Dressing for Success (or , Throw your Toupee Away)

What should a woodworking pro wear for a first meeting with a client? Opinions vary all over the map in this lively discussion. January 9, 2006

I am wondering what you all wear when you interview or sell to new clients. Do you think that there is a correlation between your appearance and the price you command for your work? Are suits appropriate for generating professional appearance to your customers? I know this all sounds cheesy but, someone once told me that the key to making good money in this industry is not in the wood; it's in the marketing. So what role does your professional appearance to your customers play in your marketing plan?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
I dress neatly and I wear a shirt and tie. This shows them that I am prepared to make an effort to get the sale. This is important because it's very difficult to do business with someone who doesn't particularly want your business. I show them that I do want their business. I then charge the kind of money that is associated with a professional operation

From contributor D:
I agree with Contributor J. I work at a bank from 5:00 am until 2:00 pm and am trying to build up my business so I will go to the client’s house after work (when I am dressed up anyway) for consultations and measuring. I think that appearance is a major key to success. It helps you to stand out among the crowd so to speak. I was at a new client’s house a few weeks ago pricing some vanities and bookcases and the cabinet man was there. He was wearing his cutoff blue jean shorts, stained t-shirt, and tan work boots with white socks. I think that most high end clients feel more comfortable when there contractors dress more professional.

From contributor M:
The key isn't so much on how you dress it's more about confidence without being cocky. I have always felt it was better to "look" the part. In the summer time I wear clean cargo shorts, a polo shirt with my logo and Merril sneakers. In the winter I wear clean jeans and a logo sweatshirt with a turtleneck and my good boots (although I usually drive my CTS to meetings). You have to keep in mind these clients are just people even if they live in a $2 million home. In my opinion wearing a suit could only hurt your chances

From contributor R:
I always bid my jobs dressed in a Carhart tee-shirt, Levi blue jeans, laced up Red Wing boots, Stanley fat max on my hip and carpenter pencil in my shirt pocket. I'm a working man with business sense, not a business man. It's all in the charm, 100% sure of myself in construction matters. You can’t be arrogant or cocky running down the competition. I agree with them being human, even the most upscale people lounge around the house in shorts and cotton tee-shirt. Just truly being yourself will land far more work, unless you don’t really have a self, then you have to copy others and that will fool some people some times,

From contributor P:
I've found that how you dress is irrelevant if you are meeting clients in your shop - they will be looking at it, not you. I'm a bit of a slob, so I have met people with dirty clothes, 2 day beard, visible sweat stains under the arms, and lank hair (and I'm balding) and still signed large jobs.

This works because my shop is impressive, and the clients can see the quality of work in progress. When I am going to meet a client who has never been to the shop, I will dress appropriately, up to a shirt and tie if necessary. It really is about confidence: in order for your client to be confident in your abilities, you have to be confident in them yourself. People who know their business tend to project it. Of course, clothes are only part of the whole proposal. Professional, neat, accurate, CAD drawings and proposals are another important part of it. In a nutshell, my approach has been: You can look at me if you want, but take a close look at our work, as that's what you'll be living with.

From contributor U:
In a previous career I spent a lot of time consulting with professionals that are now part of my target demographic. Knowing how to read people and quickly determining what motivates them is the most important factor in making the sale. For some, what you wear may relate to these motivators. If someone indicates they want the "hand crafted" quality not found in stock cabinets, I may show up in a clean but worn polo with jeans and boots to show I'm "hands on".

I'll supplement my computer generated drawings with quick hand drawn design ideas. Another potential customer may make mention of sloppy work and missed timelines of other trades. I prepare with pictures showing detail, client references, sample boards, etc. I will also upgrade to a dress shirt and khakis. I can't imagine wearing a coat and tie, but it may benefit certain situations.

From contributor B:
I don't think you have to overdress the part. A clean collared shirt, shorts or jeans and not too overgrown hair and beard should be fine. I was dressing better in the beginning but I think the customers expect a more artsy, creative person doing their project. Unless you have a sales staff, you can let them wear the pricy shoes.

From contributor H:
If you’re selling yourself, then dress the part. If you’re selling your work, then let your shop, your tools and your ability to use them sell themselves. If you’re on the sales team and not actually the hands doing the work then certainly dress the part. But if the hands getting the check are the same ones doing the work then you should look like it.

While it is very true that its good to make a first impression its also true that that first impression only lasts about 10 minutes - then you better know something. When folks call a cabinet maker or some other trades person they expect to see one, not a lawyer or banker. Be neat, be organized and be knowledgeable. In short be who you are. Confidence in your ability to do the job is what wins clients. For us, like most established businesses, our reputation and ability gets the job before even meeting most clients. It all comes down to what works for you.

From contributor K:
I agree with Contributor H and the other posts, dress for your own success. Personally, I'd feel silly dressing up in a shirt and tie when the customer knows full well I spent the day hands-on in the shop. I'd feel like a fake. But, even if you are the hands-on guy and you like wearing a tie to customer meetings, do it. That's not fake for you, it's what you like.

I wear black khaki's and maroon silk shirt for dressier times, otherwise blue 501's and a white cotton company logo shirt. Always wear work shoes, but work shoes that are clean and never been worked in. Make sure all shirts are collared, and all pants are pressed (even the jeans).

From contributor Y:
I'm a craftsman and proud of my profession. As a result, I don't try to look like a banker. Clients are seeking me out for advice on building things and want to identify with the builder. While my work has to speak for itself, that is only shown after I've gotten the job. In the beginning, I go with the "people to business with people" thought and thus I don't try to make my appearance anything other than what I do.

My standard first visit to a client is khaki pants and a denim shirt with logo. For shoes I wear comfy clogs that can easily be slipped off when I come into a client's home. Make sure during the job that you are clean. Shorts and a tee-shirt are fine as long as there are no holes in the tee-shirt. Don’t wear frayed shorts and make sure tee shirts do not have funky stuff on them.

Make sure the shoes are non-marking and don't have deep treads to track stuff in. My car is my simple Astro van with logos and is always washed at the first meeting. I do almost no new construction, thus all my work is in existing homes and many times that is a "socks only" environment or lots of drop cloths.

From contributor E:
If you are visiting a prospective client in their home, and you are selling expensive products (custom furniture and cabinetry for example) then I think the more professional your appearance is, the more willing the prospect will be to do business with you.

Who would you rather buy from - someone who cares about their appearance, is prepared for the meeting and is willing to show you respect by taking the time to look the part of a professional, or someone that doesn't care?

It's not that people won't buy from you if you don't "play the part" and take the time to look nice, however when you're selling your woodworking, you're selling yourself first; so why not take advantage of everything you can to close the deal?

If people instantly feel comfortable around you, and feel welcome to have you in their home, they are more apt to want to do business with you; even if your price is higher. Frankly, people buy the whole package, not just the product. I honestly believe the person who offers the best customer experience can consistently command higher prices and close more business.

From contributor G:

I think wearing what you're comfortable and natural in is what works for me. I happen to like dress shirts with jeans. In cooler weather, I put on a sports jacket. That's how I feel comfy. If I want to impress someone, I'll wear a suit and tie.

I currently go to clients' houses for first and second consultations. I arrive wearing my Dockers, shirt and tie and White's handmade boots. I've got canvas and denim shirts slated to have logos embroidered on them. I also am considering having a few shirts printed with the company logo for my delivery and setup helpers to wear.

On the flip side I don't dress up any more than usual in the shop when a client is dropping in, unless I'm unusually grubby. I do have a beard, but try to keep it trimmed.

From contributor A:
I dress as to the client. I've found if I have a formal meeting with a commercial customer I do better in dress pants and a dress shirt with company logo. If it's a residential, they like more of a "shop" look. But always clean! In Florida it's almost always cargo short and company shirt weather. My truck is a 1996 Dodge diesel. All deliveries are in an 18 foot enclosed trailer all set up to deliver stuff. We drop the gate down and just walk out the door with it.

From contributor J:
"Shirt and tie" is far from implying to the customer that there will be additional overhead, It actually says to the customer "this guy wants my business" and if there's one thing I've learned over the years, and I presume customers have learned this too, is that it is very difficult to do business with someone who doesn't want it.

Most customers take adequate skill for granted; it simply doesn't occur to them that the person may not be capable of making the cabinets, etc. that they want. What they are looking at is the overall shopping experience, and starting that with a visit from a person who hasn't made an effort to smarten up is not a good start.

I gather from some of the replies here that some people have a big thing about not wearing ties (and shirts). I can see that, but I think simple logic shows that some kind of visible effort towards neatness and cleanliness of appearance must be made if one is going to have the best chance of closing the sale.

From contributor D:
I think that, if for no other reason, I would dress up a little more out of respect for the client and their family. I agree that if you know what you are doing and are able to answer any question the client may have is a great asset, but also I would not want my wife and children watching someone who is unkempt or sloppy measuring for cabinets. I think that khakis and a golf shirt with a logo would be my minimum.

From contributor R:
I can tell you from experience that when it comes to how a contractor appears (dress code), I felt much more comfortable with a guy in clean jeans and decent shirt or khakis and a polo shirt than I felt with flip flops and such. I have no doubts that my boss is comfortable, however customers have commented to me about their doubts of him being able to do the job until they saw the showroom, which leads me to wonder how many times did he make a cold call and not get the job based completely on his dress. It all goes back to the first impression theory. Even after seeing the showroom, customers have said they hope he could handle the job.

From contributor M:
Here's something that we know as we study relationships. Your first impression is just that, a first impression. After we meet and we make an initial evaluation based on appearances, we move on to evaluate further. This is done through our conversation. Have you ever determined someone’s intelligence, or lack of it, by talking about the weather? This tends to either reinforce or change our first impressions. And this evaluation is much stronger and longer lasting than our first, visual inspection.

Now, are first impressions important? Yes, but they are not final - they are initial. I had lunch with a friend the other day. He was dressed in Bermuda shorts, a t-shirt, and some sandals. He looked as if he had been in the attic all day. The first impression of this guy would not have been accurate. He is an investment banker and has put deals together worth millions. He may be responsible for the funding of your favorite stadium. And yet, if you were to get past the visual of this guy and talk to him you would quickly realize that he is a sharp guy, and maybe even like to do business with him, if you had enough money. The point is that if they let you in the door, the rest is going to depend on what you say and do – they are not going to worry about what you wear or drive. And if this is a referral, then probably very little will depend on what you wear or drive.

I shave once a week and when I go out, I wear clean clothes that I work in. When I leave, there is no doubt in the client's mind that I have mastered this trade, and that I am their advocate. If they show up at my shop, they are not confused. I am the same guy that met them at their house, and talked to them on the phone initially. There are no surprises. I don't need to be something different to compensate for a lack of confidence or competence. I realize that it is what happens after the handshake that is most important. Most of the people who choose me do so because I am a hands-on owner. They know that they are dealing with the head guy and the one who will be building their cabinets. A tie is not going to affect the quality of their cabinets.

If you are a tie guy, fine. Dress up and show up on time. But realize that it takes more than a white collar impression to get a check. That initial visual inspection is only a small part of their overall impression. If they let you in the door and shake your hand, then you have passed the first test. Success is determined by what you do next. Listen to them. When they are finished, demonstrate to them that you understand their needs, and tell them how you can take care of them.