Consulting – How to Dress to Impress

The English saying “The clothes make the man” could perhaps be seen as a business truism or fundamental, and in no industry is this more apparent than the consulting industry, where appearance and perception is everything.

Consulting as a sector relies greatly on reputation and branding regardless of size. Whether your business is a global big four, such as Deloitte or KPMG, or a small single operator or boutique firm, your credibility and your pipeline both depend on the success of your engagements and the resulting positive branding and reputation gains which flow from them.

Consider the legacy of Arthur Andersen, perhaps one of the finest examples of how reputation can make or break an operation. Andersen was known throughout the world as a tier one consulting business, and provided services across the globe to customers in all business sectors, ranging in size from the SME market to the Fortune 500. However, following the collapse of Enron, Andersen was embroiled in a scandal where it was alleged that they attempted to pervert the course of justice, by impeding federal investigations and destroying evidence, all in an attempt to avoid criminal liability.

The perceived reputational damage created by the investigation caused Andersen customers to flee in droves, seeking refuge with other, safer, audit organizations. Then, when the company was found guilty of perversion, the company’s accounting license was suspended and tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs because no company would procure services from such a bad apple.

After all, what would the customers think?

The Andersen collapse highlights that the perceived image of a company directly affects the acquisition, engagement and retention of customers.

Today, large consulting organizations utilize social media, YouTube, traditional media, and commentary to alter, shape, and refine perceived reputation. In layman terms, we call this “branding”.

As employees, when we visit the customer, we represent the brand of the organization, and are living examples of corporate values, customer fulfillment, and business professionalism. All of these factors combine to create a psychological impression in the customer, which ultimately will shape how they perceive both the efficacy of the consultant, and the quality of their organization.

As a consulting manager I have delivered services across many industry sectors. In each, a company will have varying expectations related to professional dress standards, stemming from company values, reputation management, safety or even culture. However, despite these differentiators, the consulting industry is a very different animal. When an external consultant arrives on site, be they an auditor or management advisor, the customer is seeking professional services in a business function that is either high risk, highly complex, or not fully understood. As a result, the consultant is perceived as a problem solver, who will be highly educated, highly articulate, and able to deliver services that will be understood and championed by all levels of the business from coal-face worker to executive.

In such a game, perception is everything. For that reason, in no other industry is how an individual dresses and presents more important.

Traditional business attire is a must, and should also be taken to an extreme. The “dark suit, dark tie” mentality from International Business Machines is probably the best starting point, however it also known that a pin stripe suit is perceived in organizational psychology as displaying both power and traditionalism. So for that reason, and to provide an image of traditional conservatism mixed with power, a consultant should wear a dark, three piece, pin stripe suit, preferably in black, navy or dark grey; the stripe should not be confrontational and should be vertical only, without cheques, and the width should be judged by the tailor to provide increased height perception.

Women should not wear pantsuits, and should always present with a pencil skirt, dark pin stripe suit, supported by natural or dark sheer stockings. Research indicates that male customers have a significantly more positive reaction toward females in power when they are not attempting to undermine “perceived masculine authority”. By highlighting their femininity, female consultants are leveraging the innate bias of human sexuality and physical attraction in the reputational management game.

The shirt or blouse should be white, crisp, and pressed or ironed before work. Coloured shirts should be avoided as humans have bias reactions based on colours. An inappropriate choice could have a consultant labelled in different industries; for example, selecting a pink shirt while working with a petrochemical or mining client could easily have a consultant labelled as homosexual. Such a label will then influence how the consultant, and also their work is perceived by the customer due to the strong conservative biases that many employees in these blue collar industries hold.

All men must wear a conservative tie, with a matching or contrasting pocket square, and all ties should be made using a double Windsor knot. The tie must be worn underneath the waistcoat at all times, and the tip of the tie should not be visible at the base of the coat. Women may have an open necked blouse, and need not wear a tie.

Shoes should be traditional, full leather, black, and of handmade quality; they must be worn with dark socks for men and sheer stockings for women. An excellent choice of men’s’ shoemaker is Crockett & Jones, from the United Kingdom, and women should consider a premier maker such as Ferragamo; women’s’ shoes must be high heeled in all cases and must not support a heel in excess of four inches, in cold climates, heeled boots to below the knee are permissible. Shoes should be considered a high priority as more than 70% of customers will form value opinions based on shoe quality when they first meet an individual, for that reason, shoes should also be maintained and kept highly polished at all times. Once damaged, shoes should be either immediately repaired or replaced entirely.

Overcoats, gloves and outerwear must be dark in colour and made of traditional high value material such as cashmere, the only exception to this rule is the traditional camel overcoat, which is also permissible. In colder climates such as Northern & Eastern Europe, China, or Canada, full fashion length leather or furs are permitted. Care must be taken however to limit use of full length leather on males with Jewish clients, due to the perception of leather and its colloquial linkage to the Nazis. Furs should be limited to full fashion length over a suit, and must not be short fur jackets, which are often associated to evening wear. Outerwear must also be removed upon arrival at the client, and the suit jacket must be worn at all times, but may be unbuttoned for comfort.

Men and women may wear silk scarves of a conservative colour in cold climates, or may select a fur scarf. Under no circumstances however may fur scarves be matched with a fur overcoat.

Accessories are also of critical importance in a consultant’s appearance and should form part of a standardization process in all companies. Under no circumstances should a tier one consultant wear or carry any product that is not of a natural material. All folders, luggage, briefcases, belts and wallets or other accessories should be made of leather, be dark in colour, and made by a premier brand such as Mont Blanc, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton.

Jewellery is also an area where many candidates either apply too much or too little, to make the most useful client impact. Consultants should limit jewellery to yellow, rose or white gold and should wear no more than two rings at any one time, these should be limited to engagement, wedding, signet and class rings only. Watches should always be worn on the left wrist, and must be able to fit underneath the shirt cuff when fastened with a cufflink. All watches should be from a tier one producer such as, Omega, Panerai, or IWC. On the right wrist a bangle or men’s bracelet is acceptable, again made from yellow, rose or white gold only.

Finally, only females should wear earrings, and they should be either single studs through the ear lobe, or a small hoop style. Under no circumstances should any other form of body art, such as multiple ear piercings, body or facial piercing or tattooing be visible.

By utilising this tier one dress guide, consultants will not only dress to impress, they will present with the impeccable standards expected in big four, or at a management consultancy such as McKinsey.

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