I'M NOT QUITE sure how many seconds it takes for someone to form an often lasting first impression of you. All I know is the answer is not very many.

In my research for The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking, many of the (let‚??s put this delicately) older networkers missed the early introductions they used to give and receive when meeting someone for the first time.

They, like most of us, are finding that these days, the first thing most people will do when given an introduction or recommendation to work with your firm is check you out online.

When I talk about people, I mean new and existing clients, potential new recruits and potential suppliers. Don‚??t believe me? Well, what‚??s the first thing (normally) that do you do, when recommended to use a new supplier by a contact? I would place a large bet that you take a look at their website.

Your website (or even lack of it) tells the idle visitor more about you than just the words on the website. As well as communicating what your firm stands for, your website is a key indicator of how credible you are. Ask yourself: are the words just words, or do they really stand for something?

For example, if you claim to offer an approachable and personal service to clients then fail to put your fee earners and their contact details on the website, this undermines part of your marketing messaging.

What many of us forget is how our fee earners contribute to the firm‚??s online footprint through their use of social media. I‚??m not talking here about the obvious silly mistakes ‚?? such as leaving embarrassing photos on public display ‚?? I‚??m talking about comments left on blogs and very public open forums. While it might feel good to harshly criticise the competition or indulge in a bit of name calling, these interactions rarely help anyone‚??s cause. How are you educating your fee earners to intelligently comment on articles and blogs such as this?

If you were about to head off to a meeting with a existing or potential client, you would probably quickly give your appearance the once over. One of the partners in my old firm used to keep a small comb and mirror in his jacket pocket for just this very purpose.

But I digress. The point of this column is not to remind you to check your physical appearance before you go out to meet someone; I credit you with enough common sense to do that. The point of this article is to remind you to lavish as much care and attention on your firm‚??s virtual appearance as physical.

It‚??s no good having swish and plush reception and meeting areas if your online presence suggests something else. It is in your interest to make sure that people checking out your firm‚??s virtual appearance take away the very best first impression that you and the partners can give.

Heather Townsend is the author of ‚??The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking' and a specialist in working with accountants. Heather regularly blogs at Partnership Potential and Joined Up Networking.

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