The Law of Recency: A Mere Receptionist?

As I have mentioned in two previous blogs, concerning remembering names and returning phone-calls, there is a principle about human memory called the Law of Recency,which basically states that when someone encounters a series of similar “items” such as a group of people in a receiving line, it is the last item or person in the sequence that is remembered much more vividly than the rest, the end point of which will color a person’s perception of the entire sequence.

That is I why I pay particular attention to the way in which companies employ receptionists. Perhaps I should replace the word “employ” with “deploy,” for I am not referring to employment as in providing a job, but instead how that person and that position are used to further the positive image of company.

Reception work is not always the most challenging or rewarding position in an office. It can be tedious, and/or it can be overly busy, and it is seldom well-paid. I have often heard the (sometimes unintentionally) condescending statement made by speech-makers and sales people about how a certain topic, product or trend will affect everyone from the CEO down to the receptionist, as if this latter position is the lowest on the corporate totem pole.

What people tend to overlook with such an unfair judgement is that the receptionist holds in her (or his) hands the unrivalled power of first and last impressions (the Law of Primacy and the Law of Recency) –  a power that can actually impact the entire company and everyone in it.The pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca has the right idea, at least in its gleaming and airy Canadian head office located just outside of Toronto. When you walk into the atrium, as hundreds of salespeople, scientists and consultants do every day, you encounter a polite and efficient receptionist, who performs the tasks that all receptionists do: announce your arrival, provide you with a name-badge, and ask you to take a seat. However the AstraZeneca receptionist’s title is not “receptionist;” it is Manager of “First Impressions.” And this, to me is not an overly cute vanity title.

For it is the first impressions that a person makes of any individual or situation, will color their actions and memory forever – the law of Primacy.This is simply the same concept as that which states “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” The information that is received and processed within the first few seconds, will shape everything that follows.Upon leaving the AstraZeneca complex, this Manager of First Impressions takes care to not only wish me a good day, but to thank me for doing business with her company, a gesture that demonstrates a degree of care that is often forgotten by busy people.I am making this point not just to discuss receptionists per se, but because a great receptionist’s extra actions in demonstrating above average-care to each of the hundreds of visitors she/he sees every day extends into the brand, generating an image of above average-quality that every company seeks to establish and capitalize on.The receptionist, then, is a catalyst in the success of any business.

But this lesson can be applied to people who aren’t receptionists, or who don’t employ receptionists: On an individual level, the first and last seconds of your interactions with anyone will color their actions going forward. Do you maintain strong eye contact when shaking hands and saying goodbye (creates good memories), or are you already looking over the shoulder of your acquaintance, pulling your hand away prematurely (creates less-good memories). Are you able to remember their name? Do you look the way you want to look, and do you know how you look?

Bottom line – in this age where so much communication is done by text, it is still the human element of impressions that guides actions and ultimately influences purchases. Investing some time to leverage the benefits of first and last impressions is a essential endeavor, for people and businesses alike

Steve Prentice is a speaker, author and Partner at The Bristall Group. He works at the crossroads where busy working people intersect with technology. Follow him on Twitter @stevenprentice or visit (speeches) or (training + coaching).


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