New Marketing Rule: You Never Have a Second Chance to Make a Good Last Impression
It seems a bit weird to be writing about an experience having your cat put to sleep by your veterinarian. However, what happened to us serves as a reminder to all in customer-facing businesses to pay attention to the importance of not just first impressions, but last impressions with your customers and clients.
Overview: R.I.P. Manny
Unfortunately, we had to put our cat, Manny, to sleep a few days ago. Yes, it was planned, as Manny, who was somewhere around 13-14 years old, had been obviously “going downhill” for some time as he had lost weight, lost much of his sight, lost his appetite, and lost the ability to look “comfortable” pretty much any time of the day or night. Unfortunately, due to “worlds colliding” in our work and family lives, we had to put off Manny’s last vet appointment for a few days, even perhaps a few weeks longer than when we should have “done it.” And no, having been a cat family, with a dozen cats in our lives over the past three decades, this was not our first time having to call on professional help to have one of our beloved family pets put out of its misery.
Now, my wife and I did not expect to have a customer service “issue” arise out of Manny’s final trip to our veterinarian’s office. However, we did, and out of this unpleasant experience for us (well, and it goes without saying, for Manny) comes something that I hope, as a strategic management consultant and professor, will be a lesson for everyone who manages or owns a customer-facing service business today. The age-old axiom - that decades of research in psychology, marketing and management has held to be absolutely true - is the fact that you never have a second chance to make a good first impression. I would add an important corollary to this, that being that you also, whatever your line of business happens to be, never have a second chance to make a good last impression as well.
First… and Last Impressions Last
One thing that I try and emphasize with my students in my management classes again and again is that first impressions are made quickly, and once they are formed, they are very, very hard to change. Research shows that whether we are talking about dating, interviewing, or interacting with a customer, or alternatively, with an employee or a manager, one makes a first impression in just a matter of seconds. And so it is not just important, it is absolutely critical, that one makes every effort to make certain that one conveys - in every form of communication, both verbal and nonverbal, that one has at your disposal - precisely the holistic message that one wants to send in a given situation. In short, you should sweat the small stuff when it comes to making a first impression. This is because everything that follows after is in fact totally inseparable from those first seconds that one might have with a potential employer, a potential customer, or yes, even a potential mate.
And so in the big world of business and in formative education to prepare people to thrive in it, we should rightly take every opportunity to emphasize just how critical first impressions are in determining your - and your company’s - ultimate success. As a job applicant, one should be prepared to make the best possible impression in an interview, and likewise, an interviewer should strive to make the best possible impression on behalf of his or her company to the interviewee. As a manager, you should make sure that every employee is trained, and then is trained again and again (and yes, secret shopper tested on occasion) so as to assure that customers get a good first impression of a company when they interact with your business. First impressions are chances that one only gets once, and the more everyone in a company understands that - and really does their jobs in that manner, the better the business will be on any number of important criteria. And this is not just in terms of customer satisfaction, as being aware of making good first impressions matters in making the company a better place to work for all - and improving the corporate culture and working environment, and in turn, heightening employee retention and minimizing turnover.
So while businesses are more and more concerned about the importance of making great first impressions, what about last impressions? What are such last impressions, you might ask? These are when you should be conducting your last transaction with a service-based business, or at least the last interaction that you would reasonably expect to have with that company for some time, perhaps months, perhaps years, perhaps even decades. When you buy a car, the dealership should reasonably expect to not see you back buying another vehicle from them for a number of years. And so your salesperson’s last interaction with you, most often in delivering the vehicle to you and going over all the many, many features cars have on them today, can go a long way in determining not just whether you will come back to the dealership for servicing your car, but even more importantly, if you return to buy your next vehicle from that same dealer in a year, 3 years, 5 years… 10 years. And yes, the dealership and the salesperson want that to happen. The same could be said when you buy a house. Your realtor is, no doubt, a key part of the homebuying equation. The last interaction a homebuyer has with his or her realtor is at the closing. Most times, when one buys a home, you would not expect to be selling it and buying another one for a number of years, perhaps even decades. But ultimately, we are all going to be back in the housing market (in one way or another). And yes, your realtor wants to be part of your next real estate transaction, even if it might be years away from your last interaction with them. There are other less “high ticket” examples of such “last impression” interactions, such as when you make a last of the season visit trip to the beach or skiing and visit businesses on those trips - restaurants, hotels, services, etc.
Well, we had one of these “last impressions” just a few days ago with Manny at our veterinarian’s office, as that was, by definition, the last time we would be taking him in for care. And while putting a cat to sleep is perhaps an extreme situation, it is, unfortunately, a quintessential example of a business having the opportunity to make a good last impression. Yes, that would be our last trip to our vet with Manny - period. However, we still have one other cat and two dogs (one a granddog “on loan” from our son until he gets a house with a big enough yard for an 80 pound dog, one my elderly mother’s much smaller dog that we now have permanently) that we take there as well. So no, just because this would be our last interaction with them with Manny, we would be back with our dogs for routine care, boarding, bathing, and yes, any emergency (read as expensive) care that they might need in the coming months and years. And yet, the bad “last impression” that we both took away from our encounter with them to conduct the human act of helping end Manny’s suffering has thrown both my wife and I into now thinking that we will likely need to be shopping for a new vet to take our remaining - and yes, likely future pets - to for veterinary services.
So you might ask, why did we come away with a bad last impression in this not-so-routine vet visit for us? Now putting a customer’s pet to sleep is unfortunately but realistically, a situation than a rather large veterinary practice with multiple veterinarians on staff likely encounters multiple times on an average day. So no, this should be a routine service for a veterinary practice, but one that should be handled with extraordinary care by all involved. Sadly, that was not the case for us a few short days ago. What went wrong? Well, there seemed to be a series of operational errors that occurred in our visit and our interactions with the vet assigned to us and her assistant. We waited an inordinate amount of time to even progress from the lobby to the little room, even though we were on-time for our appointment. And after we made it to the exam room, we waited even more. Then, when the vet asked if we needed some time with Manny before she began the process and we said “no, we’re ready,” she left the room and gave us even more time to wait. That seemed to go on and on and on.
Finally, it was done. And yes, the first thing that seemed to go off “on cue” during our entire visit was the very second that the vet and her assistant left the room exam with Manny, another assistant came in with a tablet enabling us to pay for the visit right there in the exam room. This was a nice touch, I thought for a few seconds. Then, she gave us the total for the visit. Unfortunately, we had gone through putting another beloved cat of ours to sleep in 2020 at that same vet, so we were both expecting a bill in the same range - which was significantly less than a hundred dollars. When the vet’s receptionist gave us the total for Manny’s last visit however, it was well north of a hundred dollars! Before even I, a noted cheap person could say what might have seemed inappropriate given what had just taken place with Manny a few minutes earlier, my wife, who normally does not say such things, said to the young woman: “That seems wrong!” I think that she meant it both from the mathematical and the moral standpoint with her tone! The receptionist quickly responded with a quip that I think from both her tone and her timing with what I think she had been told to say whenever a customer might have any objection to a bill for any of their services, whether it was a routine visit for shots, a boarding stay, or yes, having to put a beloved pet to sleep: “Well, the cost of everything is going up…” We both, of course, had the wherewithal to not make the bill an issue at that moment, so yes, I simply slid my American Express card through her tablet attachment and paid what was owed.
That might have been the end of it, but as soon as we got back to our car, my wife and I began discussing what had just happened. Yes, the whole experience had not gone smoothly, but hey, everyone and every business has an “off day.” Yet, the main thing we came away feeling was gouged. Even if Manny’s last visit had been gone quickly and had been a model of how such things should be done, we both felt like the veterinary practice had done something that was just a bit icky and really unconscionable: They had taken advantage of us and got about $50, $60, $70.., or more dollars than they should have for the service that was done (and yes, it was a service…). Even worse though, how many other families had experienced such a surprise “sticker shock” from that vet’s office at the end of what is, no doubt, a highly emotional time?
Analysis: How to Make a Great Last Impression
All of this made me think of the importance of the concept of “last impressions” in customer service. The best regarded companies for customer service recognize this idea. After all, why does EVERY transaction and interaction with a Chick-fil-A employee end with them responding, “my pleasure!” Now it’s one thing for a fast food restaurant - or a grocery store - or a car wash - or any other service business that has a reasonable expectation that you might be back in a few weeks, a few days, or maybe even a few hours to emphasize the importance of last impressions. However, last impressions are really, really important for all service businesses, even for those with no expectation that they would even see a customer enter their doors again within a few months, maybe even a few years or even more! So, for car salespeople and dealerships, for realtors, for hospitals, even for funeral homes! Any business should seek to ensure a good last impression with customers, even if the interactions may be years apart!
Return business is the key to long-term success, as all the best retailers, restaurants, airlines, and more know. Carl Sewell, a legendary car dealer in Dallas, Texas, introduced the concept of “Customers for Life,” looking at the lifetime value of a customer to a business. In Sewell’s case, a satisfied car customer might buy half a million dollars or more of automobiles from his family of dealerships. And the same principle can just as easily be applied to hamburgers, to plumbing, or yes, even to veterinary services. Customer loyalty - now with programs with lots of incentives and perks - have become just a part of the way we shop, travel and more. And yes, loyal, satisfied customers are a great asset for a business as they will not just today tell friends, they will often post on social media and tell the world about good interactions with the company and its services. On the other hand, a dissatisfied customer might just spread a negative story with friends and family, post about it on social media, or yes, maybe even write an article based on his or her experiences!
And so my best consulting advice to any service business that might have infrequent return business from customers is to pay just as much attention to last impressions as do restaurants, hotels, retailers, etc. On the positive side, car dealers and realtors are today very good at providing great “last impressions” - many times with gifts befit for the occasion and /or special photo staging that a new buyer can post on social media.
Now certainly, a veterinary practice knows that ultimately, their customers will, hopefully, outlive their pets, and many times, their cat or dog’s lives will have to end on their watch in the way we lost Manny at our vet. How to handle this delicate, but predictable and routine situation, should be something that veterinary practices look upon as not just a chore and certainly not as a “last shot at revenue,” as my wife and I felt Manny’s passing was by our vet. My advice to vets then would be simple: Please, please don’t charge too much for a service that no one wants to have to do and that can be quite stressful and even traumatic for families, especially when it is unexpected and even more so when there are children involved. Better yet, here’s a thought: Make it free! Think of the goodwill you will engender with your customers by conceding just a little bit of revenue at that last vet visit for their dog or cat. And yes, you will retain them as a customer for their other pets, which today may not just be dogs and cats, but ferrets, parrots, and more. In doing this service for free, you might well even turn that customer into someone who will tell the story of how their “last impression” with their particular dog or cat pet was handled so well - and for free - to their friends both in real life and on social media that the word of mouth might bring you more customers who will bring revenue many, many times that of what you might have charged for putting the animal to sleep.
Hopefully in the end, “Manny’s Tale” will lead more of you to think about how your particular service business, whatever your service happens to be, can better handle last impressions. A gift, a photo, or free are not the only options. But if you use your imagination - and better yet, that of your employees - you will find a way of making a great last impression that will work for you and your customers!
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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