impediment and a sour attitude. Besides the fact that he would not turn around and talk to the dozen-and-a-half parents and kids so we could hear him, at one point, the fellow even launched into an a bitter tirade about how he wasn’t allowed to take some sort of art class he was interested in because he wasn’t an art major! The clincher came as we walked through a courtyard at one of the freshman dorm complexes. The first thing I saw after rounding the corner was an old TV set that had apparently been thrown out the door of some spoiled brat’s dorm room. There, on a still snowy patch of ground, was the picture tube, with the cabinet being about four feet away lying face down in dirt. I knew right then and there that my kid wasn’t going to go to college at this dump! The next school to which we went— Amherst College (not to be confused with UMass-Amherst)— was the complete opposite. Well-designed course descriptions and recruitment materials were in the neat and clean admissions office lobby. Our tour guide, a 19-year-old freshman named Josh (or was it Jason?) was a well-dressed, poised, clean-cut kid who was a great communicator. He was confident, stopped and faced us every time he had something to say, and was completely candid in sharing his opinions about the school. He was willing to tell us anything and everything. And every building on campus as well as the campus itself was immaculately maintained— with clean glass windows, doors that didn’t have 45 handbills each plastered to them, and more. The dorms looked like an inn, the cafeteria like a fine restaurant. And the last school we went to was more like the second. It did a great job. The point of all this is that selling colleges is like selling an A/E or environmental firm. Whether we are trying to sell the company’s services to prospective clients or sell the opportunity at the company to a prospective employee, we need to be conscious of first impressions. You, as the leaders of your firm, have to take an interest in the impression your firm is likely to create. What do first-time visitors see as they pull up to your building? Is it easy to find? Is there good signage? Is the parking lot clean? Is there peeling paint? Are there decrepit company vehicles parked in the side lot? What about when you go inside? Is there someone there to greet visitors or is there only a bell to ring that no one pays any attention to? Does the person seem enthusiastic and alive and do they enjoy their job or is it the person dispirited, depressed, and despondent? Is the literature on your company well-designed and available to take if someone wants it? How is the lighting? Is your conference room clean and does the furniture match? When you walk through the cubicle areas are they clean? Are there a lot of abandoned cubes where people once worked but are now being used as junk collectors? How about the offices— are they clean and orderly? Are the bulletin boards being maintained? Are the coffee pots being kept clean? How about the people who deal with clients? Do they speak clearly? Do they dress properly? Do they have confidence when they express their ideas? Do they know how to hold their knives and forks? Are their cars clean? There are so many factors that go into creating this first impression. If you are the boss, you need to do a little role playing. Act as if you are a first-time visitor and record your impressions as you approach the building and walk through it. And if you see things that need to change, as with all other necessary changes that your firm needs in 2004, make it happen! Originally published 03/01/2004.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.