Rules for Making a Good Impression

Among the seven suggestions: Respond to e-mails within 24 hours. And don't use business cards as cues to bombard new contacts with pitches

Getting favorable word out on a tiny budget is one of the perennial challenges facing small-business owners. Advertising is often too expensive, so most business owners rely on good old fashioned networking and word of mouth. However some are better at it than others (see's Smart Answers podcast, 4/18/07, "Instituting a Client Appreciation Program"). Here are seven rules that will guarantee a strong first impression and a powerful, lasting one.

Rule #1: Respond within 24 Hours

During the course of researching my next book, I came across an interesting trend. The people who run the most successful companies are the most responsive. When I leave a voice message or send an e-mail these individuals get back to me immediately with information, whether they're at the office or traveling. One woman who oversees 5,000 employees makes it a policy to respond to e-mail within 24 hours. She says her responsiveness provides a model for her employees. If she responds quickly to employee questions or concerns, they in turn understand the importance of getting back to customers in a short amount of time.

Even if you don't have an immediate answer, acknowledge receiving an e-mail or voice message within 24 hours or less, and let the person know you're considering the request or taking action on it.

Rule #2: Greet People with Enthusiasm

When a customer or employee calls and you choose to answer, it implies that you have time to talk. Far too many people continue to multitask during phone conversations. Those of us on the other end of the line can sense it, especially when you give one-word answers to our questions and we hear typing in the background!

Give your customers and employees your full attention. Greet them like you're sincerely excited to hear from them. And if the time isn't right, be professional enough to set a later time to give them your full attention.

Rule #3: Make Eye Contact

In conversations with customers or employees, look them in the eye. I know you might love your Blackberry, but please refrain from checking your device during the conversation. Think about how it makes you feel when the person you're talking to continually takes her eyes off you to check out other people in the room. I'll tell you how I feel—like it's a waste of time to even finish the conversation.

Give customers and employees your full attention. It makes people feel as though their opinions and insights are valued. It will help you make a powerful and lasting impression.

Rule #4: Leave Smart Voice Messages

First of all, don't leave long, rambling messages with your phone number at the end. Keep the script concise. Leave your name, time you called, and phone number at the beginning. Repeat the phone number at the end, s-l-o-w-l-y. There's also nothing worse than a drawn out game of phone tag. It can't hurt to leave a specific time when you can be reached. Of course, if you leave a time, be there to answer the call!

Rule #5: Respect Contacts

A conference organizer recently told me attendees have started complaining about fellow participants who treat business cards they have picked up at booths as open invitations to cram in-boxes with solicitations. If someone gives you a card, it's an invitation to begin a conversation. It isn't permission to leave a constant bombardment of e-mail sales pitches under the guise of "newsletters." It's also not an invitation to send 10-MB files that explain what your business does.

Rule #6: Mind Your E-Mail

Speaking of e-mail, keep your correspondence concise. Time is limited. Use a subject line with no more than three to five words that grab your reader's attention. Give the pertinent information in the first line or two, and keep your correspondence to one or two short paragraphs (unless of course a detailed memorandum is expected). Also, don't forget to use proper punctuation and grammar. The spell-check function exists on your computer for a reason. Use it.

Rule #7: Remember Small Touches

When was the last time you received a handwritten note? I bet you remember it. I do. After a brief conversation with the chief executive officer of a well-known franchisor, I was surprised to receive an envelope in the mail with a short handwritten thank-you note along with several coupons for his product. The coupons were for small amounts, but the gesture left a big impression on me.

My insurance and financial planning adviser gets plenty of business from me because of numerous, small touches during the year. Several times a year I can expect to receive a handwritten note, a short voice message, or a copy of an article that I might find valuable given what he knows about my interests. None of these touches are accompanied by a hard sell, but I wouldn't consider bringing my business to anyone else.

Business is far too competitive to risk making a bad impression. But it's not that hard to make a positive one. Just think about the way you like to be treated as a client. Follow these seven rules to stand apart.

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