Sharper Image

Is your business's image everything it could--and should--be?
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Consider this: A first impression may take less than 30 seconds to form, but it has the longevity of concrete.

That image could wreak havoc on a business--or be the cornerstone of its success. The first time we go into a business, we develop a perception of the place. We may find ourselves thinking "Hey, I like it here." Or, we may hear that little voice inside our head say "I don't like this. Something bothers me."

The problem with perceptions is that once they are formed, they are extremely durable. That's great, as long as people are forming a positive impression--but it's downright disastrous if they come away with a negative feeling.

So as this new year begins, why not take a little time to give your business an image assessment? Make an appointment with yourself (and maybe your partner, a key employee or someone whose opinion you value) to do a walk-through of your turf. After all, the health of your company is no different from your own health: You need regular check-ups to keep things in good working order. Here are five steps to take:

1. What's your sign? Your business's image brings customers to your door--and keeps them coming back again and again. If the first introduction a potential customer has to your business is a sign that looks unappealing, then chances are their first impression of you is going to be less than stellar.

Step outside your place of business and take a hard, critical look at your company's signage. Does it grab your attention in an appropriate way? Does it say "Quality lies behind these doors"? If your sign doesn't project a sense of optimism, stability and quality, then you'd better rethink how to make your sign say "Hello and welcome" to your customers.

Ask yourself these questions:

*Am I trying to say too much on my sign?

*Am I doing something to make my sign stand out from the competition? If there are lots of other businesses nearby, is there something I can do to make my sign more noticeable? What about a brighter color, larger print, or even hanging the sign a bit higher than the rest?

*Is my sign made from quality materials, well-maintained and professional-looking?

If the sign is easy to read, looks sharp and is distinctive, chances are it's giving a favorable impression.

2. The welcome mat. A customer's eyes usually dart from the sign outside your place of business to the entrance or front door. This area includes the parking lot, landscaping, windows, sidewalks, exterior lighting, the outside of the building and even the door itself.

A great deal can be learned about a business simply by looking at how well-maintained it is. And things don't necessarily have to be expensive or elaborate to project an industrious, professional image. I just returned from a trip to Bangkok, where literally millions of shopkeepers and vendors display their wares in the humblest of settings. Even with the elements against them and very little room in which to work, the merchants took pride in presentation, with every scarf folded perfectly and each item neatly arranged. Their work areas were clean and free of trash, and it was obvious they took a daily survey of how their bit of the street appeared.

Take note of your own storefront. Weeds, trash, broken sidewalks, tattered or faded awnings, ugly carpeting, dirty windows and door handles, worn-out or overstuffed garbage containers, and planters with uncared-for plants all send the message "We don't really care."

3. The white-glove test. Remember back in fifth grade when your teacher reminded you neatness counts? It still does. Don't let your concern for the visual end once your customers are through the front door. That endless journey toward a superior image starts with the broom closet.

Think about what you do when you know company is coming to your home. You want it to look its best for the people you care about, right? The same philosophy should apply to your place of business. If a visitor were to drop by your office today or a customer stop in at any time, what kind of impression would he or she get from looking at your lobby, display areas, service vehicles or storage facilities? Would you be proud and confident that things look great? Or would you scurry to hide shabby or unkempt areas like a teenager shielding a messy room from a disapproving parent?

A well-maintained place of business is critical to generating a favorable image. No matter what your product, specialty or nature of service, an organized, inviting space is seen not only as a sign of productivity but also as a symbol of the business itself. Projecting an image of controlled efficiency, professionalism and hospitality is particularly important to assuring the first-time visitor that your business is the best.

Scan the horizon and see what stands out as an eyesore:

*Are your shelves crowded and dusty?

*Is your merchandise properly displayed and sorted? Can people easily see what you have to offer? Are items correctly marked?

*Are posters, price lists and bulletin boards accurate and up-to-date?

*Do plants look healthy and cared for?

*Is the area around your cash registers or terminals clean and orderly?

*Can you find the forms, packaging and related materials you need quickly?

*Are light fixtures clean, bright and working properly?

*Is there plenty of room between counters or shelves so that aisles are wide and free of barriers? Is there simply too much merchandise crammed onto shelves, racks and display counters?

*Are glass surfaces clean, and are floors swept, vacuumed or scrubbed regularly?

*Are brochures and relevant literature neatly displayed and up-to-date, or are there still half a dozen tattered magazines from 1991 strewn about the end tables?

*Are your restrooms spotless, odorless and neat? A dirty restroom says your business tends only to the surface stuff and down deep doesn't follow through with attention to detail. The same advice goes for employee lounges or hospitality areas. Newspapers, used coffee cups, dirty counters and food not properly stored means quality is only skin deep.

If you don't have time to clean, maintain and enhance your place of business, then find a service that will do it for you. After all, if you don't care about your own assets, how on earth can you convey the idea that you care about your clients or customers?

4. Attractive advertising. In his book Moments of Truth (HarperBusiness), former Scandinavian Airlines CEO Jan Carlzon coined the term "moments of truth" in business situations. Those "moments" are any time a person has an opportunity to formulate an impression or opinion of a company.

Every time your customers or clients receive a piece of mail, an invoice or any correspondence from you, it's a moment of truth. The piece must look professionally done and be easy to understand. Large, clear printing; high-quality paper; and a crisp appearance all contribute to a first-rate business image.

The same applies to your packaging, sacks or bags, envelopes, storage containers, business cards, brochures, labels and so on. Dog-eared, dirty, out-of-date or cheap generic paper goods do nothing for repeat business and referrals.

Your ads in the Yellow Pages, trade journals, newspapers or any other print media should also have a tight, crisp professional look to them. Unless you run a printing or graphics business, get some help with design elements. This is one area where looking like an amateur can really be costly.

And don't overlook the importance of high-caliber electronic communications. Your phone system, voice messaging and fax capabilities, and even your Web page must be researched and fine-tuned so they, too, appear professional.

5. Power to the people. Finally, take a good look in the mirror. How you and your employees look and act is every bit as important as how beautiful your office, store or showroom might be.

From the moment people arrive at your place of business, they need to be made to feel welcome, informed and listened to. The atmosphere should echo your personal philosophy of serving people professionally, graciously and promptly. Try to anticipate your customers' needs. Ask yourself (or someone who has never set foot in your business before), "What do I need to do so I will be easy to do business with?"

*Consider how confused a newcomer might be upon entering your store or office. Is there signage giving clear directions to various departments?

*Is someone readily (and obviously) available to answer questions and greet customers?

*Are all your employees trained and well-informed on products and services? Do they know how important it is to smile, be friendly and helpful?

*Have you demonstrated your commitment to a strong work ethic, honesty and fairness?

*Do you show through word and deed how valuable a clean, neat and professional appearance is?

If you haven't spelled out what you want from your employees in terms of a professional image, don't expect them to be mind-readers. Getting a clear picture of how you want your business and your staff to look--and sharing that vision--is required behavior if you really want to set your company apart from all the rest.

Schedule an appointment with yourself to do an annual image checkup within the next 30 days. Write it down and follow through. You won't regret it.

Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and high-tech etiquette. E-mail her at

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