VERY often, you hear the phrase: "You never get a second chance to make a good first impression."

This phrase applies especially to customer service personnel, as they are the ones whom potential and existing customers meet first.

They are your company's public face, and clients form an opinion about your company based on encounters with them - for better or worse.

Research has shown that first impressions are formed within 10 to 30 seconds. It is vital that you or your staff project a professional and polished image all the time to secure new customers and retain old ones.

Customers can easily take their business somewhere else if they have a poor impression of the customer service personnel at the first point of contact.

Many companies focus on knowledge training, standard operating procedures and the technical aspects of customer service but forget that the image of the person providing the service is crucial as well.

A well-groomed, poised customer service officer can instil confidence in clients, who see the good image as a signal that the person will be able to take good care of their needs.

Conversely, if that person appears to be unable to manage himself, customers may wonder how he can provide assistance to other people.

A good image is not about how pretty or how handsome the customer service personnel are. The focus is on aspects like personal grooming, deportment, body language and communication skills.

Here are some examples of unprofessional behaviour that customer service staff are guilty of - and how this affects customers.

Poor grooming

A female customer service officer comes to work with crumpled clothes, messy hair, chipped nail polish and no makeup. Or, a male service provider shows up wearing a wrinkled shirt, ill-fitting pants and dirty shoes. His hair is oily and his nails are unkempt.

* What it says about the person: "I can't be bothered to dress professionally for the position, and it does not matter whether my customers see me in this state."

* What the customer thinks: "This person is obviously not interested in his job. He is probably incompetent, anyway."

Negative body language

* What it says about the person: "I am not confident of providing good customer service. I do not know much about the products or services I am selling."

* What the customer thinks: "This person does not know his job. How can I trust him?"

Hiding behind a desk

* What it says about the person: "I hope customers do not notice me at all."

* What the customer thinks: "This person is not keen to serve me. Why should I patronise this company?"

Avoiding eye contact

* What it says about the person:

a."I have a lot of other things to do, and they are more important than serving the customer."

b. "I am not interested in whatever you want to say. Please don't bother me."

* What the customer thinks: "This person doesn't want me to bother him. I'll go somewhere else."

Poor communication
Not smiling at the customer

* What it says about the person: "I am in a bad mood. Don't disturb me."

* What the customer thinks: "I don't want him to spoil my day. A company that does not train its staff is not good enough for me."

Not greeting the customer

* What it says about the person: "The customer is not important to me. I don't care if he takes his business elsewhere."

* What the customer thinks: "How rude! I don't think I want to spend my money and time here."

When service personnel behave unprofessionally, it damages the reputation of the company they work for and its business.

Your company cannot afford to lose a single customer, especially in these tough times. You have to make sure that every customer experience is a great one - and it starts at the frontline.