By Jeff Fortney
When I was growing up, school dress codes were very clear: no jeans, no tennis shoes, and no T-shirts; shirts had to have a collar; boys had to wear long pants; girls had to wear skirts - unless they wore culottes (garments that look like skirts but are actually pants).
These dress codes made back to school shopping a challenge. But in hindsight, it's easy to now see their benefits. They created the proper atmosphere: how a person dressed was (in theory) not used to define his or her status.
It reduced gray areas, making it less likely someone's arbitrary personal tastes could define "appropriate" attire. Ultimately, it made everyone similar in appearance, the aim being to create an enviroment where nothing detracted from academics.
In the 1960s, dress codes existed in the professional world, as well. White collar was not just a way of defining a job; it was what was worn. When Ross Perot founded Electronic Data Systems he carried forward the IBM dress code of the day.
You could wear anything you wished as long as it was a white shirt and a dark - black or blue - suit. You also wore your sport coat everywhere, including when you were sitting at your desk.
In the 1980s, there was even a popular book titled Dress for Success. The premise was that dressing appropriately to fit your intended role was the first step toward succeeding in business. Brown clothing of any kind was worn only by those that had already "made it." What you wore helped you demonstrate an air of professionalism so you would be recognized as such.
Today, the Dress for Success philosophy has created a cottage industry, including organizations that give free suits to job seekers for interviewing purposes. Yet applying these principles to the sales profession poses problems. Indeed, evidence suggests that by following the tenets as defined in the book, you could actually harm your efforts, rather than help them.
So the question arises, What's the best way to dress for a sales call? The answer is no longer black and white. In fact, before you can determine how to dress for a particular sales call, you must first ask two questions:
The original concept behind dressing for success was to create a positive initial impression. Today, wearing a white shirt, tie and black suit has a strong likelihood of leaving the wrong impression if worn at the wrong time.
First, identify your target and then seek to mirror your target's standard style of dress. For example, if you are calling on mom-and-pop stores, you may find these retailers commonly wear polo shirts and slacks.
In today's economy, walking in wearing a black suit may give them the impression that you represent the IRS. This first impression would prevent you from building a strong rapport with the merchant.
On the other hand, if you're selling to banks or major corporations, not dressing in suit and tie like a banker or financial expert could cause you to fail before you even begin your presentation.
Notice the question is not, Whom am I representing? You are creating an initial visual impression, and in conjunction with your 30-second commercial, that impression can make or break the sale.
It's critical to help define that initial impression. Do you want to appear sophisticated? Sporty? Studious? Dress in accordance with the way you wish to be perceived.
Remember, over 60 percent of any face-to-face conversation is visual. What someone sees often influences what he or she hears. Don't create an added hurdle to the sale by over- or under-dressing.
Once you've answered the two questions, follow these basic rules:
Yes, how you dress really is that important. It won't help you overcome objections or close sales, but it can close doors before they even open. Sales is already a difficult profession; don't let how you dress make it even harder.
Jeff Fortney is Vice President, ISO Channel Management with Clearent LLC. He has more than 17 years' experience in the payments industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-618-7340.
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