A reader writes, "One of my outside sales representatives dresses in a manner that makes me uncomfortable. He practices good hygiene but suits are baggy, shirt sleeves are a little too long, and his pants bunch up around his shoes. When I've broached the subject a few times, he reacts defensively. He feels that customers buy integrity and honesty, not fancy clothes. I have no complaint about the overall good service he offers his customers. He isn't my top performing rep, however, and I think his attire costs him sales. How do I get through to him?"
This sensitive and tricky topic comes up frequently in my discussions with clients. For some helpful tips I turn to Annie Kip, a Style Consultant for J. Hilburn Men's Clothier
(firstname.lastname@example.org). "As much as we might like to ignore it," she says, "appearances do matter. Your sales force serves as the public face of your company and should accurately reflect your business and its brand. One of the easiest ways to convey authority, credibility, and value is through professional clothing and a polished appearance."
Seek to Understand
Kip recommends addressing the problem of your sales rep's appearance with some of the same tactics you might use to sell to a reluctant client. "Ask questions about his resistance to wear what he calls 'fancy clothes.' Clarify how he defines that term and his thoughts about spending money on clothing. Segue into discussing the impact personal presentation has on one's ability to connect with customers."
Put some numbers together. If the rep in question started paying attention to his work wardrobe, how much more do you think he could reasonably earn? Take an educated guess. You aren't being held to an exact number. Say it's $7,000 the first year and $10,000 the next. Helping your sales rep see how dressing well benefits him financially helps motivate him to improve his overall look.
"Rather than criticizing, you might share your experience with seeing the difference that dressing professionally has made in your own career," adds Kip. "Tip him off that the local discount store just got a shipment of Italian cotton dress shirts. Offer an interesting statistic such the fact that the human brain processes visual information 30 times faster than verbal information. Mention the name of your tailor."
Your rep may not understand what he needs to do to clean up his look. Especially if he isn't a standard "off-the-rack" size, finding clothing that fits and feels comfortable might prove difficult. "Does he know," she asks "that sleeves should extend no more than an one-half inch beyond his suit coat sleeves or that trousers should be hemmed to reach the top of the back heel of a dress shoe? These details matter. Once your sales rep is in the tailor's shop," says Annie, "the tailor will most certainly offer suggestions about other adjustments he can make to help his clothing fit better."
Dressing Professionally Not Expensively
"Expensive brand names intimidate a lot of people," offers Kip, "they think a big investment is the only way to get a polished look. This is not the case. A professional wardrobe of clothing can be acquired on any budget and expanded over time. Sales reps can build many different looks mixing a few shirts and ties with one well-tailored, good-quality suit."
Some executives Annie has worked with generate awareness and create a team focus on professional dressing by running sales incentives rewarding the top performer with a new, custom-made shirt, suit, belt, and tie. The winner receives positive feedback from colleagues and begins to feel the sense of pride that comes with wearing a polished look. "Structure the competition creatively," she stresses, "so the reps needing it the most will get the intended benefit of the incentive. This helps remove barriers to dressing more professionally and encourages a sales culture that places value on a polished personal appearance."
"Though what someone wears is a very personal matter, his appearance impacts your business. So help this rep reach his potential by understanding his reluctance and offering information and guidance -- just as you would help a customer come around to seeing how much they could benefit from buying your product," says Kip.
Annie and I know from experience that top salespeople ensure that everything about their appearance and manner communicates attention to detail, inspires confidence, and creates a personal connection with buyers. Your sales rep should be dressed at least as well as his customers. His appearance makes a lasting statement long before he makes an impression with his presentation.