How to Make a Good First Impression

This is a true story. Years ago, I interviewed for a job with a well-known, multi-billion-dollar global company. I was flown in the night before, and interviewed with the hiring manager, the hiring manager’s boss, and the hiring manager’s HR partner.

The interviews ended at noon, so around 1 p.m., the agency managing the search called me to ask how it went.

“How did it go?” I answered. “I honestly have no idea!”

The interview with the hiring manager had gone well, and she even suggested that we get together at the end of the day for an unscheduled debrief, so I was feeling good about the job. At the end of the last interview, though, the HR manager abruptly walked me to the elevator without asking me if I had any questions. I was sent on my way without so much as a “thanks for visiting.”

I probably looked ridiculous standing there on the sidewalk in my suit, staring back at the building with my little file folder of extra resumes in my hand! As I recovered, I realized that no one had discussed next steps with me, let alone given me a timeline. I hadn’t even received a company brochure! Mama mia, what had I done wrong?

It’s so difficult to do everything right when you’re working with a candidate. Not a week goes by that you don’t read about the shortage of talent, so there’s just no room for mistakes in managing the “candidate experience.”

In addition, finding talent is now quite complex, and best-in-class companies and recruiters are doing more proactive sourcing, so the process is likely to include more steps. This means potentially dozens, even hundreds, of emails, phone calls, discussions, and interviews before a hire occurs.

The point is, with so many distinct interactions with candidates, simple statistics make it unlikely that you’ll be able to ensure every single step comes off flawlessly. Instead of trying to be perfect, I recommend you concentrate on making the first and last interactions count the most.

In studies going back to the 1920s, scientists noticed a peculiar pair of phenomena now known as the Primacy Effect and the Recency Effects. These effects were noted when experimental subjects were asked to look at lists, then recall as many items as they could. It was observed that people tend to recall items from the end of the list first, and when attempting to recall earlier items, they recall the first few items best.

Subsequent research led to many fascinating insights about how our memory works, and most psychologists and sociologists acknowledge that the phenomena probably result from the processes our brains use to store information.

Primacy occurs because as we begin filling our short-term memory with items, there are fewer items to remember, allowing them to make a stronger impression on the memory center. Earlier items are also more likely to end up in our long-term memories.

Recency is probably just due to the fact that the items memorized last are freshest in our mind, and are stored in our “working memories.”

As I recall my visit to that company years ago, these two phenomena are definitely at work. The first memories that come to mind are the call I received when I was first told about the job, and the odd sensation associated with being unceremoniously escorted from the building after I thought things were going so well.

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Can you recall a similar experience from a past interview experience? If you’re like many people, you’ll remember things that happened at the end of the process, and then things that happened right at the beginning.

From First Impressions…

Whether you run an agency, perform contract recruiting, or work for a large company, it’s important to make sure all your candidate interactions are awesome. However, the old adage about making a good first impression is more that just a piece of quaint advice. In fact, it is a scientific fact that your first impression is one that will stay with your clients.

Here are four ways you can ensure people have a great “first impression” when you contact them:

  1. Do some research before you contact people. This one is so easy now that there’s simply no excuse for not doing it. A quick Internet search can reveal information about where someone has worked, how long they’ve been with their current employer, and even information about hobbies and interests. Identifying patterns in people’s behavior can also help you understand their motivation when it comes to what they want out of a potential employer. For example, someone who has spent their entire career in the IT world and also runs a website devoted to technology will need to be approached in a particular way depending upon what job opportunities you plan to discuss with them
  2. Ensure your message is powerful, consistent, and memorable. Another way the Internet has changed how people look for jobs is the way it allows complete and total access to the “real truth” about your company. Calling one person and telling them your company is all about teams and teamwork, then calling someone else and describing your company as being all about the individual contributor, is very likely to come back and bite you. Try spending the next week listening to people talk about job opportunities. You’ll likely hear things like “I’ve heard it’s really hard to get resources there,” or “I understand that you can only get to a certain level unless you’ve been with that company a long time.” Establishing a clear and compelling recruitment brand will help you understand what’s idiosyncratically unique about your company. Keep that unique brand message strong and positive whenever you interact with people.
  3. Know your outcome. I remember a call I received when I first started recruiting. The caller left a message on my voicemail telling me he had a “great employment opportunity” that he wanted to discuss. I called him back, only to discover the “great opportunity” was merely the chance to hire one of his clients! His outcome was to get me to call him back promptly (which I did). Of course, I never called him again. Make sure your outcome is something like “I want to discuss a particular job with this person but establish a long-term relationship with them even if the job isn’t a fit.”
  4. Anticipate obstacles. If you recruit for a company, have you ever “lived” the candidate experience you ask your job-seekers to live? Have you ever tried to catch a cab at your local airport after 11:00 p.m.? Have you tried to bid on a job through your own website? Are your hiring teams trained to ask relevant, legal questions? Optimizing a candidate’s first look at your company is critical, so get your team together every six months to review the message you’re sending. Some teams I know turn the process into a type of game, and brainstorm all the ways that the candidate experience could possibly go wrong. They then go back and build mechanisms into their process to prevent the mishaps.

How important is it to manage your company’s first impression? Consider your candidate database and determine how many names are in it right now. Thousands?

Even if you’re the busiest recruiter in the world, most of your candidates will not get a job with your company. However, every one of them will remember their first interaction with you, even if it’s only a visit to your website.

To Last Impressions…

Leaving people with a great impression is also important, and I believe this is the area of greatest opportunity for most of us.

Here are four suggestions for leaving candidates feeling good:

  1. Always leave people with a clear idea of next steps, timeline, deliverables from them, and deliverables from you. Even when you are in a strictly “sourcing” mode, and end up talking only briefly with someone who is not a match at all for a particular job, you should end the call by discussing next steps. “I don’t see you as a match for this job, so I don’t plan to forward your resume on. However, I do anticipate some hires in your functional area in 2008. Let’s stay in touch.” Similarly, if you can’t move to next steps until you receive a piece of documentation from a candidate, or until a background check is started, let them know.
  2. If you’ve had success, circle back with your client after a few weeks to relive the experience together. The best recruiters I know make this a priority. Say you place someone in a great job. Circling back and talking through the experience with the hiring manager accomplishes several things: (1) it allows you to make the client aware of all the things you or your organization did to make them successful, and (2) it allows you to “package” their final impression of you. In the chaos of switching jobs, it’s amazing how quickly people forget how hard you worked to increase their sign-on bonus, re-negotiate a start date, or extract some obscure piece of benefits information for them. Linking all these positive memories together and associating them with your efforts is a great way to leave a good impression.
  3. A thoughtful, tasteful gift can go a long way. Some companies give every candidate who interviews with them a small gift related to the company’s business. Other companies give college interns a small gift like a USB flash drive or a pen. The value of the gift is irrelevant. The important thing is to leave the client with a gift that reminds them of the good experience they had with you. I once commemorated the conclusion of an extraordinarily difficult search for a pension fund manager by presenting the hiring manger with an old civil war era widow’s pension certificate I found on eBay. The gift cost virtually nothing, but the manager loved it, and whenever he looks at it hanging on his wall it reminds him of our successful search together.
  4. Ask job-seekers what they thought about their experience. Best-in-class companies survey their candidates to ensure they had the information they needed, that they understood the hiring process, and that there were no unpleasant surprises along the way. On-line survey tools are cheap (or free!), and easy to use. What better way to find out what kind of a “final impression” you’re leaving your clients with than to simply ask them: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how positive an impression did the company leave you with?”

In today’s recruitment market, no one can get away with randomly interacting with job seekers and simply hoping for the best. While an unbroken chain of perfect interactions is the goal we should all be shooting for, making the first and last interactions the best interactions is the next best thing.

By the way, in case you’re wondering how my adventure in the big city turned out all those years ago, you’re not alone. Believe it or not, I never heard back from the hiring manager, nor did I ever hear from the agency with whom I was working.

Every once in a while I run into a colleague who works for that company, and she always promises to find out “what ever happened with that job.” She needn’t trouble herself, though. Whether I like it or not, my brain has already stored some very powerful memories about my experience!

He started his career as a research chemist in the laboratory. Now, Michael Kannisto has tried to apply a similarly disciplined and science-based approach to the fields of recruiting and talent management. His long-term interests include employment branding, multiple generations in the workforce, and using Six-Sigma methodology to improve recruitment outcomes.

His current passion is the development and use of mathematical models to predict future staffing and development needs (a remarkably more accurate form of “workforce planning” than what is traditionally employed). Call it predictive modeling, call it “big data” ... but the information sitting in your HRMS right now has the potential to change the way you think about talent forever.


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