What’s Your Dress Code?

Sometimes it seems like many members of our industry have co-opted the title “installer” as a license to wear any manner of “edgy” clothing. I remember walking the halls of my first CEDIA and being shocked at how many people were wearing shorts and T-shirts with wild slogans/graphics while showing off tons of tattoos and piercings. Now, I certainly get the desire to show off your own personal expression, and if that’s your thing, great.
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“Dress for the job you want.” – Your High School Guidance Counselor

“Dress for the clients you want.” – Me

Sometimes it seems like many members of our industry have interpreted the title “installer” as a license to wear any manner of “edgy” clothing. I remember walking the halls of my first CEDIA and being shocked at how many people were wearing shorts and T-shirts with wild slogans/graphics while showing off tons of tattoos and piercings. Now, I certainly get the desire to show off your own personal expression, and if that’s your thing, great. But there is a time and a place for dressing like that, and a once-a-year gathering of manufacturers and your business peers is probably not it.

Also, if you think that it makes you look professional in any way, I’m afraid you’re wrong. To me, frankly, it shows a lack of respect.

I was watching an episode of “Tanked” on Animal Planet over the weekend. The show caught my interest because it was A) a blessed break from the episodes of “Too Cute” and “My Cat From Hell” my daughter likes to watch, and B) they were making an aquarium for Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) and The Magic Castle in Hollywood.

If you’ve never heard of “Tanked,” it follows the two principals of Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM), “the world leader in custom aquarium manufacturing” out of Las Vegas. These guys create fabulous fish tanks for a variety of clientele, with capacities from 50 to over 50,000 gallons.

So, the two principals of ATM show up to meet with NPH at The Magic Castle, and this is the dialog. They are dressed in a company Polo shirt and shorts and tennis shoes.

NPH (talking into phone): “Yeah, they said they’d be here a little while ago.”

ATM: “Neil Patrick Harris is waiting for us? Yeah, he’s waiting for us because we’re late.”

NPH: “Welcome to the world-famous Magic Castle here in Hollywood, home of the academy of magical arts, of which I, Neil Patrick Harris, am the president. I don’t get to say that very often. I want to take you guys inside and talk about what you might be able to do for the club. (Pausing to look at the outfit the two ATM guys are wearing.) You didn’t get the…? I sent an email to you guys about the… There’s a dress code here. It’s jackets and ties for gentleman, and dresses for ladies, but I’m assuming you’re going to go with the suit and tie.”

ATM: “Aren’t you in charge here?”

NPH: “Yeah, I’m the president of The Castle, actually.”

ATM: “Can’t you pull some strings Mr. President?”

NPH: “If you were wearing, like, say, pants and a dress shirt, we could probably provide you with a tie, maybe a jacket, but this is hilariously wrong. Look at you, your shoes glow in the dark. Did you guys just come from like working out?”

ATM: “Sort of… Working.”

NPH: “How can we do the consultation with you dressed like you just ran a 10k?”

NPH (into phone): “Yeah, they came. Ay, yi yi. No, not even a jacket. They came in f---ing cargo shorts. Welcome to my life.”

So, likely this encounter was played up to effect, and we probably rarely work in places that have an actual dress code (short of steel-toed boots and a hardhat), but there are also lessons to be learned here. No doubt ATM was a lock for this job, but still, appearances are important. And a first time client meet is the only chance that you get to make that all-important first impression. ATM’s reputation preceded them, but still, they showed up for an important meeting dressed “hilariously wrong.”

This topic was touched on tangentially several months ago by Todd Puma in his blog, “Are You Old Enough to Run a Custom Install Business?”

In that post Todd wrote, “Even in our industry where appearance is meaningless, customers still have expectations of what they believe you should look like. When people like me—baby faced, younger than expected, and wearing Converse sneakers—show up at their door, they think, ‘Who’s this guy and what does he know?’”

First, I don’t think that Todd’s opening statement could be any further off mark. In every industry, appearance is important. His second comment—clients thinking “Who’s this guy and what does he know?”—however, is right on the mark.

Ask yourself this: would you want to do anything that would cause a potential client to call into question who you are or your capabilities? Also, if two people came to your home, one wearing jeans and tennis shoes and the other dressed like they put some thought and care into the meeting, whom would you be more apt to hire?

When meeting someone for the first time, they don’t know what a great guy you are or the level of your work; the way you look is the only thing that they know about you. And if you show up dressed like you don’t care, chances are your impression won’t be very lasting. Even when meeting a long-term client, your dress shows how you perceive the meeting.

Now, granted, there are times when you just can’t dress the part. We’ve all had times where we are pulled off one job—say where you are prewiring or retrofitting something—and needed to go to another project unexpectedly. But when this happens, I always make it a habit of apologizing for my appearance if I feel that it isn’t on the mark, explaining that I am coming from another project. People seem to appreciate and respect that.

When I started attending CEDIA and CES as a member of the press several years ago, I used to wear khakis and a Polo golf shirt, which I felt was respectable “biz casual” attire. But after a couple of press events, I noticed that the people whom I respected and wanted to be like were all wearing sports jackets with button down shirts, many even in ties. I wanted to be seen as in the same league as my peers, so I changed the way I dress. Now you won’t catch me at a press event or walking the halls of CEDIA or CES not wearing a blazer.

Something else to consider; I find that clothes definitely shape my mood and my confidence. I have a couple of custom made suits from Indochino, and when I put them on, I feel great. I know I look good, and the confidence radiates, and people pick up on that alpha-male vibe.

Chances are the customer’s you want to have are likely CEOs and executives, and they are used to being around people that dress a certain way. They are also likely winners in their field, and winners want to be with and work with winners.

At the end of the day, you will likely never lose a job because you dressed up for a client meeting. However, the same can’t be said for cargo shorts.

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John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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