In business, looks count. I am personally agnostic about Business Casual versus traditional business attire — a classic man’s suit, white shirt and tie with wingtips or a woman’s pants suit or skirt/dress with heels.
Instead, I am a firm believer in Business Appropriate. This translates into making the right impression with the targeted audience and conveying a sense of credibility and authority, whether one is selling a used car or negotiating a mega deal.
Business Casual as we know it today was preceded by Casual Friday, which became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially, this look varied by geography, climate and industry. With the dot-com boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Casual Friday turned into Sloppy Monday through Thursday, with an Anything Goes Friday.
Silicon Valley genesis
Starting on the West Coast, Silicon Valley employees were showing up for work in flip-flops, short shorts and whatever else suited (pun intended) these high-flying valley workers’ moods. Executives of these meteoric growth companies figured, “Hey, it’s working, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Then, kaboom, the now infamous 2001 Internet bubble burst, sending the best and brightest dot-comers scurrying to the nearest Brooks Brothers for an instant makeover, praying that dressing more professionally would facilitate a career change and gainful employment that would put food on the table.
Fast forward to today, where the best organizations have realized that while they are not the fashion police, they do need wardrobe guidelines as to what is acceptable and what’s a definite no-no. For the most part, Wall Street is now back to more traditional business garb, featuring men’s clunky wingtips and women’s heels with all the accoutrements. In other parts of the country and in different industries, jeans or khakis and button-down shirts are also perfectly appropriate.
How to treat customers counts
It all gets down to who are the company’s customers and how do they expect to be treated. I underscore the word “treated” because dressing appropriately is another sign of customer respect.
For example, if a CFO is pitching a skeptical bank loan committee, pleading for mercy because the company failed to meet a loan covenant, only a naive bean counter would wear a golf shirt and insufferable flip-flops to the meeting. Conversely, if a company is selling skateboards to a surf shack, a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sunglasses set the right tone.
Good companies closely scrutinize the professional suitability of their collateral material down to every nuance of their business cards and letterhead. Too many of these same companies, however, give little or no guidance on what constitutes the right look for their representatives or, worse yet, don’t have a clue how their salespeople appear when presenting their story to customers.
Playing and looking the part does make a difference and every company should have a “costume department” creating wardrobe guidelines because calling on customers is the equivalent to show time, and businesses need to ensure they’re dressed for success.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, with $20,000. During a 16-year span as CEO, he grew the company to 1,000 stores worldwide with sales of $5 billion.