Image: The Winning Suit

If our customers perceive us as out of date or at odds with the message we're trying to convey, then it's time to make some changes

By Michelle Nichols

Look -- I have a new hairdo! Actually, I have a whole new look, from top to bottom. When it comes to substance and style, even though I have plenty of substance, I decided I needed some help in the style department. The reality is that we humans put so much stock on the visual that a salesperson's prospective customers judge first on style, and only then do they evaluate our substance. If your style is lacking, you may not get a chance to demonstrate what your product can really do for our customers.

I didn't decide on my own to update my look, it took a nudge. At a big networking event I recently attended, I met Karen McCullough, a personal-branding expert. Your personal brand is your image, but in a much larger sense. Karen had been the speaker that day, while I was scheduled address the next month's meeting. From my reputation, she knew I was a sales expert. But in her tactful way, Karen told me I needed to get my image in sync with my substance. Before her work was through, I had new hair, clothes, jewelry, shoes, make-up and most important, confidence. Here are some insights and suggestions to help your sales-and-marketing image be more congruent with your substance.

First impressions count. I didn't do this work on my image to change who I am. I did it to make my image match what I deliver. A new hairdo or wardrobe isn't going to fix an uncompetitive product or service. On the other hand, there are great products that sit on store shelves because the packaging doesn't grab the customer. In my case, my speaking evaluations always come back saying I'm very high-energy, funny, and that I bring my audiences new ideas. Yet my look didn't reflect my "product." One woman who saw the before-and-after me said my "soul just came out."

An updated look is more than changing the outside, it beefs up your self-image, too. Karen rejects the notion that image is about glamorous, expensive clothes. It's about the confidence we feel when we wear that new outfit. As salespeople, we don't want our customer to love our new threads -- we want them to love our products or services. However, it may take an updated image to get our customers to give our wares a fair look.

No more picnic duds. One of my readers asked what's replacing the "casual Friday" look. Karen reminded me that, because people react so much to visual cues, we want leaders to look like leaders, doctors to look like doctors, and salespeople to look like salespeople. Up until recently, she commented, many professionals "looked like they just came back from a picnic." For salespeople, an up-to-date business suit tells your customer that you're there to sell.

More, more, more. There is much more to congruency than how you look. There's your marketing materials, too. When were they last updated? Is it time to scrap them and start anew, maybe even put them on a CD. Also, what about your business stationery? Is it a relic from an earlier era?

How about your business card? I can't believe how often people hand me their cards with words of apology. What kind of image does that project? Is the color scheme old hat? Do you offer new services or product lines that need to be mentioned and explained. Have you deleted the old ones?

Say cheese. I'm a fan of photographs on cards because it helps people remember you. If you agree, you may need a new photograph, too. If your current picture is 20 years old, how are you going to convince customers that your ideas and products aren't equally ancient? If you have one of those "glamour shots" -- the ultra-styled sort where you twisted you spine into an unnatural pose or have one hand touching your hand in some enigmatic gesture -- it's time for a new photo.

Some advice on photographers: Hire the best. It's worth every cent to have an artist present you in the most flattering way. Besides, they may even be a great source of referrals! And guys, here's a tip if you happen to be follically challenged, don't use an old photo from when you still had a full head of hair. The same holds true for both men and women concerning other physical changes that happen with time. If you fib to your customers with an old picture, they might wonder what else you're not being truthful about. Remember, it's about the congruency of your selling message.

And Web sites, too. Reader Thyagu Poola wonders why some sites are so poorly done. "They wouldn't keep their physical store like that," Thyagu notes. Good point. Karen McCullough calls the Web "the new TV," and she's right: How companies come across on the Web affects my attitude toward them. And speaking of the Web, you can check out my overhauled site at

Another area you need to review is your selling style. If you haven't opened a new sales book or gone to a sales seminar in a decade, it's time to go out and get some new ideas. Maybe you need to develop some new selling tools. Things change so quickly, it doesn't take long to look old-fashioned.

Putting it all together. Think of what you put into your selling and marketing efforts as the instruments of an orchestra. You want all of the different instruments, or elements, in harmony. If you need a new look or a marketing tool, get it now and start the new year with a more pulled-together selling image. Your sales efforts should go faster and easier when your message is congruent with what you deliver. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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