Michael Manners Associates, a consultancy focusing on performance improvement in the SME market, management development, psychometric assessments, recruitment processes and sales training looks at why being prepared for a first meeting creates a good first impression.
As a senior manager in the auto-recycling industry you may be faced with a first meeting with a highly influential executive from the insurance world, or maybe a new bank manager, perhaps your local or police authority. In any case, you want to make a good first impression because substantial business may depend on it. You need to be not just the best that you can, but the best that can be – and that takes effort. Such meetings may take you out of your comfort zone, but if you practise hard and follow these notes it does get easier and even become enjoyable. Never, never wing it; preparation is everything.
It may be trite and banal but it is nevertheless a truism that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Research has shown that it is common to make a judgement in the first seven seconds of the first meeting and firm conclusions are drawn in the first four minutes. The rest of the meeting is then spent justifying their assessment, often in the face of conflicting evidence which is known to psychologists as ‘confirmation bias’.
You need to be on the credit side of the balance sheet so you must make your contact want to deal with you and need to minimise any reasons for turning you down. Disadvantages in your proposition must be outweighed by meaningful and substantial advantages. Project yourself as someone who is sincere and on top of your brief. Know your stuff because no one likes to deal with an incompetent bluffer.
How do you impress in the first four minutes and win your contact’s attention and respect? It starts well before every first meeting with research so that you go into it armed with knowledge about the person, their organisation and the areas in which they have expertise and responsibility. This will give you confidence and help to dispel nervousness on your part. Some nervous people over-compensate and come across as brash or arrogant.
Having done your homework, the key elements are:
Grooming – make sure your personal hygiene and appearance are wholesome. Fresh breath is vital so avoid alcohol, smoking and spicy foods beforehand.
Dress – it may be best to play safe and wear a business suit and possibly a tie for men. The best shirt is probably white. For females a white blouse and business costume either with a skirt or trousers. Always project a professional image and try to reflect the norm of their dress code not yours. Rugby kit and trainers will get you remembered but for the wrong reasons.
Eye contact – friendly, smile with your eyes, show that you are delighted to be meeting.
Handshake – firm but not a bone crusher, one-handed and make sure your hand is dry and not sweaty.
Charm – be charming which does not mean being smarmy but delightful, attractive and pleasing.
Impact – let your personality show, make an immediate impact without going over the top.
Voice – make it interesting by varying pitch and tone. Demonstrate sincerity and that you are keen to help solve problems.
Fact-finding – ask intelligent and relevant questions that you formulated at the research stage. Get your contact to open up and then state with conviction how your experience and specialist expertise can solve their issues.
Respect – treat this individual with great respect and take care not to come across as a condescending know-all. Ask them personal questions – most people like to talk about themselves. Questions such as how long have you been with this company? What do you find most challenging about your job? Where does your department fit into the overall structure?
Professionalism – make sure you project yourself as a true professional by knowing what you are talking about without bluff and bluster.
Listen – make a conscious effort to improve your listening skills – a good first meeting is probably one where your contact talks for two-thirds of the time and you talk for one third. You have two ears and one mouth and that ratio applies. Never interrupt or finish their sentence.
Enthusiasm – be enthusiastic about your subject, your product and your market. Take the opportunity to demonstrate that it is an area that really interests you.
Body language is the greater part of communication so pay attention to it. When meeting at their office do not sit down until you are invited to do so. Do not place your briefcase on their desk or table (it goes on the floor at your side). Do not put papers or a laptop on their desk or table without asking if it is OK to do so because people can be very possessive about their fiefdoms. If meeting at your premises make sure your hosting is impeccable and warn everyone of the importance of this visitor and to be on best behaviour.
Humour – a very important factor in life but to be used sparingly and with care at a first meeting. Whilst work is not a knockabout comedy, there is a difference between serious and miserable. Business can be serious but it does not have to be conducted as if attending a funeral.
Honesty – you have to be honest with your contact. If you feel that the project under discussion is beyond your capability in its entirety then say so but emphasise those parts that you can handle. Also if you feel that you cannot work with the person or the organisation, better to be upfront about it than just let it fizzle out later.
Judgement is a balancing act and at a first meeting, you will have to think on your feet and exercise good judgement. Avoid saying something foolish that you later regret – better to say less than risk it.
Despite being the best that can be, it is a sad fact that nothing works every time. It is also true that nothing fails every time either. Each time you are rejected (and do expect to be rejected), you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again. If a first meeting ended in failure, write yourself a report about what went well, what was not so good and what you would do differently given the opportunity. Always strive to improve and learn from past mistakes – and we all make them. Read those notes before every meeting that follows. Write down the smart questions that you did not see coming and did not rehearse – the fastballs. Write yourself a logical, cogent and persuasive answer so you are better prepared next time.
Persistence pays so try for a second meeting.
To contact Michael for further advice, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him on 07710-056-354.