Should You Dress Down For Client Meetings?

July 28, 2015

by Dan Richards

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In a previous article, How Your Clothes Alter Your Conduct, Dan Solin pointed to research on how performance improves if people dress in a more professional fashion. But my recent conversations with advisors and clients suggest that while dressing up can have a positive impact, you can overdo it. In fact, in some cases it makes more sense to dress down.

Why our dress changes our behavior

The starting point for Solin’s article was research at Northwestern University showing that results improved when students wore a doctor’s lab coat when taking tests. The mere fact that students wore more professional clothing increased outcomes. Here’s how the New York Times described the experiment in Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat:

It has long been known that clothing affects how others see us as well as how we think about ourselves … Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses informally.

But the study’s author described how wearing more professional clothes actually alters our behavior:

Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.

That’s the finding that Solin picked up on. Here’s how he ended his article:

I routinely tell advisors of both genders to change the way they dress when meeting prospects and clients. The result of this change, I have discovered, has been universally profound.

[Advisors] tell me they feel more confident, stand up straighter, gesture more and speak with more authority when they are dressed in suitable attire…

To convert more prospects into clients, pay more attention to your clothes. What you wear will not only affect the way you are perceived by others, but also the way you think about yourself.

Tailoring your approach

No one argues about dressing appropriately when meeting clients. The debate starts when defining exactly what appropriate dress means.

There are three common-sense principles at work here:

  1. You have to be confident that you’re presenting yourself in a professional fashion. As the Northwestern study indicated and as Solin suggests, feeling professional boosts confidence and performance.
  1. You have to dress consistently with what clients expect of someone to whom they’re giving their money. There’s a minimum standard of dress and decorum that you must uphold. In my article, The Private Bankers’ Rule, I suggested that if you’re dealing with an affluent client, the standards of conduct of a private banker are a helpful frame of reference.
  1. You have to dress and behave in a fashion that’s consistent with the person you’re meeting, such that they’ll be able to relate to you.

It’s this last point where advisors can go wrong. We all know the stereotypes of 20-something brokers wearing Armani suits in an attempt to impress prospects with their success. And while this may succeed occasionally, in most cases it turns client off.

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Should You Dress Down For Client Meetings?