Your customers’ very first impression is the greeting they get when they call, so don’t underestimate the value of a great receptionist.

You know it’s been said: You only get one chance to make a first impression.

What is your customers’ first impression of your company? Most likely it’s the first sound they hear when someone answers the phone. Notice I said, “first sound,” not “first words.” The first impression people get is not from the words, “Good morning, Acme Landscaping Services.” Its from the attitude — the spirit — behind them.

I worked for 10 years with an advertising agency that created campaigns for large companies. These clients spent in some cases millions of dollars a year on literature, advertising, graphic design and market research. In choosing an agency, they certainly weren’t comparing the quality of phone greetings.

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And yet, this agency without fail had a receptionist with a sparkling personality that came across over the phone. More than once, I heard a client make a comment along the lines of: “Your receptionist is great! I get her on the phone and I think, ‘Here’s someone who’s interested in doing business with me.’”

Make or break

If a great receptionist is that important to such a large company, how much more critical is it to a business like yours, where the quality of the voice on the phone may lead a customer, on the spot, to choose your service or go somewhere else?

What impression do people get when they call your company? Is your receptionist the kind who makes every caller instantly feel welcome and important? Who cheerfully listens to and answers questions? Who unfailingly has the caller in a good frame of mind before transferring him or her to the next party?

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That’s the kind of receptionist you want. Such a person is at least as valuable as a top-flight service technician or a fleet of sharp-looking trucks.

Put yourself in a customer’s shoes. He or she may be preparing for a major landscaping job or looking to have a house built, probably some of the biggest purchases they will ever make.

Now is the critical moment. No matter what you have told your receptionist to say, no matter how clever the words of greeting, what comes across instantly to that prospective customer is the attitude.

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Suppose the greeting comes out as “goodmorningacmelandscapingservices,” in a rapid-fire monotone. What does the customer hear? “We’re very busy. Did you really have to call now? What exactly is your problem? I suppose we can send someone out.”

Now imagine the greeting comes out almost musically, “Good morning, Acme Landscaping Services!” The words are the same, but now the customer hears, ”We’re glad you called! Tell us what you need — we’ll provide a solution.”

Of course, the customer’s impression doesn’t end there. The final impression of your business depends on the manners and enthusiasm of everyone the customer talks to, the appearance of your vehicle and your technician, the professional quality of the work, the after-job clean-up, the follow-up call to check on satisfaction. But it all begins with the first sound that travels across the phone line to that customer’s ear.

Making it right

No doubt you’ve heard how your receptionist answers the phone. But have you listened carefully? And if that person is not giving customers the first impression you want, what do you do about it? The first instinct might be to counsel the person, and that may work. Another reflex may be to consider reassigning that person and trying someone else as the first point of contact.

But there’s a third possibility, and it means looking honestly at yourself, your company, and the atmosphere around the place. Is the person who answers the phone (or are the people who answer) expected to do other things as well? Are they overloaded? Stressed? If so, that will almost surely come across in the voice on the phone.

In general, how’s the atmosphere in your office area? Upbeat? Relaxed? Friendly? Or hectic? High-pressure? Full of clashing personalities? Whichever it is, the customer will hear that. You can pretty well count on it.

Companies that know the value of a receptionist make sure that person’s first job is to give the all-important first impression that starts a chain of good experiences, in turn leading to satisfied and loyal customers.

In such a company, the receptionist may not be visibly “busy” all the time. That person may have work to do between calls, but not of a kind or amount that creates anxiety and lets it creep into the greeting.

If your company’s phone greetings aren’t what they should be, consider taking action now. Make sure the first sound your customer hears is one that tells him or her, “We appreciate your business. We’re eager to help you!”

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