Even in this tech-soaked world, customers still value a positive first impression and old-school contact with a business before they engage their services, a study has shown.
But they are equally fussy about where that contact takes place -- and cafes and home offices are considered poor alternatives to an office environment.
The Secret Killers of Business Success study, conducted by Roy Morgan and commissioned by Servcorp, a company that offers fully serviced office space, surveyed more than 1000 people who had used professional businesses in the past two years to measure consumer attitudes towards meeting environments, telephone call handling and office addresses.
While the study showed the top three most important factors when choosing a supplier were personal recommendations (93 percent), the quality of the business’s website (68 percent) and online reviews (68 percent), whether the business had a local address (65 percent) or a fixed landline (52 percent) also rated highly.
It also found 66 percent of people are not willing to a give a business a second chance if they make a bad impression.
The study showed that a big part of creating a positive first impression is where you physically meet with your potential client: 75 percent said meeting in a professional business environment had the highest positive impact; 47 percent said meeting in a cafe had a negative impact and 24 percent said meeting a client in a home office had a negative impact.
You get one chance to stand out from the crowd
It's important to leave a potential client with a positive first impression, and you may not get long to do it.
In his book 3 Seconds: The Power of Thinking Twice Seattle Pacific University professor of clinical psychology Dr Les Parrott says it takes just three seconds to register a negative impression in the brain; which is all that lies between settling for 'whatever' or insisting on 'whatever it takes'.
Study findings by the Nielsen Norman Group also show we're quick to make up our minds about whether a business is worth our online time or not, with the average user spending about 10-20 seconds on a webpage before moving on or investigating further.
While a cafe will have a supply of refreshments and is likely to have free wifi, it may not be the right place for your meeting if you're discussing sensitive information or if it's crowded and noisy.
Clare Mann, managing director, psychologist, author and communications trainer at Communicate31, commutes from the Blue Mountains to Sydney a few days a week and said meeting clients in a cafe wouldn’t project the right image for her business.
She said she pays for a package offered by Servcorp that gives her access to office space, boardrooms and meeting rooms between five and 10 days a month, and includes the services of a professional receptionist.
“As a psychologist in the coaching area, senior executives wanted direct contact with me and it was important to meet them face-to-face and in this way to showcase my skills and services,” she told The Huffington Post Australia.
“Meeting them in a professional meeting room and boardroom was critical as I needed to set the right image for my business. I couldn’t meet a CEO for the first time in a cafe.
“Recently, when meeting with Charles Fairlie (author of 50 Unsung Business Heroes) I was asked to emcee at the launch with the Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison. I was also featured in the book and I don’t think I would have made the positive impact I did and asked to emcee if I had simply met them in a cafe. All of my meetings take place in a professional environment."
Obviously meeting with a client at your home office if there are distractions such as children or pets, or if your office is based in your bedroom, things can get a little awkward and uncomfortable, but you may be able to set up a dedicated, professional and private meeting place in your home that dulls that negative vibe.
Alternatives to meeting at home can include booking a meeting room at a local library or community centre, or offering to meet the client at their place of business.
Collaborative workspaces or small business hubs could work for those who don’t have the budget for a professional CBD office space and don't want to meet at a cafe or in their home.
Business hubs often have meeting and boardrooms for the use of tenants, whether they’re there once a week or every day.
City is the slickest for business
When it comes to where the business is based, The Secret Killers of Business Success showed that 82 percent of people will call a business that has a recognisable CBD address above one with a PO Box or no address at all.
Having a local address in the nearest city was rated as almost as important as the quality of the business’s website, and more highly than the quality of advertising (32 percent) and brochures (21 percent).
It also showed that non CBD-based customers also had a preference for businesses with a CBD address (84 percent).
Mann said having a professional office space in the CBD gave her business more credibility and professionalism.
“The importance of having a (city) address is absolutely crucial,” she said. “People like bricks and mortar and it gives your business gravitas, without a doubt.
“Prospective customers became more confident with me and my established business when they saw I was based in the Sydney CBD. It was also so much easier for them to get to. They could duck out at lunchtime to see me, and this ease of accessibility resulted in more business and walk-ins for me.”
Mann said the professional premises and staff gave her business a more upmarket feel and it also gave her clients the impression she was there full-time.
“The staff are very professional … they would never say ‘oh, she’s only in a few days a week’,” she said.
“They would tell them I was in a meeting or unavailable and then call me directly and I’d take it from there.”
A fast call-back is a good call-back
The speed at which a company responds to inquiries also rated highly when choosing a supplier -- 79 percent of respondents regarded ‘speed of response’ as the number one factor influencing their choice.
A separate study by Harvard Business Review supports those findings with their research showing that responding to leads within an hour generates seven times more conversions, yet only 37 percent of companies actually respond to queries within an hour.
The average company takes 4.4 hours and 55 percent of businesses don’t even respond at all.
The majority of those surveyed also rated how they contact a business as particularly important.
They want to be able to call a landline if and when they want information -- and actually speak to someone; 52 percent rated a fixed landline as an important factor when choosing which supplier to contact, 86 percent wanted multiple contact points, including a landline and mobile phone number; 40 percent will not leave a voicemail if no one answers the first time they try to make contact, and 83 percent say they prefer to speak to a person -- even if it is a PA or colleague -- when contacting potential suppliers.