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The Green Sheet Online Edition

August 08, 2011 • Issue 11:08:01

Dress for successful sales

By Jeff Fortney
Clearent LLC

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.

Then and now

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.

Two questions

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:

  1. Who am I selling to?

    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.

  2. What am I representing?

    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.

Rules to follow

Once you've answered the two questions, follow these basic rules:

  • Never dress at a level below your potential client's. If you're calling on tuxedo shops, you are not required to wear a tuxedo, but you should consider wearing a tie.

  • Yet, if the tuxedo shop is just one of many prospects you plan to target that day and most of those prospects dress casually, dress to the level of the majority.

  • Never dress at a level significantly above your client's. In almost every case, a suit and tie are no longer the common merchant dress code. A button down shirt may even be too high. Again, consider whom you're calling on, and ask yourself, Does this make me look like a bill collector?

  • Conversely, remember that there is a minimum acceptable dress code when selling. Certain attire is never appropriate: shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes. If it looks like you're running errands on your day off and just happened to drop in on the merchant, your attire is not acceptable.

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. end of article

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 jeff@clearent.com or 972-618-7340.

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