Why Last Impressions Matter More Than First Ones

By Paul Thomas Zenki

2 key points determine what others remember …

Whatever interaction you’re in, 2 points will largely decide how the other person feels about it later — and neither one is the first impression.

You’re eating a bunch of grapes and there’s one bad one. Which grape do you hope it’s not?

Obviously, the last one.

It’s better if it’s not the first one, either, but definitely not the last. And if forced to choose between a life starting happily but ending in misery, or a life that begins in pain and ends in comfort… well, it’s no choice, really, is it?

That’s because our memories and feelings about any event depend much more on how it ends than on how it began.

And that’s why, as important as first impressions may be, it’s much more critical to focus on how an interaction  —  with a new customer, a prospect, a negotiating partner, or anyone else  —  ends rather than how it begins. Because you can make up for a bad start, but not a bad finish.

What People Really Remember

Research in the 1990s overturned a previous assumption that our feelings about events should reflect a kind of average of our feelings at each moment. Instead, the brain does something much simpler  —  it remembers how we were feeling at the end of the event, and at its “peak” moment, or the point fixed most firmly in our memories, usually the moment of our most intense emotions. Then it takes the average of that.

In fact, people are more willing to re-endure painful medical procedures if the process ends less painfully, even if they have to endure it for a significantly longer time. Overall, the longer procedure means more pain, but that last grape isn’t quite as bitter, so the experience doesn’t seem so bad.

This has two profound implications for interactions in business.

First, it means that in interactions with downsides, we should work to make the positive points highly positive and highly memorable. Second, it means that focusing on the first impression  —  while important  —  isn’t as crucial as ensuring that our last impression is what we want it be… strong, funny, helpful, passionate, whatever our goal is for that interaction.

What I Learned from Disney

About 3 decades ago, I did a brief stint in guest services at Walt Disney World, but in my short time there I absorbed a lot.

One day in particular, when I was working VIP services at EPCOT, I recall a non-VIP but extremely angry fellow brought into the lounge by a cast member, with wife and kids in tow, looking like he’d lost a shootout with a grease gun.

This guy had been standing under the monorail line, showing off the train to his kids, when it shot a jet of oil straight at him.

Walt Disney World monorail train in transit, seen from the ground
Monorail Coral on the EPCOT Line, by WillMcC (Wikimedia Commons)

And it wasn’t just the shirt. You see, he was being Guide-Dad. And a father in Guide-Dad mode is a proud man. He had found the flight path of the great eagle and was pointing out this wonder to his clan, when the bird swooped over and pooped right on him.

Suddenly, his triumphant moment becomes a public farce. His oxford is ruined. He realizes it’s 94 degrees with 78% humidity. He remembers how much the tickets cost him. And the kids think it’s all funny as hell.

At that instant, his ruined shirt — the thing he can most justifiably be angry at and about — becomes the crucible of all his negative emotions.

But Disney has a way to deal with downtrodden Guide-Dads and other unhappy guests. It would serve me well in later years when I managed a bar just up the road in Gainesville, and in a nutshell it is this:

  1. Listen to them (seriously).
  2. Tell them what you’re going to do.
  3. Solve their immediate problem.
  4. Make them as happy as possible.

(You might notice a couple items not on that list: explaining why things are actually OK, and figuring out who’s at fault. That second one can, and should, be worked out later.)

As soon as this guy hit the lounge, he and his problem were the center of attention. The manager had already been radioed that they were on their way, and a plan was in place.

First, he was made to feel like the most important person in the park at that moment. Second, everyone around him knew exactly what they were doing. His kids were kept entertained while he was informed that his shirt would be laundered while he enjoyed his day in the park wearing a new shirt which was his to keep with our apologies.

He walked out of the lounge with a skipping pair of children, a relieved and grateful spouse, a fully restored ego, a brand new shirt, and bragging rights for showing his family a part of the park normally reserved for celebrities and dignitaries. And at the end of the day he left for the hotel carrying his old shirt, just as spotless as it was when he put it on that morning.

Believe it or not, these are the people who are most likely to write fan letters and to rave about you on social media. Why? Because you exceeded their expectations.

What the Disney crew did was brilliant. They didn’t try to cover up the bad experience or downplay it. Instead, they replaced it with a new peak experience  — getting fussed over in the VIP lounge  —  and made sure the encounter ended very positively. The guest’s enduring impression was therefore highly positive. Getting oiled on by the monorail became a funny story to lead in to his account of seeing a hidden and exclusive side of Disney.

And they were doing this years before the research on the peak-end effect was even published.

Make Great Desserts

Does your business ever talk about last impressions? If not, it’s time to start. Think of it as making a great dessert for your customers, clients, partners, and staff.

Raspberry tart with whipped cream in a dish on a wooden table
(Photo by Pexels)

And you can do a lot with a little. (Like adding a picture of a raspberry tart so the last image your readers see isn’t a monorail.) For example, I get most of my studio gear from Sweetwater in Indiana, and with every shipment they include a small baggie of candy. Even though I can’t eat candy, even though I know it’s coming, it still makes me happy to see it. And hey, I get to be Mr. Good Guy when I inevitably give the candy away to somebody who likes it.

That freemium costs them less than a dime, but its emotional value is profound.

In your business, you can try training your service staff to be aware of the peak-end rule, and that it’s OK to acknowledge a problem and not attempt to downplay it. Just do your best to provide a new positive experience for the customer and do everything you can to end the encounter on a positive note.

By the way, did I mention you’re all invited over to my place for free barbecue and beer?


Header image photo by Jose Antonio Alba (adapted)

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.