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Building Trust from the Start: Why First Impressions Matter

By Nick Kane, Managing Partner, Janek Performance Group
A black and white image of a person shaking the paw of a dog.

“First impressions are formed in the blink of an eye, but their impact lasts a lifetime” is an expression I repeated to myself before meeting potential clients for the first time. The science behind this mantra suggests people form an opinion in seconds. Some studies have shown that people form initial judgments about others within milliseconds of meeting them. These opinions can impact sales success and career growth. This article explores how sales professionals can make their best first impression when meeting new prospects for the first time.

Every salesperson knows the importance of making a good early impression. However, it is all too common that, despite this awareness, buyers are often left with a negative impression after the initial meeting with a seller. This begs the question: How does this disconnect occur when sellers understand that their success hinges on the opinion of the buyers they are working with?

The answer lies in the fundamental dynamics of human psychology. As social beings, we are hard-wired to judge others rapidly based on limited information. Our brains automatically seek cues to assess trustworthiness, competence, and likability. These instinctive evaluations guide our subsequent interactions and influence our decisions. 

For salespeople, understanding first impressions is not just a matter of intuition but a strategic imperative. A positive initial impression helps foster trust, instill confidence, and create an environment conducive to open dialogue. On the other hand, a poor first impression can create barriers, raise doubts, and hinder communication and the sales process.

Start with Low Ego

Have you ever observed a new salesperson who appears nervous and cautious at the beginning of their sales career, carefully choosing every word and action? They diligently follow the sales training and coaching they received and experience early sales success. They might even set a new sales record, and their potential seems unlimited. However, after this initial peak, they seem to reach a plateau and never manage to achieve the early high-performance results again.

From our experience, when salespeople have sales success early, they tend to grow overconfident in their sales outcomes. Essentially, they assume the customer will purchase because that is what most customers have done. They approach the initial interaction with so much confidence that the buyer feels controlled. Feeling controlled is never good and can cause buyers to push back. 

This response is rooted in the brain’s innate desire to maintain control and avoid being coerced into a decision. The neuroscience behind how the mind perceives subtle cues can shed light on how a buyer perceives a salesperson based on the initial impression. 

Neurologically, the brain has a dual decision-making system: the emotional and rational systems. The emotional system processes information quickly and relies on gut instincts and intuition, while the rational system engages in logical analysis and deliberation. 

Mirror neurons are specialized cells in the brain that play a crucial role in empathy, imitation, and understanding the actions and emotions of others. They are activated when we observe someone else performing an action or experiencing a feeling, and they help us simulate and comprehend that action or emotion within ourselves.

When a salesperson comes across as too controlling or overly confident, it can activate the buyer’s emotional system – triggering skepticism, resistance, and a sense of being manipulated. Consequently, the buyer may instinctively withdraw or push back, leading to a breakdown in trust and a more challenging sales process.

Neuroscience reveals that the buyer’s brain is finely attuned to the subtleties of a salesperson’s demeanor. Being aware of these dynamics allows salespeople to adapt their approach. When meeting a potential client for the first time, salespeople can utilize mirror neurons to establish a positive connection and build rapport. Here’s how:

  1. Authenticity and Nonverbal Communication: Mirror neurons respond not only to actions but also to nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Salespeople can use this knowledge to convey genuine authenticity and positive emotions. By displaying open and welcoming body language, maintaining eye contact, and speaking with a warm and engaging tone, they can activate mirror neurons in the client’s brain – fostering a sense of trust and connection.
  2. Active Listening and Empathy: When a salesperson actively listens to a potential client, their mirror neurons come into play. We can establish a strong connection by genuinely understanding and empathizing with the client’s challenges, needs, and emotions. Reflecting on the client’s emotions and concerns shows that we genuinely care for and understand their perspective – strengthening the bond.
  3. Mirroring: Mirror neurons enable the phenomenon of mirroring, where individuals instinctively imitate the behaviors and expressions of those they interact with. Salespeople can utilize mirroring to create a sense of similarity and familiarity. This can involve subtly matching the client’s body language, adopting a similar tone or rhythm of speech, or even using similar phrases or vocabulary. Mirroring helps establish a sense of connection and shared understanding – making the client feel more receptive to the salesperson’s message.
  4. Positive Energy and Enthusiasm: Mirror neurons are highly responsive to positive emotions and energy. Salespeople can leverage this by bringing genuine enthusiasm, passion, and positivity to their interactions. When the salesperson radiates positive energy, it can activate the client’s mirror neurons, leading to a shared experience of excitement and engagement. This positive emotional resonance helps create a favorable first impression and sets the tone for a productive and enjoyable sales conversation.

The Cautious Buyer

The dilemma salespeople often encounter is the challenge of a buyer who enters the initial meeting feeling cautious and guarded. In other words, the buyer is hypersensitive and on high alert to sales tactics. To establish successful connections, sellers must recognize and adapt to the buyer’s mindset – carefully managing their first impression. Therefore, sellers need to enter the selling process cautiously as well. 

Consider the following scenario: You are responsible for finding a new software provider for your department. After conducting thorough online research, you narrowed your options to three firms. You have submitted demo requests and scheduled appointments. 

However, before meeting the sales representative, you receive a standard confirmation email from a “senior sales representative” with a link to his LinkedIn profile. Upon clicking the link, you notice that his headline proudly states, “10X Sales President Club.” Instantly, an impression is formed before the actual meeting takes place.

Furthermore, on the appointment day, the sales representative appears exceedingly friendly, casual, and self-assured. He exudes confidence and a carefree attitude. Considering the information you have gathered, your preconceived notions about the buying process, and the initial 60 seconds of conversation with this sales representative, what impression is being shaped?

Looking at this scenario, it becomes evident that the sales representative could take different actions to better manage their first impression with the cautious buyer. Salespeople must recognize that buyers are inherently guarded during initial meetings and that buyers might interpret their initial friendliness and casual confidence as flattery or pushiness. 

While the sales representative might have a track record of being seen as a trusted advisor by existing clients, it is crucial to understand that new clients never view salespeople in the same light during their initial interactions. This subtle yet critical point must be observed by sales professionals during initial meetings. By being mindful of this, sales representatives can enhance their approach and improve the first impression. 

In Conclusion

To make the best first impression, salespeople must approach initial meetings with humility, neutrality, and self-awareness. This requires recognizing that buyers are naturally cautious and guarded – especially during the early stages of the sales process. Overconfidence and a controlling demeanor can trigger skepticism and resistance in buyers, hindering trust and impeding the sales process.

By leveraging insights from neuroscience, salespeople can adapt their approach to establish positive connections and build rapport. Authenticity, nonverbal communication, active listening, empathy, mirroring, and positive energy play crucial roles in creating favorable first impressions. Understanding the cautious mindset of buyers is key to managing initial interactions effectively and avoiding potential pitfalls.

By employing strategies that align with the inherent dynamics of human psychology and buyer behavior, salespeople can enhance their chances of success. The ability to navigate first impressions with skill and sensitivity sets the stage for rewarding relationships and sales conversations. Ultimately, the impact of a well-managed first impression extends far beyond the initial meeting and can greatly influence sales success and career growth. By mastering the art of first impressions, salespeople can turn “buyer beware” into “buyer be-wow” for sales success!

For more helpful advice on how to advance your selling skills, visit Janek’s resource library.