Over my 30 years of delivering professional image workshops (on topics such as appearance, etiquette, etc.), I’ve heard countless times from L&D professionals, “We’re glad you’re here to speak to this group, because we’ve been afraid to say anything,” Informing others about their professional appearance and business etiquette behaviors can be like walking through a minefield wearing snow shoes. It’s wrought with potential disaster.
Understandably, people can be defensive when they’re told they need to look and/or behave a certain way. In the worst case, providing employees with unrequested criticism about appearance can be a violation of human rights legislation. L&D clients have, in confidence, also told me, “We have 20 people in the room, but only three really need this.” As with any training, some need it more than others.
The reality is that employees need to convey a consistently professional level of decorum. Business is a human-to-human endeavor, and anyone who thinks his or her product or service speaks for itself is sorely mistaken. Offering a great product or service is only part of the equation. No matter what you offer your clients, it’s only as compelling as the person who offers it. Meeting a client’s expectation of appearance, behavior and communication is vital for clients to begin, and continue, to buy from your organization.
Customers need to feel comfortable in order to commit their hard-earned dollars, and comfort is created from trust. Trust almost never develops when someone hears something as overt as, “Trust me on this.” It’s a much more subtle and, ultimately, more powerful feeling, which develops in our subconscious. We feel trust. The question is, why do we instinctively trust some and not others?
Humans are visually astute. We are experts at noticing visual cues, and then we quickly give those cues meaning. The research is conclusive: Within seconds of meeting, someone we note his or her body size and shape, hair color, facial expressions, clothing, shoes, and tone of voice. If these initial impressions are negative, we’ll quickly assign secondary characteristics, such as apathy, carelessness, lack of professionalism, and so on. This assignment of negative traits automatically erodes our trust.
When there are no negative visuals, there are no barriers. When a person meets with our visual expectations, we’re freed from the negative unconscious analysis and allowed to pay attention to matters of substance. This is not to suggest we won’t buy milk and eggs if the checkout worker doesn’t meet with our approval. Yet, when it’s a big purchase or one we’re emotionally invested in, it does matter.
Professional image training may seem to target the softest of the soft skills, but it has its place in impacting the bottom line. Targeting the little things (because it’s the sum total of the little things that make a difference) is completely within an individual’s control. Making sound wardrobe purchases (even when on a budget) is the start to appearing, and feeling, credible and professional. The effort to look professional is noticed and appreciated by clients, co-workers and leaders.
One of the problems is that a professional wardrobe can be a moving target for many. Appropriate appearance varies from one industry culture to another, from region to region, from job role to job role, from generation to generation, etc. Image training can help employees make smart choices so they look professional with minimum expense and minimal effort.
Clients learn about an organization through its people. When interactions are consistently pleasant and free of negative distractions, clients feel comfortable, comfort leads to trust and trust leads to revenue.