The Birdcage: How to Ruin a First Impression

Many readers know that my husband and I moved last year to Florida from Upstate NY, where – yes, thank you! – we have truly enjoyed this winter. No shoveling, mostly mild temperatures, lots of sun, and golf! – a big change from the past many winters.

So here in our new home in Florida we’ve decided to bring some of the outdoors in. Or maybe we’re going to take some of our indoors out. Whichever way you look at it, we’re getting ready to build a “birdcage,” a screened room which will be attached to the back of our house.

We began by soliciting estimates from four different birdcage builders, inviting them over to discuss our project.

The first to arrive was James. We were very impressed with James and his company. He had answers to all our questions, he was knowledgeable about some of the unusual questions and requests I had. Just before James left, he told us we would have his final estimate by Monday.

Two more estimators came to the house, but neither one was very knowledgeable, nor impressive enough for us to trust with our project.

Finally, the fourth estimator, David, came to discuss our birdcage project, and he was just as impressive as James. David gave us his estimate before he even left our house.

So – all we needed to do was wait to receive James’ estimate on Monday in order to make our decision. But Monday came and went. Tuesday came and went. We called, left messages… No estimate. Finally James’ estimate arrived – almost two full weeks after he had visited us. It was a few hundred dollars less than David’s, but take a guess whose company will be building our birdcage. (Hint: not James’!)

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That was certainly true for the two “middle” estimators…. however….

Our first impression of James was very favorable. But then? He ruined that by not carrying through on his promise. He established an expectation – then blew it up. He never even contacted us to let us know why, or even that he would be delayed. No communication – no nuttin’. How could we trust him to oversee the building of our birdcage?

I bring this up today because sometimes I hear similar stories from people who seek advocates. They phone an advocate, and the advocate says “I’ll follow up by phone” or “I’ll email you” – and then… they don’t. The relationship begins on a very positive note, only to be crushed by the advocate’s lack of follow through.

How does that feel to the person who needs, and has begun to put faith in that advocate? If the advocate, who was impressive during the first conversation, does not follow through on a reconnection promise? It could be devastating to that potential client, both physically and emotionally at this most vulnerable time in their lives….

Creating and maintaining a positive impression – and trust – doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s far more about communication – managing expectations – than anything else:

  1. Be forthright and positive.
  2. Be empathetic / sympathetic, but tell the truth, even if it’s difficult for the other person to hear.
  3. Make promises you can and will keep.
  4. If you don’t want to do the work – then don’t make a promise you won’t keep. I think some advocates prefer not to work with a caller or emailer, so instead they tell the person they will call or email soon – and then they just don’t. That’s not fair to the person who needs help, and it’s not a good impression for our profession. Don’t do it! Just say “no” if “no” is your answer.
  5. Keep those promises you’ve made!
  6. If there is a hiccup (some reason you can’t keep the promise) then communicate clearly about the reason for the hiccup, and what you will do instead, or what your client can expect.
  7. Even over a long period of time, stay in constant touch, and continue to manage expectations as accurately as you can.
  8. If you have trouble estimating accurate expectations (time or money) then under-promise, and over-deliver (and not the other way around.)

The takeaway from the experience is that while you may never get a second chance to make a first impression, it will be your second impression, and subsequent impressions, that have a bigger effect on your success in business. Make the positive first impression to get your foot in the door. But remember that it will be those later impressions that create and establish trust.

We’ll be waiting a few months for our birdcage to be delivered and attached to our house; probably 8 to 10 weeks. So now that’s what we expect. If it arrives in 7 weeks, we’ll be thrilled. If it takes 12 weeks, we’ll be upset unless we understand why… Which is exactly how your clients depend on your promises. Further, we’ll share the outcome with others – the long term effect from that positive or negative impression will affect our birdcage builder long into the future.

It’s about trust – trusting the word of someone who has made a promise.

If you can’t or won’t maintain that trust, then you have no business being in the advocacy business.


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