The Eyes Have It

Long before a sales prospect hears the pitch, your dress and appearance may have told them everything they think they need to know

By Michelle Nichols

Madonna may think we're living in a material world, but believe me, salespeople exist in a visual one. Why? Because the successful ones make sure their selling process is a visual winner. The visual aspects of selling are important because customers unconsciously use this information to make inferences and draw conclusions -- including whether or not to sign that purchase order. This process happens in the flash of a cerebal synapse, but it can have lasting consequences for you.

Let's take an example. Just say you sell a high-end product, but for some reason, you turn up for the sales call in a cheap pair of pants. Just your luck, the prospective customer turns out to be a fashionista, the sort who can spot bargain-basement duds a mile away. The prospect's brain screams, "Warning: Incongruity!" and starts looking for other mismatches, this time in your offering.


  Meanwhile, you have no idea what is going on in your customer's mind. You are blathering happily away about your wonderful company and its first-rate products, but your customer is wondering if all that talk about quality is a prelude to delivering inferior goods. Can you guess the outcome of this sales call?

Often, you won't find out what the customer is thinking until it's too late -- and maybe never. Who's going to admit to making a connection between lousy tailoring and the quality of your product? Fact is, however, it happens every day.

Don't believe me? Well, take a look at a TV remote (if your spouse will give it up, that is!). Notice that it has a "mute" control, never a "sound only" button. (I guess they call that radio.) When it comes to information and entertainment, the human mind loves all the visual cues it can soak up.

To maintain your selling edge, it's important to give your sales presentation a 30,000-mile visual check-up. Here are a few areas to review.


  I hate to mention this, but visually attuned selling starts with looking good. Your mother was right: First impressions really do count, so make sure yours is easy on the eye. This includes your face, hair, clothes, shoes, coats, purse or briefcase, and jewelry. I try to see myself through the eyes of a new customer. Sometimes, a photograph can be helpful in judging -- and improving -- your appearance.

It can be tough pulling all the elements together, especially for someone like me, who doesn't follow fashion all that closely. That's why I hire an image consultant, who saves me from turning up at appointments in the female equivalent of a leisure suit. Her two cents: Update your glasses, wear a first-class watch, shine your shoes, and whiten your teeth.

Since you probably arrive and depart by car, don't forget to keep your wheels looking sharp. It's one of the first -- and last -- impressions your customer receives. It doesn't have to be the latest model, but it should be spotless, both inside and out. At a minimum, throw out any fast-food wrappers, spray some air freshener, and remove any tacky bumper stickers. "Hit me, I need the money" hardly inspires confidence.


  Next, make sure your presentation looks good, starting with your business cards. How impressive is it when someone hands you a card that looks like a dog's chew toy, or if it's covered with information that has been scratched out or scrawled in? Hire a graphic designer and get new cards, perhaps with a flattering professional photo. The same is true of your brochures and other marketing materials. You'll hand them out with more confidence, and that attitude will shape client perceptions through the entire presentation.

I can't talk about presentations without mentioning the 800-pound gorilla: PowerPoint. Yes, it's a valuable sales aid, no doubt about it. But get it wrong or assume that the technology is enough in itself, and watch prospects' eyes glaze over. I recently attended a presentation that should have been titled Nightmare on PowerPoint Street. The presenter read every word on every detail-laden slide. Yuck! He could have been explaining life's deepest mysteries and I still wouldn't have cared. The presentation was such a visual turnoff, I was out the door long before he had droned to a conclusion.

On any sales materials you offer, be especially careful to avoid spelling, grammar, and incorrect word usage. Speaking personally, one typo sours my impression of the whole presentation. After your computer checks the spelling of any sales piece, have someone, preferably with a strong grounding in English, review it carefully.


  And be very careful of using the incorrect word, which can easily happen if your word-processing program's spell-checker gets the wrong idea into its tiny electronic brain. Once, I hired a woman to overhaul my Web site. A few weeks later, a new reader asked me if I wanted the world to know I was a Communist, as my home page announced. Say what! The word should have been "columnist." Yes, it's funny now, but I sure wasn't laughing at the time.

The impact of selling's visual dimension can't be overstated. Your customers make a hundred decisions about you and your offering long before you have uttered that first, well-chosen word. It's not that style matters more than substance, but they're far less likely to heed your message if it comes wrapped in a less-than-pleasing visual style. So check yourself and your entire selling process to make sure each is silently prompting the customer to say, "Yes, that looks good. I'd like to buy." Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her Web site at, where her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection is available. She can be contacted at

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