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The First Impressions Test

It’s been said that “you can know a stranger in 10 seconds but it takes a lifetime to know yourself.” There is something indelible about first impressions. A study of job interviews found that the result could be predicted in the opening moments; with little more than a handshake and hello the interviewer may have already made up their mind.

This could just be snap judgements based on mere appearances. Or perhaps we reveal our character more fluently than we wish. Six years into Vibrant Content, I have found tremendous insight from first impressions of prospective clients. As a business mentor, Ross Porter, once averred: “the contracting phase of a business relationship indicates how the entire relationship will unfold.”

I am increasingly convinced this is true. If a potential client is flighty or takes a long time to get in touch, the ongoing relationship is likely to be marked by similar delays. If they haggle over price in the opening meeting, they will balk at every invoice. If they show up on time and follow-through on their end of things, it bodes well for a smooth working relationship.

This year, I said ‘No’ to a prospective client because something was off about our initial interaction: the first conversation was abrupt and transitioned to a stream of text messages. My suspicions were later confirmed when I learned about the true nature of their business. By contrast, another potential client respected my time so much that she kept our initial chat to just 45 minutes – about half the time it usually takes. Our working relationship since that time has been extremely efficient and smooth.

I’ll resist making a list of the Top 4 things to watch out for in an initial client meeting. Most of this seems like common sense: look for the kind of things you would want to see in any trustworthy relationship. It’s just that in the earlier days of my work I was so keen to “get the job” that I filtered out warning signs. Now I exercise sobriety during the contracting phase and reserve a higher degree of vigilance for red flags.

Paradoxically, I’d caution that the goal of a ‘first impressions test’ is not to winnow the bad clients out from the good ones. We can’t limit the playing field overly much. Some of the hardest clients I’ve had have actually stretched and taught me the most. There will certainly be some deal breakers – and it may help to identify those in advance – but we shouldn’t set off to be too picky. The ‘first impressions test’ simply helps indicate what you are in for if you decide to work together.

For example, one prospective client I met was highly educated but also extremely detail oriented and tended to revise their opinion frequently. I love details and wasn’t daunted by this tendency. But I did use these cues to steer us in the direction of an hourly pricing scheme – where design revisions could be made ad infinitum – rather than a single price for the project.

What about Requests for Proposals (RFP)?

One interesting wrinkle to the first impressions test is the process of applying for projects by RFP. Recently, I’ve been part of several competitive bidding processes. Some have gone our way; others haven’t. Typically organizations keep their cards close in hand. Emails are to “Mr. Buurma” and the personality of decision makers is effaced. RFP bidding is a bit like one-way glass:  they can see you but you can’t see them. This makes it difficult to assess if you will work well together. And unless there’s an interview, all either of you has to go on is the written word – a one-dimensional look at the other.

In one way, RFPs make sense because it builds neutrality into the bidding process. But in another way, it imposes needless bureaucracy and results in a highly impersonal experience. In the world of design, impersonality is a buzz kill. RFPs also tilt the scales in favour of larger organizations who can afford to have a couple staff members writing proposals all day. This tends to drive up the final cost of projects.

In short, I would love to see an alternative to RFP bidding, but haven’t landed on one yet. Cronyism seems worse. Feel free to leave a suggestion below if you have one…


2 thoughts on “The First Impressions Test”

  1. RFP’s are always a challenge. I’ve always viewed them just as a crap-shoot of the lowest price, quickest turnaround, and most value provided at the lowest price. In my business of roofing, first impressions mean a lot because you get to judge what the working relationship might be like while you are completing a job. A good working relationship can lead to future jobs via referrals. RFP’s and roofing are very tough because a lot of the time you have to estimate costs without seeing the job so you build in a buffer but that doesn’t always work in your favor. I wish I had a suggestion on how to make RFP’s more personable but it seems it’s just a quick way to get a bunch of quotes without having to spend to much time getting the quotes. Great article by the way.

    1. Rob – thanks so much for your comment. You’re right that pricing is a push/pull on RFPs, and can be a shot in the dark even if you’re an experienced estimator. I hadn’t thought that my reservations about web design RFPs applying to the trades as well, but it makes sense that they do.

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