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Is It Appropriate?

If you have to ask, maybe it’s not appropriate.

As I’m writing this, it’s mid-summer. In the past two weeks, three sales rep, one sales manager and two HR professionals have asked my opinion about dress codes for sellers.

The seasonal concerns range from sundresses and flip flops to shorts on the golf course (with a client). More frequently, I am asked about piercings, tattoos, facial hair and hair color. Occasionally, I get questions about casual Fridays and how casual is too casual.

Societal norms shift with the wind when it comes to fashion and when it comes to what’s appropriate. There is no “right” answer, so I’m generally unable to give a satisfactory answer to these questions about dress codes. It all depends on the company’s image, the type of buyer, the established norms in your industry and community, safety considerations (e.g. in a factory setting), and the catch all of good old-fashioned common sense.

The correct answer comes from a review, which will be somewhat subjective, of those inputs.

The same is true for other questions of appropriateness. What language is appropriate or not in an office environment and/or in front of buyers? When is it okay for a seller to smoke in front of a buyer? What are the guidelines for dating customers, competitors, prospects who don’t buy and so on? Under what circumstances should a seller accept a discount from a buyer? What gifts are appropriate to give to buyers? Where should a seller park when they visit a client and should they ask for parking validation if it’s available?

The list is endless, and the number of differing opinions is mind-boggling. In 18 months of offering free on-air coaching for sales professionals on CONNECT! Radio, the amount of questions about what is and what is not appropriate outnumber nearly all other categories of questions.

I usually can’t provide a definitive answer because the situation and variables are different every time. I wish there were easy-to-understand absolutes about this, but they simply don’t exist. Instead, there are some tried-and-true guidelines I can offer.

  1.  Don’t do a “bait and switch” act. If you were hired with your natural hair color at shoulder length and wore classic skirts and jackets to the interviews, that’s what your employer is expecting you to look like after you’ve been hired, too. Showing up on Day One with neon green hair, a new lip piercing and steam punk fashion may not be appropriate. The reverse of this example would also be true. Sellers represent the company to the public. Like it or not, companies have brands and may hire people who they believe will represent their brand in all ways.
  2.  If there’s a chance that someone (including a buyer) will be offended, then it may not be appropriate. Going to dinner with a non-smoking client? Then the only one who can let you know whether or not it’s appropriate for you to light up after dinner is the client. You’ll have to ask and be okay with a “no” response if that might be offensive to the client.
  3.  As a seller, you have to be flexible. Sellers have to adapt to the preferences of their buyers. That doesn’t mean you should try to be something you’re not. It doesn’t mean you have to pretend at all. It does mean you may have to make accommodations and that you must be considerate of the buyer. Off-color humor and four-letter words still offend some, so your restraint may be necessary if you are to maintain a relationship with some buyers.
  4.  It’s best to think about the long-term rather than the short-term. If you date a customer, what happens if there’s a messy break-up? If you accept a generous discount when you buy something from a customer, what happens when you can’t reciprocate with a discount on the products you sell? When you are running late and park in the handicapped spot in front of your customer’s business, how will you explain that it’s YOUR car they’ve just had towed?
  5.  If you have a nagging feeling of doubt, trust it. Being appropriate isn’t about some set of arbitrary rules that others made up to annoy you. They are societal mores that reflect the common view. You are a part of the common view, even if you don’t personally adhere to it. What that means is that you sense when something is a little outside the line. As a seller, on the job, pay attention to that sense. It will save you a lot of hassle.

It’s not about being appropriate. It’s about making sure others are comfortable around you. So if you have to ask, maybe it’s not such a good idea…

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