What first impression does your business give people?

Today I spent the better part of the day flying across the country. 6am flights, yummy. Spending a few days with Dan Kennedy in DC.

When Dan has meetings in DC, he typically has them at a particular Hilton. Most of the experiences at that Hilton are very good, if not outstanding. The staff is typically right on top of everything, every time.

But there are always first impressions that a business gives to clients, some they never think about, or just dont realize if they don’t secret shop their own business by following the same path that their clients follow.

Here are the first impressions that I had from a few businesses today.

Arrived at Dulles. Noisiest airport ever on the INSIDE, particularly down by the shuttle area (again, INSIDE). I go to the courtesy phones, which are difficult to hear with because there’s a muzak speaker right above the phone (not an ideal design, of course). Add to that, the phone’s earpiece is too quiet and there’s no volume control like there typically is on these setups. I’m not hard of hearing (at least not since I was a teenager<g>). Anyone who is hard of hearing will find these phones very difficult to use.

I call the Hilton from the courtesy phone. A couple dozen rings, I get the switchboard (who I can barely hear). While all of this is going on, its a very noisy luggage roller fest next to me (again, not Hilton’s fault). I get reservations, they cant find me.

I call back, ask for the front desk, note to the girl that I cant hear her, she does something and I can finally hear someone and carry on a conversation. We speak for a minute, she starts taking care of my stay details and we get disconnected.

I call back and it takes 3 minutes of rings to get the switchboard (I know this because I have to keep hitting the “more time” button on the phone screen) and then it takes 3 more minutes before the front desk picks up (very unusual for them). Anyhow, I get the same pleasant woman, she says she’s gotten it taken care of and tells me about the shuttle.

It arrives every 15 minutes. I’ve been standing outside for 30 minutes already, which is why I came in and called. A British-sounding gentleman was there when I first went outside, he’s come back in, called and gone back out.

Finally, I go back out and the Hilton van is sitting there in the same place I’d left about 10 minutes earlier. No driver. 20 degrees out, wind blowing. Its colder in DC than it was in Montana at 5am when I left for the airport. I start to walk around to van to find a driver and a head pops up. He’s taking a NAP in the van, in the pickup lane.

I open the door, he is somewhat startled, pulls on his shoes and ties them, I sit down. He gets my suitcase. We rumble about 100 yds and he finds the British sounding guy, who is fairly annoyed by now but only makes a brief comment to me about it. He tells me he’s been waiting for an hour. 45 minutes for me.

We take off for the Hilton. Driver is in a rush, dodging left and right, van is lurching around, making “Im your universal joint or main bearing grinding and Im going to explode at any second” noises. Not a Hiltonesque experience.

Driver is going way too fast for this van, not unsafe, just too fast for a vehicle driving clients around and making the van continue to lurch about. Imagine if your grandmother was being brought to the Hilton, she’d be freaked. Not what Conrad would have wanted. Probably not even what Paris would want:)

Of course, once I’m inside the Hilton, their well-trained, competent staff takes over and all is well. Its a very well run place once you’re inside and the HHonors rooms are fantastic. Giant marble showers, plasma screen on the wall above the desk, etc.

But my first impression is of the napping van driver, our lurching trip from the airport, and the wait in the cold.

I’m guessing that shuttle drivers are hard to find and retain, and as such, Hilton pays less than ideal attention to that function when they train, analyze their quality processes, do customer service checkups, and so on. But that’s just a guess.

What first impression customer contact are you forgetting about? Icy sidewalk? Mario Andretti driving the van? Male flight attendants talking about “getting some” while female passengers just a few feet away are getting settled into their seats? (that happened on Delta this am on the SLC to IAD leg).

The slight edge. Keep looking for it. The investment makes big payoffs. First impressions last.