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The Green Sheet Online Edition

May 11, 2009 • Issue 09:05:01

Street SmartsSM

What does your billboard say?

By Jon Perry and Vanessa Lang

Imagine, if you would, that you're at a networking event. You are in a large, rectangular room with tables on one side, windows on the other. Looking out the windows you see cars in the parking lot and people entering the building. One man in the crowd is wearing a scruffy T-shirt and jeans. You gauge him to be in his early to mid twenties.

Later, you and two other people are standing together. You introduce yourself and provide your 60-second elevator speech about what you do. The young man you saw earlier comes over to your group.

You ask him what he does. He says that he helps people become millionaires and adds he is a financial planner who has taken countless portfolios and turned them into valuable retirement funds. He asks if you're interested in learning more.

Then, he glances at his watch and says, "Please excuse me, but I'm late for a meeting." He leaves, and you see him moments later through the window as he gets into a 1972 Ford Pinto.

Words don't say all

This man's words did not jibe with the initial impression you'd gotten. The reasons have to do with something called "message framing." What that means is we send out a very distinct message before even opening our mouths. Sometimes verbal messages aren't properly heard because of the framing that precedes them, which can create a fixed impression.

Erving Goffman was the first to develop a specific theory about self-presentation in 1959, which laid the foundation for what is known as "impression management."

Goffman stated that people must adapt their behavior and appearance to "give" and "give off" the correct impression to a particular audience. He noted that individuals participate in social interactions through performing a "line" or "a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts" by which they express their views of situations and evaluate participants, including themselves.

To paraphrase Goffman further, we are all actors on a stage. To connect with our audience, we must mirror them in appearance and behavior. As part of impression management, we are managing the impression we give others, molding it for suitability. We are creating our personal billboard for everyone to see.

Watch what you convey

Like it or not, each of us is a walking billboard, constantly projecting a message in three ways: through our appearance, our actions and what we say. Let's briefly examine the three.

    1. Our appearance: The twenty-something man described at the beginning of this article was defined by what he wore and what he drove. He obviously did not project the typical picture of a successful financial advisor making millionaires of his clients.

    Imagine driving up to see a potential client who owns a transmission shop. He has four employees who work eight to 10 hour days around grease and dirt. You drive up for your appointment in a brand new Porsche wearing a $2,000 tailored Armani suit.

    It sounds sinfully delightful. Yet, by doing this we are sending a message to the transmission shop that either our ego is too big or we are highly insecure and looking for ways to compensate. Either way, the chances of getting that deal are greatly diminished.

    Mirror your clients. Read their billboards. If your client is a lawyer, consider wearing a suit. If your client is a mechanic, wear business casual. (When our clients work in commercial or industrial places, often we'll wear jeans and a business shirt. Why? We want to visit the work area. We want to understand their work, and they are happy to show us because they appreciate our interest.)

    2. Our actions: There is nothing more disrespectful than answering a cell phone while meeting with someone - whether an employee, customer, business associate or loved one. Our personal billboard is sending the message, "The person I am talking to on the phone is much more important than you."

    You may think there are times you have to answer the phone. Maybe so. But what could possibly be more important than the person you are meeting with?

    In those rare cases when taking a phone call might absolutely be necessary, let the person know prior to the meeting that you are expecting an important phone call. Then, if the phone does ring, ask that person's permission to answer it.

    The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain has a lock on impression management and message framing. First, it doesn't call its employees "employees," but rather "ladies and gentlemen." The company's motto is, "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." And it is the only two-time recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the service category.

    If you check into one of this hotel's locations for the very first time, chances are the people working the front desk will know your name.

    How is it done? The bellman who pulls out your baggage looks for a name tag, and once you are out of sight the bellman radios your name to the front desk and says you have arrived. At the front desk, a representative welcomes you by name with a pleasant smile and warm voice and tells you it is a pleasure to serve you.

    3. What we say: A couple of years ago, I was attending a chamber lunch meeting. One of the attendees was a middle-aged man who was deeply religious. He prayed before meals; could recite passages from the books of his faith by memory and shared with almost everyone he met that his success was a gift from God.

    However, as the waitress who took our orders passed by, he nudged me and commented, "Did you see the lights on that train!"

    This story is a strong example of bad impression management: The man's actions did not mesh with the way he presented himself, which made his remarks all the more glaring.

    Speaking inappropriately can be a death knell to the business professional - be it through gossiping, sexual innuendos or speaking poorly of people who are not present to defend themselves.

We all make mistakes. On GS Online's MLS Forum, Beanstream described a time he was asked to speak at an early morning event. He got up before daybreak and got dressed in the dark so he wouldn't wake his wife. As it turned out, he mixed the jacket from one suit with pants from another. Not only were the colors mismatched, but the clothes had different patterns.

Beanstream said, "I didn't notice it until I got up to the podium to speak, or else I would have just ditched the jacket. It probably wasn't noticed by a lot of people, but I spent more time focused on my attire and trying to hide behind the podium than I did my speech."

It's a great example of how not mirroring other people can make you feel out of place - in this case, Beanstream was more focused on his clothes than the event he attended. (Perhaps a good first step in proper mirroring is looking at yourself in the mirror.)

Everything counts

Within an organization, nothing is too small to understand and refine. Paying attention to how the office phone is answered, the way a presentation is delivered and what a person wears on a sales call are examples of providing consistency in service and message.

Like the Ritz-Carlton, we want to deliver seamless service to our customers. We also want to build a merchant services company whose top-notch quality and customer service is rooted in strong impression management and message framing. Who knows, maybe we'll be the first merchant services company to win a Malcolm Baldrige award. That would make a great billboard. end of article

Jon Perry and Vanessa Lang are the owners of 888QuikRate.com, an ISO based in Ft. Worth, Texas, that was named Small Business of the Year by the local newspaper, The Star Telegram. For more information, tweet them at http://twitter.com/dfwcard, comment on their blog at http://merchantservices.cc or visit their profile at http://linkedin.com/in/jonperry or http://linkedin.com/in/vanessalang. Alternatively, you can contact Jon and Vanessa by phone at 817-857-3557 or by e-mail at jon.perry@888quikrate.com or vanessa.lang@888quikrate.com.

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