Opinion: Second impressions can count the most

Customers should have their 'Aha!' moment when they're using your product, not when they finally unearth your contact info.

My mother used to urge me to put on clean underwear every day, reminding me, “You never know if you’re going to get hit by a bus.”

The implication was clearly that she didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of hearing an emergency-room nurse say, “Doctor, quick, take a look at this. I don’t know when this boy last changed his underwear!”

This shows the importance of making a good second impression. Setting aside the “impression” that the bus would make, the medical staff would have their first impression of me upon my arrival at the hospital, and the second impression during the examination, as they learned more about my personal hygiene.

Creating a favourable impression at the first point of contact is an absolute imperative. Though everyone knows this, many companies still only manage to do a mediocre job at best.

But what isn’t widely understood is that in a world where so many transactions are conducted online, the customer’s second impression can be even more important than his first.

The second interaction a customer has with your business usually involves something that has gone wrong — they’re having trouble using the product or service. Handled correctly, this is a situation in which a company can create a very positive impression. Sadly, it’s where things often go terribly wrong.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is companies burying their customer service phone numbers in their websites’ deepest, darkest nooks and crannies. Clicking the “Contact Us” tab is just the first step in a tricky game of “find our phone number if you can.” But your customers are supposed to have their “Aha!” moment when they’re using your product, not when they finally succeed in unearthing the company’s contact information.

Most callers to customer help lines are greeted with some variation of one of the most absurd statements ever recorded: “Your business is very important to us. Please continue to hold.” Some companies even make it worse by adding friendly snippets like, “Your anticipated wait time is 23 minutes.” But what this recording really says is, “We are not really interested in your business. Just use our website.”

If some customers have the staying power to wait until a real person picks up the phone, the annoyances are far from over. Before customers are granted an audience with a real person, they usually have to key in their account numbers at least once. But when a representative finally picks up the phone, the most common greeting is: “Can you please give me your full name and 37-digit account number?”

Websites are not designed to avoid such irritations, either, and often make negative second impressions. Take the account registration process. It’s sensible for an online banking service to require users to choose a password and user name, but this step seems ridiculous to someone who is trying to buy a pair of socks. While the registration process is an important tool in building mailing lists, if it annoys your customers, what’s the point?

Most airlines (Virgin included) provide passengers with the option of checking in via a self-service kiosk — the company’s chance to make a good second impression, since the first is usually the online booking process. This device will check passports, issue boarding passes and in some cases print out baggage tags. If the process goes well, it makes a reasonably good impression; not only do these devices greet customers by name, but they’re seldom impatient or surly. Still, it’s best to always have human help on hand to assist customers when the process goes awry.

In the hotel industry, the check-in process remains the exclusive domain of human beings, with uniformed receptionists responsible for a customer’s second impression of a brand. I have never figured out exactly why, but most luxury hotel chains have bested the airline industry when it comes to doing this well. It’s no coincidence that the term “hospitality industry” is understood to encompass hotels and restaurants, but airlines are conspicuously excluded.

Managers who want their companies to make positive first and second impressions must learn to balance the web’s labour-saving efficiencies with human assistants who can help people when things go wrong. All executives and managers should test-drive their own websites to see how long it takes them to find that elusive customer-help number. If you have to dig through more than a couple of screens, then maybe the website design needs to be rethought.

Consider the customer relations value in putting a big “Need Help?” number on your website. By making it too hard to find, to paraphrase the title of one of my books, you’re taking a risk that the customer might say, “Screw it, I won’t do it.”

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.