CareersCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: First and Second Impressions

By Susan de la Vergne

I went to a new doctor the other day, someone I’d never seen before. When I arrived, a woman without a smile handed me a clipboard stuffed with forms to fill out. Every form was about payment methods, amounts due for this and that, insurance limitations, and what would happen if I didn’t pay my outstanding balance in 90 days. I looked for a form asking about my medical history but there wasn’t one.

Then I came to a form asking me to supply credit card information, the card they’d charge if I didn’t pay my outstanding balance in time. It asked me to write down my credit card number, expiration date, and security code-on a piece of paper.

I went to the window, back to the woman without a smile, and said I wouldn’t be writing that down for her. She stared at me blankly. I said that’s how fraudulent credit card transactions are born, and that no one should ever write all that down on a mere piece of paper. That’s precisely what secure online transactions are designed to protect.

She said she’d have to get the nurse. Which she did. And the nurse then said she’d have to tell the doctor. Which she did. When she returned, she said that the doctor said I’d have to leave a $150 deposit in order to be seen.

In the end, I agreed to write down the information as long as I could watch the unsmiling woman enter it into a system that appeared to be secure and, when she was done, I’d retrieve the vulnerable page and dispose of it myself.

As I sat in the waiting room, I listened to the unsmiling woman engage in one conversation after another about unpaid balances, slow payment, and unmet deductibles. My impression of this office was that they cared about getting paid. Not about me. Not about the other patients in the waiting area. Their message to all of us was that we strangers would be slow to pay or skip out on the bill and damage their cash flow.


I’m not arguing that doctors’ offices shouldn’t be concerned about running the business. But do they want to make their customers feel like financial suspects or cared-for patients?

How do your clients feel about the impression you make? Are they your cared-for, valued customers? Or are you making a different impression?


We have many different kinds of clients. Some are returning clients, people or businesses whom we’ve done work for and who have come back for more. Some are new. They’ve chosen us, and we’re about to embark on our first venture with them. Some are prospects-that is, we hope they’ll choose us. Some are external (not part of our company), and some are internal, groups within our larger organization whom we serve in some way. Help desks, for example, often have internal and external clients. IT departments often serve primarily internal clients.

Whether clients are internal or external, long-standing or brand new, here is what your clients are NOT thinking:

  1. I’m in no hurry. Really, take your time. Don’t rush on my account.
  2. I know my project is very small, so for that reason, I don’t really expect you to give me much attention.
  3. Do it however you want. Whatever you decide we need, however you design, develop, and test it will be fine, I’m sure.
  4. Cost overruns? No problem. We’re made of money.
  5. I know you have lots of other projects to work on. Just work on ours whenever you have nothing else to do.

To make a professional, customer-focused impression, keep in mind what clients ARE thinking. That means they don’t care how many other project you have. They don’t care whether you think their work isn’t as important as other things you’re doing. And, of course, they do care about how their money is being spent. Even if the person you’re talking to isn’t a P&L (profit and loss) manager, he or she still cares.


Just as a patient at a doctor’s office wants to feel that patient care is the top priority there, your clients want their business objectives, their plans, their budgets and schedules to be your top priority.

Terrible Impressions

When I worked in tech management for a utility company, we had an internal client who confided to me that she thought every tech person she met was a negative naysayer. “I say I want such-and-such, and they immediately tell me all the reasons that what I want is difficult, expensive, risky and we should forget it.”

Client’s impression: I’m not being taken seriously. My input is dismissed.

And why was the client left with this impression? Her objective was to drive innovation for her department, to bring new ideas to improve her business. But the client-facing tech team members saw only technical problems. They ignored the client’s view and kept to their own.

Another internal client told me he was so tired of overly detailed explanations of what caused this or that problem that he wasn’t going to ask anymore. “I know they’re smart people who keep a lot of detailed technical knowledge straight in their heads all the time. They seem to want to keep proving that to me, over and over.”

Client’s impression: Confused; pushed away; tired of trying to connect.

And why was the client left with this impression? He’d asked for an understanding of the problem so as to be able to assess its potential risk in the future. But the client-facing engineer didn’t understand his objective and instead went for a thorough, accurate explanation the client couldn’t use.

One more client story, this time an external one from years ago when a client told me his impression of our company was that it was a frantic place, and this left him feeling insecure about working with us. He was right. Our design and development team members were operating in chaos at the time, and they exuded turmoil. We established order-that helped a lot-but more importantly from the client’s viewpoint, we worked with our client-facing staff to help them focus on the clients’ worries and concerns and leave their own outside the door.

Making a client-focused impression is just a perspective shift, going from “how do I see it?” to “how do they see it?” Be a consultant-that is, a partner, an adviser, someone who brings a wealth of detailed knowledge to the conversation but who can also see the bigger picture from the clients’ perspective.

Client “Personality Types”

Please ignore the abundance of dubious advice in the blogosphere telling you to categorize your clients into unflattering personality types: the control freak, the know-it-all, the clueless, the nitpicker, the dragon lady, the under-educated buzz-word-dropper, and more. That kind of categorizing encourages an adversarial relationship. You’ll never partner well with someone you’ve decided is a clueless dragon lady, so just don’t let yourself go there in the first place.

Clients are just people. They come with their own agendas, expectations, frailties, and axes to grind. They have theirs, and you have yours. But as a client-facing person, your job is to position your suggestions, arguments, and deliverables in a context that is mindful of their objectives. Do that, and you’ll make a good impression every time.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her latest book, Engineers On Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, is available from Amazon. More about Susan at

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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