Strictly Business

Tuesday, Jan 22 2013 12:00 PM

RUSS ALLRED: Clothes don't make the man, but they sure make a business impression

BY RUSS ALLRED Contributing columnist

His hands were cracked and dry, stained black from years of labor. His blue overalls were matted with ground-in dirt and usually smelled of oil and sweat. The other customers at the bank either avoided him or looked on with disdain, if they noticed him at all. He made little impact on his regular errand to deposit his daily receipts, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

I met him at a convention for the Institute of Scrap and Recycling Industries at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. He told me with a wink, "There's a lot of money in trash." His deposits averaged $5,000. That's $1.25 million per year with minimal material cost. At our meeting, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, walking shorts and a Rolex worth several thousand dollars. Clothes don't make the man, but they can make an impression.

What impression do you make? A YouTube impresario made a video that went viral. He dressed up in a suit, borrowed some groupies, a few photographers and began a paseo around New York. People began to stare and imagine who the new jet-setter might be. Several asked for his autograph, then recorded the event with a snapshot on their mobiles. It doesn't take a lot to make a false impression.

We are conditioned by conventions. Here in our rough-neck, rural, anti-suit environment, bankers, brokers and attorneys still don their ties, despite the 100-degree temperatures. We have come to expect that certain professions must maintain appearances. To this day, there is a cognitive dissonance when visiting a professional on "Casual Fridays." They just seem a little dumber in their Dockers. You may leave unimpressed.

While image isn't everything, it is the first thing. As an entrepreneur, what you wear and how you act can either attract or detract others. The self-employed who dress for the job may find it hard to grow their business.

Consider the scrapper in the opening paragraph. Would you want to lend him money while dressed in his work clothes? The converse is also true. Customers don't want to give you money if you live above their means. Wearing a suit shows respect. Wearing an Armani suit to a PTA meeting may show disdain. Because there are so many choices in the marketplace, often your first impression is the last.

Aside from certain conventions like an attorney wearing a suit to court or a mechanic wearing overalls, a good rule of thumb is to dress at the same level as your customers or service providers. It is a good practice for the business owner to dress nicer than the employees. People prefer to negotiate with the decision maker; your clothes should indicate who you are. You must also offer substance to confirm the first impression.

It is very easy to verify your credit, customer satisfaction and past performance. Your skill, service level and financial condition should match the impression you are trying to make.

-- Russ Allred, MBA, is a business consultant and author with Sunbelt Business Brokers & Advisors. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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