Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Short-sleeve dress shirt" is an oxymoron

As I was filling my car with gas the other day, I noticed a man using the pay phone nearby. He wore a black suit, cranberry-colored dress shirt (about two sizes too small around his neck) and a solid black tie, which I think was a clip-on. If he was on his way to a job interview or meeting a client, I didn't give him much chance. He looked like he didn’t belong in his clothes. He was uncomfortable, out of style, and more than a little out of sorts.

Don’t be like the guy on the payphone. Wearing a tie doesn’t guarantee you’ll look professional. Meeting a prospect in person is like going on a job interview. And since you are the most important thing you have to offer your first customer, your appearance carries a lot of weight. It’s not just your product or service that has to meet qualifications. You have to wear clothes that “fit” in more than the literal sense. You have to look like you belong in your clothes. You must have the appearance of a successful businessperson, whatever that may mean in your industry. Don't, for example, throw a tie on with short-sleeve shirt you're wearing and assume you'll look professional. Yes, business has gotten a lot more casual in recent years, but your prospect may one of last of a breef who doesn't think that's such a good thing.

On the other extreme, let’s say your business requires you to spend most of your time outside. Suppose your regular “uniform” is a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. It wouldn’t make sense to automatically jump ten rungs on the business attire scale to a suit when you meet your prospect. If you do, you may look as uncomfortable and out of place to your prospect as the guy in the cranberry shirt looked to me. Wear clean, relatively new clothes—perhaps something nicer than jeans—but also wear clothes that look right on you. If you still have a polyester leisure suit from the 70s, don’t wear it to meet a prospect unless you’re auditioning for lead singer of a rock band and attempting an ironic fashion statement.

Appropriate “attire” applies to more than just clothing, particularly as more business is conducted on the phone or online. Attire extends to the way you speak, your printed materials, web site, etc. If you’re thinking, “I guess I’d better get some business cards printed,” you’re not taking your professional appearance seriously enough. Your business cards should be expertly designed, rather than something that appears to have been produced as an afterthought. If you’re going to launch a web site, it must be a professional web site rather than something your cousin Tina designed for you (unless Tina is a web or graphic designer).

A consistent message is equally important. If you’re going to contact prospects on the phone, practice your introduction until it’s flawless. How’s your grammar? Even the smallest slip-up can instantly turn off a prospect. Every thing from the way you dress, your hair, and the way you speak can effect the prospect’s impression of you. You’re selling yourself. Make sure you’re a great-looking product.

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