By Sheldon Stewart

What’s the first thing a customer sees when he drives up to your business? What’s the first thing a client notices when she walks through your doors?

If you’re not sure, it’s time to look at your business through someone else’s eyes. We all know that first impressions make a big impact, but don’t forget about the impressions that come after that.

If you have an office that doesn’t have a lot of walk-ins, maybe it’s OK if it doesn’t look that great. But business owners who have a high volume of people walking in – restaurants, stores, and hotels, for example – need to remember that sometimes we view our work spaces differently from the way our customers do.

Is the exterior clean and crisp or dirty and moldy? Is the paint on your front door or storefront cracked or peeling or does it look well taken care of?

When’s the last time you went into your restaurant’s bathroom and looked around, not just to be sure it was clean but to get a sense of the overall impression it makes on a customer? If you own a hotel or motel, try sitting in the tub and looking around or lie down on the bed and take it all in. It’s a different perspective.

If you take a look at your property with a set of fresh eyes, both the outside and the inside, you may be a little surprised at what you see.

One advantage that business owners have over many homeowners is that maintenance should be a line item in your annual budget. If you have an annual maintenance plan and a budget to go with it, you can avoid the trap of doing repairs in the “putting out fires” method.

­The best way for a business to be in the driver’s seat is when they do projects before the projects need to be done. A doctor’s office, for example, can have a painting touch-up service that happens once every three months. You have someone come in on a Saturday to touch up walls and paint door frames and then things will always look sharp.

Time constraints may be a major factor and that can affect your choice of contractor. Th­at would be true for paving. A small company might need two or three days to do a job that a large company could do in a day.

Th­ere’s often an extra cost when a project needs to be done quickly or at night or with a large crew. It usually takes a larger company to handle that and they tend to charge more than a smaller company.

If you’re painting the outside of a building, you can’t do it in the middle of the winter. You may need it done on a weekend, after you close or before you open. If you don’t want the project to stretch out for weeks and weeks, you’re going to have to deal with a larger company.

Landscaping would be the same. If you’re putting in a new patio, you can have a smaller landscaper doing it for three weeks or have a larger company excavate the area, put the hardscape down, and put the stone in, and it’s all done in three days.

Of course, it’s better if you can take advantage of the down season. In the painting industry,  it’s not uncommon for the interiors of restaurants, hotels, and motels to be painted in the off-season. ­They save money because they’re not under a tight time deadline.

Budgeting and planning are especially important if repairs mean a business interruption. You need a firm start date and a firm end date.

If you’re planning the project well in advance, that also gives you the time to set money aside.

Th­ere are ways that businesses can take advantage of their seasonal cash flow. Some of our clients do something that’s the equivalent of a layaway plan. ­They need to save. We have a client who’ll get an estimate for a project and then comes in every week during the summer with $500, even though the project is scheduled for October. At the end of the project she only has a small payment.

You won’t always have that comfort level with a contractor. Another option is to set up a separate savings account and make an automatic transfer made every week for a capital improvement fund.

If you have clients walking through your doors every day, they’re judging your business. Make sure the verdict is in your favor.

Sheldon Stewart is President of Stewart Painting Inc. in Hyannis. He can be reached at (508) 362-8023 or at sheldon@stewartpaint.com.