I have previously written about ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes’, however, I have never written about actual shoes before. In this post I wanted to raise awareness about our attire, our physical presentation – as sales and business professionals.
There are 2 key areas we need to consider:
- The overall congruence of what we are wearing and how we present
- The relevance and suitability of what we are wearing and how we present
You may think this topic doesn’t matter much with the broader and more relaxed approach to business attire these days, but it does. Consciously or not, people, are making several decisions on different levels about you when you meet with them: They are assessing whether they can trust you, whether they can connect and relate with you. They are assessing if what you are saying matches the non verbal signals presented. And they are looking at your physical presentation – the whole package if you will. They might for instance assess whether you seem to take care of yourself. ‘If you don’t even care for yourself, how am I to expect you to take care of me?’ is the assumption that people might make. In a business context they might wonder if you understand them and their industry. For instance, knowingly turning up to a muddy construction site in high heeled shoes and summer dress for a day’s worth of work in the field with a client may cause quite some doubt about your expertise “in the field”.
We know that common sense should prevail in these matters however, with so many changes in business attire in recent times it’s probably worth taking a look at some of the common sense practices that never go out of date.
The importance of congruence
As we have written before, our brains are wired to risk, therefore our brains are looking for things that match and things that don’t so that we can make decisions quickly to protect ourselves from unnecessary danger. When we meet people and vice versa our brains are looking for congruence. The brain likes congruence – when everything lines up and makes sense. Congruence is the state achieved by coming together, the state of agreement. The Latin congru? meaning “I meet together, I agree”. As an abstract term, congruence means similarity between objects.
In short when it comes to sales and our personal presentation including our attire it means everything needs to match or else our prospect or customer will become fixated on and distracted by the things that do not match.
It may sound trivial on the surface but incongruence can be a real game changer. For instance, if you meet a man who is wearing a nice suit, his shirt and tie are clean, he’s had a good shave, smells nice, however his shoes look like he last took care of them five years ago what is going to happen? You are most likely going to be distracted at best by the shoes and it could change the way you think about that person. In short, the shoes are not congruent with the rest of the appearance. This will keep your mind occupied, distracted and might make you wonder what else about this person is just “covering up”.
Now I’m not talking here about being obsessed with clothing and becoming a ‘peacock’ or the latest fashionista, however when considering what you are wearing and what message or impression you would like to leave, the little things do count. It’s those little things, whether we like it or not, that can significantly influence how others perceive us and our overall appearance.
Most important rule: It’s all about cleanliness.
Are your clothes (including shoes) clean, well pressed? How much care did you apply to your body in regards to cleanliness, grooming and a pleasant yet unobtrusive fragrance? Is your brief case, laptop, phone, car, etc. clean and well kept?
There is nothing more off putting than being in the presence of someone who appears bedraggled or messy or smells unpleasant. This, by the way, is not just about body odour or bad breath but also about people who insist on spraying half a bottle of perfume or cologne on themselves. Either way, the other person is overwhelmed by their smell, especially in closed quarters. And what about our equipment and clothes? How do they present in terms of cleanliness?
The human brain can take in a lot of information in very short time – you may not consciously register it but the subconscious will notice the chipped nail polish or the dirty marks around that tie that has not been untied for 2 years, the frayed edges of your trousers, the dried sweat marks in the armpits of your suit, the shoes that have never been polished since they were bought, or the worn mark on the back of your right shoe and heel that comes from driving your car. These and many other little things are what people see and these could set up cognitive dissonance or incongruence with how you are perceived by your client or prospect.
As sales professionals the first thing we need to remember is that we need to build trust. We need to make sure that our customers and prospects feel at ease with us. Anything that causes them to be distracted or make them feel uneasy will make it harder for us to work with them.
I admit I do pay attention to these things and I have found that I am not alone. You think shoes are an issue? Here are some comments from people who pay attention to shoes, ties, belts, hem and necklines, etc. These are their comments from a web chat room about this topic:
In fact a good pair of shoes can make a cheap suit look good but even a good suit looks cheap if worn with cheap or badly kept shoes.
What is also annoying is the way some guys wear their ties!! What’s that about?? Loosey goosey, the knot looking more like scrambled eggs than a tie. How hard is it to look good and put some effort into: 1) shining shoes, 2) tying a decent looking knot?
Don’t even get me started on belts…sometimes you’ll see a great looking suit, good or decent shoes, and then there’s THE BELT!!! what a nightmare…it seems like fallen at the seams
Why do some women, usually young women, insist on wearing the neckline of their tops too low? Save it for the nightclub.
My son has informed me that the two things women check out to gauge how well a man looks after themselves are if they have clean well kept shoes and nails.
I agree. Your shoes are an extension of you and how you conduct yourself. It baffles me how people dress for a job interview these days!
I had three equally qualified candidates for a good job. The young man whom had his suit tailored and shoes shined got the job.
The last comment is very telling. You just never know what will get you over the line. So why risk possible exclusion because you didn’t take the time to keep your shoes in good repair, you didn’t change your shirt or get rid of those white socks before you jumped into your suit, you didn’t remove that chipped nail polish, or take up that hem and so on? There are good shoe repairers, dressmakers/tailors, manicurists, etc. who can help you keep a clean and well presented appearance – an investment worth considering!
Relevance and Suitability
As I mentioned at the beginning, over the last decade or so we have seen a more relaxed approach to business attire. While there are still industries that expect business suits and more formal business attire, other industries are more relaxed in their dress codes, think advertising, IT, etc. Even in banking I found that a tie is not necessarily a minimum standard any more.
This is perfectly okay with most people; however, there are still some guidelines we need to consider if we are going to make the most of our sales opportunities deriving from personal meetings. All it takes is in fact a bit of common sense and the effort to observe our environment.
With more relaxed dress codes it is important to be aware of:
A) The General Trend
B) The specific attire of your industry or clientele (industry).
Changes in fashion may change some things, like the width of lapels, the cut of pants, or the colours of blouses, shirts and ties. Basic professional attire does not change with the whims of fashion, however whenever there is change in dress codes you will find that there will be people who explore the extreme end of the spectrum – the more avant-garde or radical styles, and those who try to stick to the old school of dress codes.
There is danger in both these extremes – for instance you may want to wear the latest grooviest patent leather, strappy platform shoes with a mid thigh skirt and flowing blouse in a formal business meeting in town, but despite being dressed up to the height of the fashion, this might be way too relaxed for the occasion or the industry. Or you may want to stick with the formal suit and tie because you want to be perceived as a serious business man despite the fact that all your customers are fine with polo shirts in the heat of midsummer and might perceive you rather as uptight or old fashioned than a credible business partner.
I know that some women think that this is cramping their style if they need to restrict their creativity and personal style. Believe me I know. I have made some bad dress choices in the early years of my career in sales and business. Trying to be a fashionista and professional business person at the same time is hard to pull off.
Determining appropriate business attire can be mine field, and given the wider variety of dress codes on offer this can lead to some confusion over what one should wear and when. So what do we do?
It’s all about the relevance and suitability of what we are wearing and how we present to others.
This could mean that one day we are suited up and more formal in our attire and the next day we are able to dress down to something more casual.
We understand that for some professions, like people who work in the agriculture or in industrial sectors, their attire may require polo shirts, cotton drill pants and work boots of some nature which account for the rugged terrain they are likely to encounter in their daily work. However, even the sales people whom we meet in these professions seem to know that keeping their clothes and boots clean and in good working order is tied up with their levels of professionalism. In fact I would say that I see sales people with more clean/polished foot attire in the ‘rugged’ professions than I do in the city high street roles. Interesting, isn’t it? Have a look around when you’re in the CBD or business district next time.
As a general rule it is recommended that if our work environment is changing in terms of dress code we should not opt for the lower, most progressive or avant-garde end of the spectrum of styles. It is suggested that we stick to the top half of the industry’s or environment’s dress code. However, this does not mean we have to be conformist or invisible. We can still dress in a style that suits us and our personality, however we just need to remember we aren’t just dressing for ourselves we are dressing for others too (remember Theory of Mind). We are dressing to ensure that we can continue to create trusted relationships based on a fair exchange of value.