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Dressing for Success in Business

How should you dress to attract new customers and meet with existing clients if you work in a professional environment (or to impress your boss in a new job)?  Think about this.  Bay Street investment brokers, lawyers and prominent business people normally dress in suits every day.  This is because they are marketing to high net worth individuals.  Their potential clients have high expectations, and the brokers need to demand respect to attract the interest of high society folk.  On the other hand, the beggars of Yonge Street dress in rags.  Why?  Well, it is maybe because they have no money, or is it because they are marketing to the middle class person?  They need to invoke pity.  Would tramps make any money dressed like a Bay Street broker?  Not likely.  Would a Bay Street broker attract any clients dressed like a beggar?  Do middle class folk give any donations to Bay Street brokers?  Does anyone ask a tramp for investment advice?

Therefore, there are two postulates to this analysis in my humble opinion.  To be successful, you must

  1. Determine the highest market you are capable of reaching (are you planning to earn money by begging or offering top quality advice?)
  2. Dress to “push the buttons” of that marketplace.

This article is aimed at professionals, not at beggars. I could write an article on how tramps could make more money, but they are not within my intended marketplace. As a professional, do not undersell yourself if you are aiming high. Now let us look at this another way – from the perspective of the well-heeled and high net worth consumer. After all, attracting people with lots of money is the goal of any wannabe successful business entrepreneur. When you dress for meeting a potential new customer, there are three possibilities:

  1. You are dressed to meet their expectations
  2. You are under dressed
  3. You are over dressed

Under scenario 1, everything is normal. Under scenario 2, the individual will be less than impressed, and you have ruined your one and only opportunity to make that all-important “good first impression.” You now have to work harder to convince that person of your abilities in order to make them a customer, and to get future referrals. Under alternative 3, the greatest risk is that your customer will be initially uncomfortable. If you are indeed a sincere and credible professional, this discomfort will quickly disperse through some initial small talk, and as you get to know one another. The great thing about most business attire is that you have a jacket you can remove to become less formal.

Of course, being finely dressed does not mean you know anything (other than some sales skills). However, it may give you the opportunity to open the door with a potential customer that you may not otherwise receive.

What about that “generational” difference? If you are a younger professional, you may offer a debate that the new generation is more casual, and just as capable in their jobs whether or not they are dressed in business attire. Dress code is not about capability – it is about marketing. The argument is that young customers are not impressed by someone wearing a business or dress suit. In fact, maybe they find such attire intimidating. I suppose you can operate under that theory if you are only looking for young clients, but it seems to me you will limit the size of your market (and older people tend to have more money than younger ones).

I have not received any signals that my business suit intimidates anyone – I have been told it is unnecessary, but not that it scares anyone. On the other hand, I have been told by clients that they appreciate my attire and feel that it is more appropriate than casual attire worn by some professionals.

The conclusion I hope you have reached is that you should dress for your target audience. Dress to impress if you are aiming high and want to attract high quality clients of all age groups. Dressing casually does not impress many people, even if it meets their expectations. Over dressing may not impress your customer at all, but it would never insult them.

As a final thought for you, why is it that people tend to dress up when they are meeting important people, even if they go to work casually every day? Perhaps even you would put on a business or dress suit if you were going to a special dinner, or to meet a dignitary? Why is this – are you trying to impress or offer respect to someone?

Of course, these are only my thoughts as a person in their fifties who has been wearing a suit for as long as I can remember.

Blair Corkum, CPA, CA, R.F.P., CFP, CFDS, CLU, CHS holds his Chartered Professional Accountant, Chartered Accountant, Registered Financial Planner, Chartered Financial Divorce Specialist as well as several other financial planning related designations. Blair offers hourly based fee-only personal financial planning, holds no investment or insurance licenses, and receives no commissions or referral fees. This publication should not be construed as legal or investment advice. It is neither a definitive analysis of the law nor a substitute for professional advice which you should obtain before acting on information in this article. Information may change as a result of legislation or regulations issued after this article was written.©Blair Corkum