Did you know that many employees in the bank keep ties in their top drawer? It’s the first thing they put on when they arrive at work (tie-less), and the first thing they remove and put back in said drawer, when the bank doors close. Indeed, your dress is not your choice. Here’s why.

“My dress, my choice.”  This is a common refrain in Kenya. And yes, how you dress is your choice. But only to a point. The point where your private life is public. At that point, your dressing is open to judgment and interpretation by the public. And because this is a post on business, by public here, I mean the customer. At that point your dressing is not your choice. It’s how you want the customer to perceive you; more accurately it’s how the institution you represent expects to be perceived through you; which is largely determined by customer expectations and business etiquette.

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Your dress is not your choice even in tech firms

Think about this for a moment. “Much as you likely don’t let them into your home, what would you make of door-to-door missionaries like Jehovah’s Witnesses, if they were casually dressed? Hm! Yes. When it comes to Sales, your appearance plays a crucial role in creating a positive first impression. Dressing appropriately and professionally can help establish trust, confidence, and credibility with potential clients.

In the world of Sales, impressions matter. Your appearance can significantly impact how potential customers perceive you and your professionalism. And therefore, silently impact the direction of the sale. Tech based companies, tend to be liberal with the choice of dressing for their staff. And in a country where 80% of the population is below 35, the colourful and youthful nature of dressing shines through when you see the staff in these companies. These companies consider themselves modern, different, disruptive. However, even they know where to draw the line. How staff dress within the walls of the institution is a private affair and is judged thus. Outside those walls, it’s public and judged thus.

Your dress is not your choice

You can’t have it both ways

So, when you put your private life in the public arena and get (mis)judged, the response you get to your indignant, “My dress, my choice. Focus on what I say not how I look,” is, this: “Tell it to the birds.” Tell it to the birds because the customer does not care. He only cares that as a teller in the bank, your attire screams ‘professional etiquette that can be trusted with my money’. It doesn’t matter that your colleagues in back office are in jeans and T-shirt that Friday. They are in a private place; you are not. Yours is public.

It matters not that your colleagues in your tech-based company, led by your CEO, dress every day in T-shirts, jeans, studs and an assortment of hairstyle that would compete with the poster at the barber shop. Theirs is a private space and the CEO has earned his stripes. You have not. And being a salesperson, yours is a public space. You will not be judged by HR policies and company dress code. No. You will be judged by customer expectations.

And if they expect suit and tie, then suit and tie it is. If they expect well-trimmed and kempt hair then well-trimmed and kempt hair it is. And if they expect, overall and gum boots then that it is. If it’s any consolation, it’s not about you; it’s about the company you represent and how the customer perceives it. And no, “I can’t afford it should not be an excuse.” A creased Giorgio Armani suit does not hold a candle to an ironed hundred bob second hand shirt. In the same vein, borrow a suit if you can’t afford it and the client visit needs you to look like the $100 million dollars you are asking for.

Your writing and posting is not your choice either

Incidentally, how you write and what you post matter too. For instance, Instagram and LinkedIn are respectively social and professional networking services. They are also both public places. When you post private or casual stuff on Instagram and only ‘serious’ stuff on LinkedIn, that’s fine. Be aware though that when professional judgement comes, it will not be limited to what you posted in LinkedIn, but any public space. If in doubt ask Kenyan CNN journalist (now former) Idris Muktar who is a sober reminder why you should regularly google yourself if you sell.  

Idris was fired from CNN over a 10 year old tweet from when he was a teenager. Equally, it’s all G8 to SMS, use emojis and LOL on WhatsApp, but great it will not be when you send a workplace email saying how G8 the client visit was. Workplace communication remains formal even in the 21stC.

Your dress and presentation are not our choice

We live in an interesting and exciting era. In fact, the era has been appropriately labelled as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA). Everything from parenting to sending money to how businesses operate is being disrupted. Accelerated technologies are at the heart of this disruption. However, seemingly there are things that have remained steadfast: basic human values and that customer is King.

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