Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the right first impression of communicating who they are and what they stand for. Before a box of cereal reaches the grocery store, scores of “experts” already decided what that particular shade of pink on the box might mean to the buyer. Does it stand for warm and fuzzy or wimpy and weak? One of the key answers depends on if the customer is a man, woman or child.
With all of this money being invested in the packaging of the product, it is startling to realize how little thought, time and effort are spent on packaging the “packager” the person presenting the products, goods or services.
Over the years, business has evolved in terms of expectations of how associates dress in the workplace. I prefer to call it “packaging the person.” From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, business attire for men meant a suit, tie and any color shirt as long as it was white. For women, it was heels, pantyhose, and mid-calf- or knee-length dresses.
The mid-1990s ushered in the new Silicon Valley dress code that was defined as “whatever floated your boat.” To exude coolness and confidence, the extreme power players dressed in the new ultracasual business look, which meant wrinkly khakis and T-shirts with provocative messages or two-word expletives emblazoned on the shirt. Shoes were optional. Anyone wearing socks was immediately labeled a nerd. This look spread from Northern California’s valley of high technology to Wall Street’s Lower Manhattan faster than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worst expectations of what might happen one day with the bird flu. Then one day some executives must have mused, “Hey, business is soft, earnings are in the dumper and production is down. It must be the way our people dress.”
These geniuses probably never thought the cause could be bad financing, poor quality and dumb management decisions. On the heels of this epiphany came the “dot-com crash,” and the Wall Street types were issued mandates that wrinkled khakis and T-shirts were now only appropriate for cleaning the garage and not for schmoozing customers. As they say, “What comes around goes around.”
So, what is the right look for your organization? The decision must be made on what you’re selling and how you want to package yourself and your team to make that right first impression. Before you utter your obligatory greeting, the customer has already formed an impression, not only of you and/or your representatives but also of the organization. The first key to the haberdashery puzzle is whether one is the buyer or seller. The buyer usually has the edge and can dress as he chooses often extremely informally. The savvy buyer understands, however, that conveying an image of power and authority might eventually help tip the scale when the negotiating process commences.
If you want to create an image of decisiveness, intellect and expertise, it’s hard to beat the traditional business look. This is particularly apropos when selling abstracts and intangible services when, in fact, brainpower is the product. If you’re selling the very chic iPhone, then a black turtleneck and jeans work just fine Thank you very much, Steve Jobs.
When we started my company, not only did we not have much money, but we also worked out of an office where the rent was $1 per square foot, and we were probably overpaying. No doubt, the impression from this corporate headquarters was “nouveau poor.” Attempting to overcome this deficiency on the first day, I wore my best business suit. The other six people who joined me in this start-up appeared in jeans, golf shirts and flip-flops. As I welcomed the team for our first meeting, I ignored superficial appearances and cut to the chase about what we had to do and by when before the money ran out. A funny thing happened on the second day; a couple of the folks showed up dressed-to-win, and then a few days thereafter, the balance chose to adopt our “corporate look.” What they realized, as I did, was that if nothing else, at least we had to look the part. We had to show others that we were the real deal, knew our stuff and had it together.
The trick is to set standards and know when it is appropriate for traditional business garb versus a casual look. Instead of “business attire” or “business casual,” your dress code should be known as “business ready,” so that the total package reflects the contents and you maximize your four-second opportunity to make the best first impression.
MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.