First Impressions are more than meets the eye

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“Have you ever tried to put on a fresh pair of eyes and walked into your service department as if you were a customer? What do you see? Is it an easy, clean and organized process you offer customers? Do the same in the showroom. Or, imagine you just bought the dealership and you’re looking around for things you’d like to change…”   — Autodealer Monthly, 2015

This is one statement that causes me to stop and think about the customer experience each time I go back to read it. No one famous, but such a simple and effective reminder that we should always try to see what our customers see.

It’s even more pertinent in an environment where people make rapid judgements about your business and how they feel about being your customer. In many cases, these are their first impressions and even regular customers have “first impressions” when they contact or visit your dealership for service. In fact, there’s a first impression component in every single interaction between you and your existing customers.


There have been many studies on the importance of first impressions in providing a positive or negative customer experience. Most of those who have studied their impact agree that there is a strong “halo” effect produced by first impressions.

And many say that a negative first impression is more likely to result in a halo that is more difficult to reverse. Building a relationship is critical to a positive customer experience and to building loyalty.

A leading psychology publication (Psychology Today) contends that positive first impressions lead to “social cohesion,” the foundation of a good relationship. Negative first impressions lead to “biases and social prejudice.”

Getting off on the right foot is clearly important and in the current context, attention must be paid to much more than the first time the customer walks through your door.

First impressions are increasingly multidimensional — it’s not just what the customer sees

The old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression still holds, but these days it is about so much more than just appearances or the first physical contact or meeting on the phone or in person.

There are now many more ways to make a first impression — more things that can go well and more things that can go badly and derail a potentially good customer experience. It’s a much more complex environment than it used to be and each aspect plays a role in determining the customer relationship, existing or new.

Clearly, it’s not just what the customer sees, but what they experience in their interaction with your business at all levels and often long before they set foot in the dealership.

There are now many more ways to make a first impression — more things that can go well and more things that can go badly and derail a potentially good customer experience.


Apart from being much more of a challenge to manage in today’s world, first impressions are far more intuitive than rational. I would be the first to admit that the customer experience measurement industry is not good at all in understanding the intuitive vs. the rational components of how customers perceive things. We miss much of the truth with our highly rational and blunt survey techniques that focus mostly on process.

Recently, I came across an excellent book that addresses the issue of the intuitive side of the customer experience. The book, The Intuitive Customer, is written by Colin Shaw and Ryan Hamilton both acclaimed teachers and business professionals at Emory University in Atlanta.

It’s an eye-opener and provides very direct and helpful insights into the intuitive side of how customers think. They identify seven “imperatives for moving your customer experience to the next level” and their perspective is, in my view, highly pertinent to understanding why first impressions matter so much. The seven imperatives are (with comments in italics):

  1. Recognize that customers decide emotionally and justify rationally. (This is where our surveys and analytics usually fall short — they are highly rational.)
  2. Embrace the all-encompassing nature of customers’ irrationality. (Hence the halo effect of first impressions.)
  3. Understand that customers’ minds can be in conflict with themselves. (Again, a shortfall of the arbitrary and rational survey process that often produces seemingly conflicting and hard to understand results.)
  4. Commit yourself to understanding and predicting customer habits and behaviour. (This is where incisive and focused analytics plays a role, especially when it comes to customer retention.)
  5. Uncover the hidden causes and unintended consequences of customers wanting things to be easy. (Perhaps the elaborate and detailed processes often used for “on-boarding” first-time customers are off-putting and should be incorporated at a later stage.)
  6. Accept that apparently irrelevant aspects of your customer experience are sometimes the most important. (This, to me is one of the most important and most difficult aspects of the customer experience, but it points to the need to pay attention to detail, no matter how unimportant it might seem.)
  7. Realize that the only way to build customer loyalty is through customer memories. (At first contact, these memories are likely to stick and be powerful determinants of the relationship.)

(Source: The Intuitive Customer: Colin Shaw & Ryan Hamilton)

It’s probably worth mapping out the whole process behind the customer experience in your dealership — from initial contact, wherever that might occur, to the follow-up process.


There’s also a consensus among many who study the impact of first impressions that they do matter, a lot, but that in the end, it’s substance that “has the final word.” You can do a great job creating a positive first impression, but if everything after that falls down, it’s time, resources and effort wasted.

It’s probably worth mapping out the whole process behind the customer experience in your dealership — from initial contact, wherever that might occur, to the follow-up process. It encompasses how your business presents itself to customers and prospects in any context, how you “greet” them and introduce yourself, how you treat them and how you close the experience.

This need not be a hugely onerous and detailed task and should focus on simple ways of making the customer feel that your business is focused on their experience from their first contact.

I always remember how some luxury hotel chains introduced the “10/4 rule” many years ago. This required staff to make eye contact with and greet a guest if they passed within 10 feet of each other and to make a positive comment if they passed within 4 feet of each other.

This is a simple and cost-free way of making a good impression, whether for the first time or with an existing customer. If you walked through your dealership today, how do you see your staff interacting with customers?

The customer experience is a combination of both rational and intuitive components and first impressions are highly intuitive experiences. So take a walk in the customer’s shoes and cover the journey from beginning to end.

Look at your social media presence, your website, your digital communications content and technology and your facility and try to see and feel what your customers do.

It’s worthwhile going beyond just making sure that you have a presentable receptionist, an updated facility or a slick website or Facebook page. It’s how it all comes together and draws the customer in that matters.

Many Parts to First Impressions


  • Design
  • Appearance
  • How does it feel?
  • Efficiency and organization
  • How is it run?


  • In person
  • On the phone
  • On line
  • Reputation
  • Engagement

Social Media

  • What are you saying?
  • Where are you saying it?


  • Accuracy
  • Professionalism
  • Up-to-date and easy to navigate?
  • Speed and quality of response and communication (email, text)

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