Project Management

How you look matters when you're visiting clients

In his almost 20 years as an IT consultant, Chip Camden has gone from overdressing to looking a bit shabby to adding a touch of class to the dress code when visiting clients.
 TechRepublic reader Francois Bezuidenhout suggested that I write about IT consultants' personal appearance. Francois says that he keeps an extra shirt in his car so that when he gets dirty from pulling cables and drilling holes he can tidy up before visiting his next client. One of his clients complimented him on his neat appearance, and contrasted that with the unkempt look of one of his competitors.

As Francois says, we all like to think that we judge people on their character and performance, but that first impression has a way of sticking. How you treat your own appearance and hygiene sets an expectation of respect from others. But it's also possible to overdo it.

When I first started out in consulting, I began every new engagement wearing a nice suit and tie; I figured it was better to err on the side of being overdressed, and then adjust based on what they were wearing. That strategy worked well for some clients, especially on the East Coast and in the UK. But at West Coast companies, if you show up in Calvin Klein and wingtips, that all-important first impression may run something like "Here's the high-priced know-it-all who's more worried about looking the part than actually solving our problem." Programmers who work at California tech companies are likely be in shorts and flip-flops. While it's good to come in a cut above that with a neat business casual, you don't want to look pretentious.

In fact, you don't want to pretend at all. You need to be yourself, not someone else. Sure you want to exude confidence and put your best foot forward, but if that isn't part of who you are, then it isn't going to fly.

Long ago, when I worked in R&D for a software company, I wore a long beard that completely covered the knot of my (then required) necktie. My hair was also a bit shabby, as I considered a more frequent than quarterly shearing to be inefficient. I wore sensible shoes.

When I was later promoted to management, I felt like a daemon out of root. I didn't know what I was doing, so I tried to play the part. I started dressing nicer, and I lost the beard. My boss, the VP, said to me "you shaved off your credibility." Even though he was clean shaven, he realized that the beard was part of my guru identity. Though my facial hair didn't possess any Samson-like powers to preserve strength or even mental man pages, shaving it off was a signal that I was trying to be someone other than myself.

Francois also asked about the appropriateness of wearing a uniform. He's considering buying five matching shirts that go with dark pants so he can always appear in the same uniform when he visits clients.

I work from home 99% of the time, so my work uniform is a tee-shirt and sweats. When I visit clients, it's a big deal for both parties. But I realize that many consultants spend most of their time at clients' offices, so in that case, the relationship becomes physically more familiar, and some sort of standard dress code seems in order.

I wonder, though, what an outfit that you'd call a uniform says about you. Does it say, "I'm a utility worker?" Does it put you on the same level as the electrician, the plumber, and the UPS gal? If so, I'd stay away from that perception. An IT consultant should do more than install things and fix them when they're broken. The word consultant implies that you have wisdom to share that goes beyond the day-to-day, how-we've-always-done-it. So don't dress in a manner that says, "Journeyman."

When I'm preparing to go on site, I make sure I know what the expected dress code is at my client's office. If I don't know, I ask. Then I add just a touch of class above whatever they say. If they say, "jeans are fine," then I'll go with slacks instead. If they say "ties required" (which hardly ever happens anymore), then I'll wear a suit. I want to look just a little bit nicer than their expectation, but not out of place.

How do you dress when visiting clients? Have you given much thought to it? Do you have any horror stories to share about how a fellow consultant's personal appearance affected their work?

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

29 comments
Fregeus
Fregeus

So I bought 7 pairs of clean pants pants, all the same cut but different colors and 10 clean shirts, all the same cut, different colors. I mix up the two to make it seem like I have a bigger wardrobe than I do and it works. A uniform in disguise if you will. Easy to wear, easy to clean, and the client is none the wiser. If I have a big meeting or an interview, I throw on a sport jacket and boom, casual business. Works for me, works for the customer (so far) and I have no complaints. I HATE wearing ties. I find something wrong with the idea of wearing a noose around my neck all day. Can't do it. TCB

llsdigitek1350
llsdigitek1350

My default atire has been nice shirt & slacks and this seems to be the one size fits all in our area of SW Florida where casual and shorts are the norm.

rofuyo
rofuyo

In my part of the world, image IS still everything. So no T-shirts at all. And for the big corporates, we have to dust-off the suits that we hate!

rofuyo
rofuyo

In my part of the world, Image IS still everything! N client would let you near his Servers with a t-shirt & shorts on. So we go the slack-way, shirt but without a tie.

GSG
GSG

For example, a consultant from the east coast, who wore skin tight, thin, lowcut blouses, with a push-up bra to show off her recent "enhancements", with skirts so short that she had a hard time sitting without flashing and 4 inch spike sandals. We're smack in the midwest and this was NOT appreciated. In fact, her nick-name was "hoochie mama". She was finally asked to leave after she was counseled to not wear the streetwalker outfits, and she didn't see what was wrong with them.

andrescontilde
andrescontilde

The sales people always criticize me because I don't want to wear a tie when we are visiting clients. The results are good enough to say that our clients are more interested in what I know and how I can help them than in looking if I'm wearing a tie or not.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If looks were the only factor, I'd be in sad shape. But it's important to remove any objection you reasonably can, and use any advantage that doesn't present an ethical problem.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... why bother? Times have changed, and most firms go with business casual these days. At least, that's my experience.

jsbg10
jsbg10

To really get a grip on this subject, think about the way others appear to you. Especially, focus on those that you think disrespect you, by their words, actions, or even yes, how they dress. The youngsters w/ their pants down around their thighs are good 'bad examples' of 'attire' that is intended to attract attention to oneself, if at the expense of looking pretty stupid. The silly thing w/ the 'cheap' watch may be at the other end of the spectrum, but its in the same vein. When someone 'sells themself' as a consultant, the implication is that person is an 'expert.' Combine that expectation w/ the idea that our style of dress is disrespectful, & we can see that SOME business people could be put off by the way we present ourselves. Besides, good taste NEVER goes out of style.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

If a bit obvious. Although I admit to getting shaggy when I'm working from home a lot. Let me guess, they use Linux or Unix a great deal?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Excess testosterone has been shown to impair brain function in males, so her attire negatively impacted the productivity of any males on site. Never mind the distraction.

Gabby22
Gabby22

You're right. It's what you do that should really count. My guess is that many of the clients who might feel offended by the clean/casual look are probably not worth having. And if you can get enough work without playing suits and ties (and many of us can, obviously), why should you pretend to be a suit. I mostly wear clean non-offensive T-shirts, with shorts and sandals in the hot weather and slacks/shoes elsewise. The only exception is when I'm taling to my clients' clients, and I seek guidance from them. Works for me. Some will say the first impression is critical. I agree, but dress is usually not a big issue if you perform well on the important things. The first meeting is critical and you need to understand your client's problems and business well (homework), avoid boasting, tell war stories about similar problems, show you understand the critical issues, etc., etc. If you can't think and talk on your feet, maybe a suit will help you with shallower clients? Hell, someone's got to do their work too.

manasseh
manasseh

I used to wear a suit & tie when I visited a new client. After they got to know me I would switch to casual (but not T-shirts or shorts). Around 17 years ago (not sure exactly - my online billing system only goes back to 1994), I went to a new client on one of the hottest days of the summer in a suit & tie. They were quite a bit more casual. After that I said "forget it" and I never wore a suit & tie to a customer (old or new) again except when specifically asked to do so (e.g. customer has a big meeting with another company and everyone dresses up for the occasion). Most of my business is word-of-mouth, so I figure even the law firms have some idea of what they're getting before I show up the first time. That "last suit" customer is still with me - 2 owners and 4 moves later. If I showed up now in a suit & tie they'd probably wonder what was wrong.

dokai
dokai

Early in my consulting career I had a hard time gaining credibility with my clients. I was usually part of a team of consultants, but I wasn't the youngest or the least experienced. I knew my topics cold and presented them well. I was dressed appropriately and always had a fresh haircut and shined shoes. I finally approached a senior member of the team asked him what he thought the problem might be. It turns out that I was wearing the wrong watch. When presenting to C-level execs, the $300 Citizen that I thought was perfectly fine stood out as a "cheap" watch. My colleague told me to go out and buy a "nice" watch, and not come back with anything that cost less than a grand. I followed his advice skeptically, but the difference it made was amazing. I even received several compliments on my watch (Rado Diastar Ceramica Multi) despite it costing much less than the Rolex watches that most of the execs were wearing. It seems silly, but it fixed the problem.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Look one step above the employees. Not too far above (pinstripe suit when they wear jeans) and not below (jeans when they wear suits). However, personally I prefer to look like they expect my betters to look. If they wear suits and I'm the theory/fix-our-business guy, I'll wear an open (dress) shirt and tweed jacket. I've even been known to break out my old pipes (don't remember when I last smoked for real!) If I'm teaching I wear a polo shirt, slacks and a tweed jacket (which I lose quickly). I've even been known to arrange meetings late in the day with the explanation that I'll pop by on the way to my men's club meeting. (meaning I'm going to show up in my tux -- usually without the tie.). It's sad but Dress for Success is still alive -- it's just not as easy to pick the outfit anymore.

gmust
gmust

Absolutely my friend! Ultimately the appearance has well defined bounds- below which you will be sent packing(like hoohie mama) and above which you will attract weird looks.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's getting hard to remember the days when suits and ties were the common expectation for all employees -- and therefore required for consultants. The last time I made a first contact wearing a suit, I got some pretty funny looks.

brian.olson
brian.olson

When I was 35, I was working IT for a pump manufacturer. The office dress code was typical West Coast business casual (Dockers & polo or button up work shirts Mon-Thurs. Jeans & T-shirts on Fridays.) Many of the people that worked in the office and even the shop leads seemed to be rather "dismissive" of my explanations and ideas and basically treated me like some fix-it monkey. My girlfriend (now wife) suggested I let my beard grow out to a goatee to see what it looked like. When I grew it out, I noticed there were plenty of gray hairs. At first I wanted to color them out, but was persuaded to keep them when I noticed that the same supervisors, executives and shop leads started listening to me more and gave my ideas more worth. I can't prove that it was definitely my "showing my gray" that prompted this, but it definitely is a mark that "this guy is not some wet-behind-ears kid." Since then, at other jobs, I have not gotten the dismissive attitude so much.

64molson
64molson

All of sudden you're a star just because you strap on a $1,000 watch for show? Do you wear it when pulling cable or installing racks? I guess I wouldn't cut it wearing a twenty year old $30 Casio G-Shock? But it tells time just as well as (maybe better than)that piece of bling! Aren't you afraid you might scratch the watch crystal? But, if you're wearing that kind of watch, I guess it means you no longer roll up your sleeves!!!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I guess it's less painful than most certifications, and just as accurate a measure of your real worth.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even though what it says has changed over time, the point is that how you dress always says *something* about you. It's good to take control of that message, no matter what you intend to say with it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... or someone who borrows your wife and tells you what's wrong with her.

Gabby22
Gabby22

Well, IT consultants anyway for the reason made by Chip, + using your cellphone. In any case, isn't a consultant someone who borrows your watch and tells you the time?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I only use my cell phone for calls, and only when I'm not at home. So I have an inexpensive Samsung flip-phone. If I'm going to compute, I need a full-sized keyboard and a decent screen.

64molson
64molson

Are you in (more credibile) if you have the latest & most expensive iPhone, Droid or other gadget de jour? I guess my $50 slider phone probably wouldn't measure up either!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm always near a computer, and they can tell time well enough without having to hang one more thing on my body.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Mine is a no-name quartz analog for $7. Replacement band cost me $9. It does have, though, a spell-check window, for times such as these.

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