The first hurdle to landing the job or the sale is a personal one — in short, it’s you. According to numerous studies on first impressions, humans tend to form judgments of others within seven seconds of interaction. And those first impressions can have a significant impact on interview questions, sales, and repeat customers. Learning to market yourself is both a personal benefit and a benefit to the company you represent.

Nancy Hungerford, senior director of talent at Nordstrom, has interviewed countless people throughout her career and said the first thing recruiters notice is a candidate’s comfort level and whether or not a genuine passion for the role shines through.

“Everyone owns their self-brand both digitally and physically,” said Hungerford. “Consider your (self-brand) at all times, be authentic, and try to convey your ‘super-power.’” Hungerford stressed that candidates should be prepared to talk about the value they offer to the role as well as the company. She said candidates who make the most memorable first impressions are energized, provide a value-add component to the conversation, and leave her feeling like she doesn’t want the discussion to end. “Do your research, be yourself, have a compelling (self-brand), and maybe most important, have fun.”

Beyond the basics, like smiling and conveying warmth, Fire & Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay said one of the most important qualities in making good first impressions with customers is the ability to listen. But it goes beyond that for customer service-based businesses such as restaurants and hotels. Mackay points out that his event directors and service staff genuinely care about meeting client’s needs.

“Our most successful employees have two common qualities,” said Mackay — a heart of hospitality and what he calls humble confidence or capability without an ego. The old “command and control” style of communication, particularly in sales and management, is a big turnoff to most people.

According to communications expert and educator Mark Ortman, the real key to “closing the deal” is to find out what the client or company needs. In his Bellevue College seminar It’s Not What We Say, It’s How We Say It!, students learn to identify the personal communication mistakes that are keeping them from getting what they want — the job, the sale, the relationship.

As a company, Mackay wants to be known for going the extra mile for guests and looks for those traits during prospective employee interviews.

“That is pretty easy to spot in an interview. Did they do research on us and our company? Do they ask good questions to really understand the job and the people? If they make it all about them, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t the right fit.”

One way they are going the extra mile at Fire & Vine’s El Gaucho Bellevue is by leaving chocolate chip cookies for guests in cars that have been parked with the free valet service. If the customers are regulars and the staff know they have kids at home, for example, often enough cookies will be sent home for all.

When executed well, these traits — listening skills, genuine care for others’ needs, and the willingness to go the extra mile — impart a good first impression and pave the way for the ultimate goal: a lasting impression.

Chad Mackay

Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality, greets customers at the door of El Gaucho. Photo by Zachary Dunn

But what about when something goes wrong the first time around? Most people are averse to conflict and personal confrontation. In a restaurant setting, guests may respond with a “fine” or “great” to the “How was everything?” question, even when the opposite was true. They will speak their real opinions by just never returning. Or, worse, they may write a scathing online review. To avoid the negative impact of a bad first impression, Mackay has his staff follow up with customers via phone the next day. He said a quick phone call thanking a customer for coming in and checking in on his or her experience conveys his company’s dedication to its guests. If there was an issue, guests are more likely to bring it up when they don’t have to do it face-to-face. This allows Mackay’s employees to remedy the situation before it becomes a permanent blot on the guest’s overall impression of the restaurant.

“Most people will not confront you; they just quietly quit you,” said Mackay. The phone calls aren’t hard to do, but he believes they are a powerful touch.

The follow-up calls are a good example of educator Ortman’s suggestion to find out what people want by asking more questions, then tailor the response to meet their needs.

Nordstrom’s Hungerford understands that stuff happens: Everyone is human. She says candidates should gauge the impact they had during the interview and navigate their response accordingly. “Being prepared in advance may be the biggest lesson learned here.”

It’s the unexpected and thoughtful gestures that wow Mackay, leaving a good impression extending from first to lasting.


Nancy Hungerford
Nancy Hungerford

Advice for Interviewing Candidates:

  1. Focus on optimizing your competitive positioning for the perspective employer. For example, think about how to demonstrate what stands out about “you” to convince the hiring team that if you were not hired, it would be a competitive loss.
  2. It’s important to show up in an authentic way and for the right reasons (e.g., are you running from something in a current job or toward a future career goal?).
  3. Candidates should always be prepared for the unexpected. Interview experiences are highly variable from company to company.

Headshot courtesy Nancy Hungerford