5.3 Dress the Part

The salesperson was giving a sales presentation to a small group of engineers who were all very casually dressed (no jackets, shirts with open collars and no ties). The salesperson was equally casually dressed. Everything was going well until the company president, whom the salesperson had never met, joined the meeting. He entered the room wearing a business suit and tie. The visual mismatch between the person giving the sales presentation and the person who would be making the buying decision was as obvious as it was striking. The salesperson found himself at a situational disadvantage. What do you think the president’s first impression was of the salesperson? Was it, Oh here’s a casual-looking, laid-back guy that I’d like to spend several thousand dollars with? Or was it, how serious is this guy? You be the judge.” (Christie, 2012).

Your appearance communicates volumes about you before you ever open your mouth.

Example: “Packaging” Yourself Professionally

Tom Reilly tells the story of a salesperson that showed up to one of his recent seminars dressed in flip-flops and a T-shirt. “I thought he was there to clean the windows,” Reilly says. You want your prospective customers to take you seriously at first glance, so pay careful attention to what you wear on your sales call. Think about it this way, when you are buying a product off the shelf in a store, isn’t packaging the first thing that catches your attention? Marketers know that packaging can influence a consumer’s decision to buy before she ever even researches the product or reads about its features. In the same way, your prospect will make a judgment about you based on the way you “package” yourself; a professionally dressed salesperson can have a huge influence on a prospect’s perception of him, his company, and the product he represents. Your appearance should convey professionalism, competence, and success. Most important, regardless of the dress code at your prospect’s business, be sure your appearance includes a smile. A smile is an instant rapport builder. No one wants to buy from someone who isn’t excited about the company or product he’s representing. Show your prospect that this isn’t just a job; it’s a passion.


Business Casual or Business?

A silhouette drawing of people dressed professionally.
Photo by Gordon Dylan Johnson, CC0

When you are making a sales presentation at a company, dress one step above what you would wear if you worked at the organization. If you are ever unsure about a company’s standard dress code, always dress up. It’s easier to take off a jacket and tie than to put them on at the last minute. However, if your prospect tells you the dress code beforehand, here are some general guidelines to follow.

Business Attire

For most of your business-to-business (B2B) sales situations, business attire will be the norm. For a while in the ’90s there was a trend toward more casual clothing in the workplace, but that trend is mostly on the way out. “I see a return to more traditional business wear,” says Gary Brody, president of the Marcraft Apparel Group. For that matter, even if your customer says business casual is the standard in his workplace, if you are aiming to dress a notch up from that standard, you might decide that business attire is the way to go. As Mark-Evan Blackman of the Fashion Institute of Technology says, suits “universally project an air of authority.”

For men, business attire means a suit (matching pants and jacket), a necktie, a long-sleeved shirt, and lace-up shoes. Go for conservative, dark colours such as gray, black, or dark blue for the suit; white or light blue for the shirt. For women, business means a suit (skirt or pants and matching jacket), shoes with moderate heels in a basic pump style (closed-toe), a blouse, and pantyhose.

Business Casual

Business casual can sometimes be tricky because it’s less clearly defined than business attire. According to Monster.com, business casual “means dressing professionally, looking relaxed, yet neat and pulled together.” For men, a bare minimum approach to business casual means dress pants and a collared shirt. Women can wear skirts or pants, but skirts should be a conservative length, and pants should be well tailored: not too tight or too loose. On the top, a blouse or a tailored knit sweater are good choices, and for footwear, make sure to wear closed-toe shoes. Business casual for men or women does not include workout clothes or shoes, wrinkled clothing, worn blue jeans, shorts, miniskirts, athletic socks, or overly revealing clothing.


Video: “Fashion Advice for Men: How to Dress Business Casual – Men” by ehow [1:17] Transcript Available

Details Matter

Getting the clothes right but missing the mark on the details will create a poor impression just as much as underdressing for the occasion can, so make sure everything from your nails to your hair and choice of accessories conveys professionalism.

  • All clothes should be cleaned and pressed. Wrinkled or stained clothing looks very unprofessional. Take the time to review your wardrobe days before your presentation to be sure everything is cleaned and pressed. A trip to the dry cleaner is money well spent.
  • If the garment has belt loops, wear a belt. Belts should be dark leather.
  • Make sure your briefcase or handbag is professional, not casual.
  • Men should avoid sports watches, and women should wear conservative jewellery—nothing flashy.
  • Make sure your hair looks professional and well groomed.
  • Carry a good quality portfolio or notebook and a nice pen.
  • Women should wear hosiery if they are wearing a skirt. Avoid wearing perfume or cologne.

And don’t forget good grooming. Body odour, bad breath, poorly manicured fingernails, and messy hair can be a deal breaker.

This video provides some good advice on how to dress for interviews and in the office.


Video: “Dress for Success” by VaultVideo [3:11] Transcript available

Example: The Image Your Customer Wants

When employees whose businesses rent space in the Coca-Cola building on New York’s Fifth Avenue want to bring a canned or bottled beverage to work, they have a list of drinks to choose from. Vermont Pure Water is OK, but Evian is definitely out. Food and drink orders coming into the building are scanned, and anything with non-Coca-Cola brand products gets sent away. While this rule is on the extreme side, it’s true that even the products you use reflect an image, and when you’re doing business with a potential customer, you want that image to be the right one. This is something worth researching before you go into your sales call. If you know who your prospect’s customers are, use those company’s products. If your prospect is a publishing house, read some of their books before you go to your meeting. If they have a radio station or record label, listen to it. Knowing the prospect’s products, or their customers’ products, is part of your credibility.

When you meet a customer face-to-face, appearance is an important part of the first impression, so make sure to put careful thought into what you wear to your sales call. A good rule of thumb is to dress a little better than you think your customer will dress (Kahle, 2010). It’s hard to go wrong dressing more professionally than you need to, but you can go wrong by dressing too casually. What you wear is as much of a communication as what you say or how you use body language; so make sure to dress appropriately and professionally. At the same time, make sure you know something about your customer and his company culture. If you sell agricultural supplies to farmers, or you sell products to maintenance supervisors or people who wear uniforms, for example, dressing too formally will separate you from your customer. However, these cases are the exceptions rather than the rule. When you are selling to managers within a company, dress will be more formal. Find out about the company culture to learn whether dress is business casual or “coat and tie” and dress up a notch.

“9.2. Dress the Part” from The Power of Selling by Dr. Michelle Clement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

“Chapter 10 The Presentation: The Power of Solving Problems” from Sales BA 121 by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Sales Leadership Management Copyright © 2023 by Fanshawe College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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