And so it is in business. Clients have a habit of pigeon-holing their suppliers. Company X is strong at technical stuff but not creative, Company Y is expensive, Company Z’s expertise is in a different sector. No matter how much you diversify, how many new skills you bring into your organisation, or how many change processes you go through, your customers will cling like a limpet to what they believe about your strengths and weaknesses.
What does this mean for a business?
Does it inevitably mean that you are stuck in a rut once a customer has decided what your strengths and weaknesses are? Not necessarily.
But it does underline the need to create the right impression from the start. It also tells you a lot about the scale of the task if you want to shift perceptions or re-position your business with existing clients.
In short, don’t expect them to give up their beliefs without a struggle. Be prepared to show real, hard proof if you want to dispel myths, and be prepared for the time, effort and cost this process is likely to entail.
'I had no idea you also did that'
Those moments when customers say: ‘I had no idea you also did that’ aren’t usually because you’ve kept it a secret or haven’t told them; it’s usually because they weren’t ready to listen to anything that challenged their perception of who you are and what you do.
We talked about confirmation bias in a recent article. A large part of this is down to people seeking out information that reinforces what they already believe, and disregarding anything that threatens to challenge it. Ignore the influence of this at your peril.
Sometimes, of course, it works in your favour. I’m sure you’ve experienced businesses that can seem to do no wrong in the eyes of their customers. Because they are seen as being good at something their advice is accepted almost without question – even if you can see the flaws.
The big question is how you put yourself in that fortunate position of being a trusted authority; which brings us back to the issue of first impressions.
These days, impressions start to form before a potential client meets you. Type the name of your company into Google and see what comes up on the search page. Is that the impression you want customers to grasp and cling to?
Getting to know the ‘real’ you
You might dismiss marketing and presentation skills as mere window dressing. You might convince yourself that what counts is the ‘real you’ – the one that customers will get to know when you’ve met a few times and worked together for a while.
Maybe you’re right, but why make things so hard for yourself?
Every aspect of how you present your business and yourself as an individual needs to be evaluated honestly. I’m not advocating presenting a false image; that’s going to cause even more problems in the longer term. But you have to make it easy for customers to see and experience what you want them to see.
Often this is about having consistent messages in corporate marketing, in your presentations, in what you say in meetings and in what gets published on social media accounts. Conversations in informal meetings and your 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ can help just as much as your formal presentation. You just have to be consistent and practise delivering with conviction.
First impressions do last. But you also have the opportunity to influence how they are made. Customers don’t form their impressions in a vacuum. They’ll be observing how you present yourself and taking many of their cues from you.
So if you find yourself pigeon-holed by your customers, remember they probably only put you into the hole that you built for yourself.
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