Tech Soft Skills Part 3

November 22, 2004


By: Matt Michel

I was accompanying a territory manager on sales calls. One of the contractors we called on, Mike, owned a small shop. As we pulled up to the shop, the TM explained that Mike split time between the truck, the office (where he mostly got in the way), and sales calls. I was immediately struck by the fact that Mike was wearing jeans and a plain white tee-shirt.

My role on the sales call was to listen, learn, and not speak unless spoken to. I did my best with Mike, but finally asked him what he wore when he called on customers.

Mike looked at me curiously, as though I was some time of idiot savant without the genius of savant syndrome. “I wear what I’m wearing,” he said.

“Hmm,” I said, “Have you ever thought about a uniform?”

“This is my uniform,” Mike said. “Everyone wears a uniform, but I look different.”

“Different can be good or bad.”

“My customers expect it. They remember me as the guy wearing a tee-shirt. It’s how I stand out. They like it,” he said proudly.

The TM wisely jumped in before I could ask Mike how he knew what his customers thought. My guess is that he’d been down this road with Mike before and given up.

If this was the way Mike dressed (remember, he’s the guy who does the sales calls), I shuddered to think what his technicians might look like. I had an image of a guy in a Grateful Dead shirt.

After we left, I recommended that the TM line up a replacement because this guy was going to be working for someone else in the not-so-distant future. Now, it wasn’t just because of the tee-shirt that I made that prediction.

There were other things Mike did that left me less than confident of his ability to survive, but the tee-shirt was the first sign. From it, I immediately and involuntarily formed an impression about Mike and fit him to a stereotype.

Stereotypes are not always accurate. Mike could have been one heck of a businessperson with an eccentricity about the tee-shirt. But once I formed an impression, it was rock solid. He would have had to work to chip it away and change it. Once I formed an impression, I would inevitably gloss over anything he did that countered the impression and mentally pounce on anything that reinforced the impression.

Your customers stereotype you and your employees the same way. What is the impression they form?

Everyone wears a uniform. It may be formal or informal, stated or unstated. Even with today’s relaxed standards, you expect your banker to wear a suit. That’s a uniform. You expect the banker to be in a suit. Anything less is a little unnerving. It shakes your confidence.

People expect your field service personnel to be in uniform. At a minimum, they expect a shirt that identifies the company. Fail to meet the expectations and the impression is negative. You start in a hole. Exceed expectations and you start out ahead of the game.

Exceeding expectations does not mean “excessive.” Uniforms can be overdone. I may want my banker and lawyer in suits. I don’t want others dressed similarly. For example, I would head for the hills if I walked on the lot of a car dealer and a salesperson flashing his pearly whites in an Armani suit strolled up.

Oh, and I later heard that about a year after I accompanied the TM on the sales call, Mike was wearing a uniform. Imagine that.

Well, actually it’s pretty easy to imagine. It was the uniform of a competitor whom Mike went to work for after his business failed. This was probably a good thing. Nothing against Mike, but he’s one of the people I think of when I give a speech and use the line, “The service trades do not have a shortage of technicians. The service trades have a surplus of owners.” But that’s another topic altogether.

Next: Uniform tips 1-10.

Source: Comanche Marketing. Reprinted by permission.
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Copyright © 2003 Matt Michel

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