Good First Impressions Count when You Mean Business

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First impressions can mean the difference between closing the deal of a lifetime or getting shot down in flames. When meeting with a client or a customer for the first time, or interviewing with your prospective employer, you have just a few minutes to make a first impression that determines the success or failure of your mission.

Be on Time

"My number one pet peeve is when people show up late, " says Jay. Most businesspeople agree. No one likes to be kept waiting. “If you want to make a good impression with me, show me that you value my time. Be punctual. " If you absolutely cannot arrive on time, call ahead and ask to reschedule the meeting, if necessary.

Dress for the Occasion

Choose appropriate clothing. You generally can't go wrong in a conservative, tailored suit that fits properly, unless your meeting is scheduled for the golf course. Or, as one job applicant discovered, “conservative and tailored" isn't part of the job or the company's style.

"I showed up at the door, resume in hand, wearing a very nice business suit, " says Jane. “The hiring manager and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. " The company was a young, up-and-coming Internet Service Provider, and everyone from the founder to the customer service representatives dressed in black jeans and t-shirts. “It was a large, open office; the atmosphere was friendly and informal. But the furniture and equipment – everything from the desks to the rack-mounted servers in the back – was black. I felt so overdressed. " Better overdressed than underdressed, as a rule; however, it was clear to Jane and the hiring manager that this might not be a good fit. The black jeans and t-shirts probably wouldn't have played well at a large corporate office, either.

Certain colors get mixed reviews. “Men shouldn't wear pink, " says Jack. But Tom disagrees. “I see a guy wearing a pink shirt, and that tells me he's self-confident. If it looks good, wear it. " Black is seen as somber and severe, while red is often perceived as aggressive. Blue and brown are more neutral choices, but the language of color may vary by culture, as well.

Clothing should fit well: not too tight, not too baggy. And women, in particular, should be careful to choose styles that are not too revealing. Plunging necklines and mini-skirts are too distracting, and have no place in business. “Most women just don't look as good in them as they think they do, " says one man. “I know of one woman who thought I was staring at her legs, when really, I was just wondering, ‘What were you thinking when you got dressed this morning?'"

Choose colors and styles that make you – not the outfit – look good.

Shake Hands, Make Eye Contact, Watch Body Language

Practice a firm, comfortable, sincere handshake. You needn't prove, with a handshake, that you could beat your opponent at arm-wrestling; the goal is to establish a trustworthy connection, not to break bone. But a limp, lifeless handshake conveys distaste or lack of commitment. Dry your hand first, discreetly, if it is damp or sweaty. Beg off with a smile and an apology if your hands are covered in mud, slime, or BBQ sauce – but try to avoid meeting people for the first time when you are up to your elbows in muck.

Make eye contact and smile. If you want to make a good first impression, make the other person feel that they are the sole focus of your thoughts for the moment. Give them your full attention and put them at ease with a smile. If you are offered a business card, take it – and be sure to look at it for a few seconds before tucking it neatly into your organizer. If you are handing out your own business card, it is considered tacky to hand out more than one per person unless asked to do so.

Breathe deeply and be still. Fidgeting, repeatedly crossing and uncrossing your legs, playing with a pen or pencil, or touching your watch all send the message that you are either nervous or impatient to be done with the meeting. Lean forward slightly when listening, to show that you are interested in what the speaker has to say.

Speak Clearly

Speak clearly and directly, using conventional speech. Slang, colorful colloquialisms, and even mild profanity can kill a first impression.

Don't babble. “When I'm nervous, " says Gail, “I tend to blather. I just can't shut up. " Don't rush to speak. Think for a few seconds before opening your mouth.

Be Silent on Religion and Politics

"Don't discuss religion and politics. It's not appropriate in business, even if your views coincide with mine, " says Jay. Keep the focus on the business at hand.

Leave Annoying Habits and Eccentricities at the Door

Don't bring your own food or drinks to a meeting, and that includes coffee. Toss the chew toys in the trash; no one looks or sounds their best while chomping a wad of gum or chewing tobacco.

Cover tattoos and body piercings. A pair of earrings is acceptable; more than that, and you risk offending someone. “Remove the ankle bracelets, too, " advises Jay. As a general rule, jewelry and other accessories should not draw attention to themselves.

Understand Local Customs

People from other parts of the world interpret gestures and physical cues differently, sometimes. For example, in some parts of Asia, it is considered rude to point your feet at someone. Direct eye contact, especially between a woman and a man, may be seen as too forward or aggressive in some cultures. It pays to become familiar with local customs before doing business with people from countries and cultures that are unfamiliar to you.

Jay Bell writes business-related articles in affiliation with


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