After reading all the hype about switching phone networks, I received an offer of free air miles, discounted calls, and other benefits that was too good to refuse. So I switched carriers.

My first contact with the new carrier was a letter saying, "Congratulations, you are now connected to XYZ. Please call the following toll-free number to make sure you are connected."

I called the number. A scratchy recording, fading in and out, congratulated me. But I did not feel that congratulations were in order. If this was their first contact with me, what would regular service be like?

Another negative first impression: After years of dawdling, I subscribed to a major monthly magazine when the offer appeared too good to pass up.

I awaited my first issue. Instead of one, I got four: the current issue and the last three. All I could think was that they had overstock of past issues, and this was a good way to get rid of them while fulfilling their subscription obligation.

Wal-Mart's Winning Way

I was angry, and I doubt I'll renew when my subscription ends. (A letter to the head of the magazine, telling him what a bad impression his circulation people had made, was never answered.)

Contrast this with my first visit to a Wal-Mart. I walked in, and there was a polite, well-dressed greeter, thanking me for entering the store before I spent a penny.

All of us have stories of a first impression made by a bank or business.

* I heard four ads in about six hours for a no-load mutual fund that gave an 800 number and said, "Call anytime." It was Saturday. I called, and a recording said, "We are closed until Monday at 8 a.m." I never called again.

* Recently I opened an account at a savings bank. The procedure took longer than the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. After signing six separate sets of forms, which took almost an hour, I wondered how good the rest the service would be at that bank.

I was so turned off that I have given that institution little opportunity to show if day-to-day operations are better than my first impression.

* I called a bank for a mortgage when they advertised a very low rate. "Do you think my home will qualify for that rate?" I asked. The banker's answer: "What do you want from me on the phone? Did you ever lend money for a diamond without looking at it?" I hung up.

* A major airline advertised a great promotion. I called up to reserve a seat. Despite a full-page ad in the paper, the agent didn't know a thing about it and couldn't help me.

* I joined a group dedicated to helping the community. At my first meeting all they discussed was why we should give more money, and we did. I never went back.

* I joined the board of a charity and looked forward to my first meeting. Instead of dealing with issues relevant to the charity's work, they had a two-hour discussion on why we should boycott grapes until the farm workers are unionized - something completely unrelated to the work of this group. I was a no-show at future meetings.

Once Burned, Twice Shy

In sum, first impressions are crucial. We don't give restaurants, banks, and other service organizations a second chance in the world of competitive enterprise.

Thus Marriott's recent announcement that it plans to have check-ins handled by phone in advance - with the key waiting on a nearby rack for those entering the lobby - makes sense. The hotel chain said its surveys showed that the first 10 minutes after arriving were the most important when customers rated their stay.

Once the public's impression of an organization has been formed, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to turn it around - and sometimes it can't be turned around, no matter how much the organization changes.

The first impression is drawn on a clean slate. It is the key opportunity for building good will easily.

This explains why some banks make certain that when they offer a new service, it is explained to the phone operators and guards first. They are the ones who get the first questions and are the first to greet potential customers.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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