Dressed To Bill

I am not an extravagant person. You might even say I’m borderline stingy. But one area where I don’t economize is in the quality, cut, and fit of the clothes I wear. Over the years I have been in business, I have become more and more convinced that the image that independent business people project to their customers, potential customers and the world at large is absolutely crucial.

Dressing well communicates that you have respect for yourself and for those with whom you do business. It tells people that you are attentive to detail. It encourages them to pay more attention to what you are saying. You feel better about what you say and do when you feel you look good. You smile more comfortably. You speak with authority. Clothes don’t guarantee success, but when you are the business, you need every edge you can find.

When I was about to start my business, I used one of my last paychecks to buy the most expensive suit I had ever owned, along with a costly cashmere overcoat. New clothes symbolize a new life, which is why most people change their wardrobes when they change jobs or go independent.

When I wore these clothes to the office building where I worked, I felt that I gave off an aura I didn’t feel on ordinary work days. As I entered the elevator, a fellow passenger―someone I’d never seen before in my life―looked at me and exclaimed, “Wow, look at that suit!” That unsolicited endorsement gave me a jolt of confidence. I felt, irrationally perhaps, that I was going to be able to make it in business on my own.

As I thought about that incident, I realized that I would never have bought such a suit if I had viewed it, as my soon-to-be-former co-workers did, as a uniform that revealed their adherence to the standards of a large organization. Rather, this suit was intended to project that I am an extraordinary person with something of great value to offer. Most people dress to belong. The entrepreneur must dress to bill.

Not long ago, there was a television advertisement for office supplies whose message was that home-based professionals need never change out of their fuzzy bunny slippers. This expressed a dangerous stereotype that is tinged with envy. Many people assume that because those who work at home are free from the structures of corporate life, they are not fully professional. It is assumed that we’re not working a full day, that we sleep late and loll about in pajamas. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” one client began a conversation, when he called not very early one morning.

It’s true that I don’t dress the same way when I know I won’t be leaving the house as I do when I see a client. (One reason my suits look good is that I don’t wear them every day.) But when I leave my office, I am aware that I must overcome the bunny slippers stereotype, and embody professionalism through my wardrobe, carriage and demeanor.

The power of clothing can often be observed most strongly when others’ minds wander. When a client’s or prospect’s attention begins to flag during a meeting or presentation, they often fix on something you are wearing or carrying. I recall a CEO ogling my briefcase as we waited in the airport in Shanghai, a woman executive who stared at my shoes, and another women who praised my eyeglasses.

You’d really prefer that people listened intently and ceaselessly to what you say. But you do want to impress them favorably in every way. If they end the meeting wanting a piece of you, that’s (usually) a good thing.


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to AsiaMarketingManagement.com.&n...

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