By Jean Chatzky
First impressions are everything. This rings true at dinner parties (don't drink too much wine) and on a first date (same). But it's also, of course, true in business. If you blow it with a customer or client, they're unlikely to give you further business, no matter how many apologies you offer up. Worse, they may tell friends of their experience. Soon, the tale of your screw up is all over the blogosphere, if not the actual town.
So how, exactly, do you get it right? Here are tips from Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport and Leave a Positive Impression.
- Polish your presence. Starting online. One of the best investments you can make is a good Web designer who can create a clean, eye-catching site for your business. Trust me, it's worth the money, because it's often the first thing customers and clients see. If your website is disorganized, confusing or just plain unprofessional (no music, please!), they'll assume your work is as well and move on to the next guy. Make sure to extend this advice to every other aspect of your business—business cards, your e-mail correspondence (there's no excuse for poor spelling or bad grammar), your signage, social networking websites, and your office.
- Get off the computer. Speaking of social networking—it's a handy tool. Facebook and Twitter provide free ways to get your business and your message out into the community. You can interact with your customers, solicit feedback, announce specials or deals, and drive people to your website and ultimately, your business. But they can't stand alone, says Fine. "A favorite quote by John Le Carre I often use applies: 'A desk is a dangerous place to view the world.' Social networking such as Twitter and Facebook create buzz and visibility, and Groupon brings in streams of customers, but without positive face to face interactions, a patient complains about an uncaring doctor or a restaurant loses customers because they're not warmly welcomed." Don't forget about the power of face to face interaction.
- Network. We all know networking is key to any successful business. But you can't just show up at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event and call it a day. In order to leave a lasting impression, you have to make an effort. A couple tips from Fine: Use names (correctly); don't rely on nicknames or avoid using a name that you're not sure how to pronounced; do your research ahead of time so you don't run into this kind of trouble (or, simply ask). When someone offers a business card, take a moment to really read it and acknowledge something about it—the logo, the company name, the design. It shows respect and interest. And finally, be sure to introduce people if they don't already know each other. It's just common courtesy, and if you facilitate an interaction that turns into a business deal, they may return the favor some day.
- Show a genuine interest. In your customers, clients and employees. If a client has a complaint, repeat the specifics to make sure you understand what happened and show that you're really listening to the facts. And make the questions in your everyday interactions specific, instead of superficial, says Fine. "Instead of 'How are you?' ask 'What's been going on with the kids?' Instead of 'How is the project?' ask 'Can you bring me up to date on the project?' Instead of 'How was your weekend?' ask, "What did you have going on this weekend?' Close-ended questions sound clichéd and not sincere in everyday conversation."
- Be a problem solver. After all, that's what any business is truly about. When you decided to set up shop, you no doubt identified a problem in the market or community that you could solve. Follow through on that premise in your day-to-day interactions, says Fine. "Customers, clients and employees are all looking to have a problem solved. The organization that supplies good feelings is the one that we are most likely to invest our loyalty in." That means going above and beyond, constantly brainstorming how you can do better, and being flexible in your approach.
Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com.