It is only in the last five or six years that the tie has become a less vital part of a British businessman’s attire, at home or abroad. It has become more acceptable to show up for a meeting in an open necked shirt, still smart but not quite the traditional image. I am personally not a great fan of the tie. That probably dates back to when it was used as a mild instrument of torture and gentle strangulation on the way home from school on the number 7a bus, but in spite of that schoolboy trauma I still think it is very important to wear one from time to time. It isn’t just about impact, professionalism, conformity, respect for those I am about to meet, or any individual thing. For me, it is mainly because a full suit and tie can occasionally have a very positive effect on people’s general perception of who we are.
I once went on a long tour of the US North East coast, calling in on distributors and agents from Manhattan to Maine. For anyone who hasn’t done that drive in the Fall, make it one of the top ten things to do before you die. The colours of the maples are actually no different to the wonderful Autumn colours that we experience here in the UK. It is the sheer scale of the spectacle that never leaves you. I was driving up to Vermont for a meeting with the VP of Stanley Tools and his production team. We manufactured a very clever but incredibly complex machine for manufacturing different sizes of decorators’paint brushes, and it was my job to sell them one and to prove to them that it would increase output and quality.
It was a high speed woodturning machine that had a rotating turret with multiple centres that gripped the wood to be turned, and the whole thing moved back and forth against cams and high speed rotating blades to create a paint brush shape every few seconds. Everything but the bristles. A true feat of British engineering. I was especially excited about my presentation to the team because it was the first time I had sold such a complex machine by illustrating its key features on video. How times have moved on!
So I was greeted at the door by the VP’s right hand man, who was dressed in a polo shirt and smart(ish) jeans. He introduced me to the VP, who was similarly dressed, and I was escorted into a room with about 25 men in open neck shirts, polo shirts, or t-shirts, and every one of them in denim jeans. “Well…”, I thought, “…I suppose it is a manufacturing plant”. And there was I in my pin striped dark blue three piece suit and tie, looking far too much like a salesman and not nearly enough like an engineer! The presentation went very well and I sold the machine, an £80,000 order even at that time, which would have been about 1993.
About six months later, I accompanied Roger Bowness our tooling engineer to install and commission the machine. I was greeted in the same way on arrival, and we were led into the same presentation room. It wasn’t nearly as friendly an experience, which at first I attributed to the fact that there were a lot of complex engineering principles for them to absorb and understand. Roger and I got them going, and the machine performed as well as we knew it would. But the slightly unwelcoming atmosphere persisted and I joked that they might not like Roger’s aftershave. When that went down like a lead balloon, I thought it was best to let Roger get on with his part of the job and take a back seat. My curiosity got the better of me in the end, and as we left the building after a very successful installation, I asked the VP if there had been anything wrong with the way we approached the machine demonstration because I felt his team seemed to be in a subdued mood on this visit. And he just said “You’re British. You wear a suit!” Wow!
After the previous visit where every man and his dog was clad in denim and other forms of casual wear, I thought I would be on pretty safe ground in a smart jacket and trousers and open necked shirt. But no. To my customers it felt like I was a British person trying to dress more like them, trying to fit in, maybe to ingratiate myself. None of that was the case, but it taught me the value of living up to my customers’ perceptions of John the Businessman. Had we all gone for a beer somewhere afterwards, they would have been fine with John the Person changing into casual gear, but not while I was doing my job. Suit and tie only.
Conversely, I worked successfully with a UK engineering client for a number of years until their business was sold on. On my first few visits I was working on behalf of the local Chamber of Commerce, so I was dressed in a suit and tie, and on each occasion was received politely by the company secretary. The company MD barely said a word to me even though their office was open plan, and at times I felt he was downright rude. Then one day I was passing by en route to a stock taking exercise with another client and dropped off some claim forms for the company to fill in. The same guy was very welcoming, and like a completely different person. I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans! We never had a problem after that day.
So you have to be careful. Think carefully about how your customers expect you to be. Dress for your role on the day, but if you are ever in doubt, stay smart.