Win the First Impression

Is there love at first sight? Research shows we know if we are going to like and trust a person from just a glimpse of their face. When we meet someone we only get seconds to make a first impression and, regardless of our self-perception, that impression biases how they perceive what we say and do.

Restaurants are no different. Having a clear and compelling brand, as well as an enticing restaurant design are musts. But when a guest visits a new or remodeled concept the first impression creates a bias that will influence their entire experience. And with so many choices, it’s unlikely you will get a second chance if the experience isn’t enjoyable.
Studies say guests don’t return due to underperformance on three drivers: treated as a valued customer, warmth of greeting, and taste of food. These things can be corrected through training and operations, but they don’t present the whole picture. Guests say these drivers matter because that is what they are asked. Guests cannot mentally access what “turns them off” in an experience, since much of it happens outside their consciousness. We need to go deeper.

First impressions matter because uncertainty creates anxiety—like encountering a stranger on a hiking trail. Although we seldom risk life and limb by choosing a restaurant, our brains don’t know that. It processes the situation and makes us either wary or comfortable based on small amounts of data. The brain seeks quick assurance that it is making a safe choice. Continued on page 3.

It turns out that we overcome this uncertainty in two phases: one that is subconscious, requiring little of our energy, and the second consciously, requiring more effort.

Phase one happens outside of our awareness. There is simply too much information to consciously process at any given moment. Our brain uses shortcuts or “thin slice” impressions (made famous in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink) to make snap judgements about what we actually sense and fills in the blanks. If the experience passes this first test we move to phase two.

Further reducing uncertainty involves being more conscious of our impressions. This explains why we routinely ask questions like a person’s name, occupation, and where they’re from when we meet them. We also evaluate people on appearance, accent, etc. The more similar a person is to us the better we feel about them.

In an initial restaurant experience we can’t seek similarity so we seek familiarity through comparison, reconciling the unfamiliar with the familiar to formulate an impression: “Oh this place works like a Chipotle,” or “It feels expensive in here.” Comparisons involve non-verbal signs that enable us to make thoughtful conclusions about the place. It takes effort to verify the “thin slice” judgements made in phase one, hardening our impression because now we are now mentally invested.

The challenge for restaurants is that when guests make a negative judgement, it biases the remainder of their experience. This impression is likely to stick, regardless of future evidence that doesn’t support it. Impressions like, “This place isn’t for people like me” or “The menu is confusing” set the tone for an experience that discourages a repeat visit, positive reviews, and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Unfortunately, there are no tricks about making a first impression, like having the aroma of baked goods when selling a house. Creating one is about understanding the guest’s desires and anxieties to strategically stage the initial experience. What the guest sees, senses, and feels must encourage a positive bias while establishing what your brand stands for.

For restaurant guests most anxiety originates in feeling out of control—triggering a blur of uncertainty. For example, there are many competing operating styles today, from traditional QSR order by number approaches, to custom assembly line, to self-order kiosks. What regular guests see as a way to customize may confuse new guests due to menu unfamiliarity.

Don’t assume guests will “get” your service model. It may be the unintended start of a bad experience.

First impressions can also be influenced by factors outside of your control. Knowing these can impact the strategy. Understanding the lens guests are using to form an impression is important—does your concept name and location set up an expectation? What mood are they in when they first enter, are they already stressed? And what is their dilemma? Appetite versus budget? Craving versus healthy?

At ChangeUp we approach strategy with a goal of encouraging an immediate, positive bias, then reinforcing it at every touchpoint by managing a brand-driven dining journey. We begin with a rigorous understanding of the experience from the guest’s perspective using observation and innovative in-context research.

  • Next comes the application of cognitive principles that influence the way guests familiarize with the concept:
  • Creating an atmosphere that reduces anxiety and provides a strategic focus of attention.
  • Priming the experience with verbal and non-verbal impressions.
  • Emotionally framing the messaging to be more persuasive.
  • Developing signature customer experiences that make the concept memorable.

Design that is mindful of the first impression is about knowing what to look for, not merely gathering an ocean of insights. We then apply the cognitive principles that influence behavior and encourage a positive bias. Last, but not least, we bring the design talent—adding the intangible element of human creativity, effective marketing communications, and a distinctly branded visual experience.

Most people will tell you they strive to be open-minded and evenhanded in the way they judge and treat others. Often, we over-rely on guests giving concepts the benefit of doubt. But don’t take it for granted in your concept— you may lose them at “Hello.”

We create retail experiences that people love

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