So Fresh and So Clean--the Importance of First Impressions

This is an awkward column for me to write, but I feel compelled to respond to the many emails I received regarding conspicuously recognizable call center facility. Much of that column referred to the blandness of many call centers and their inability to present a clean and attractive look to their employees. Subsequently, a few readers suggested I address the issue of personal decorum and dress for managers. OK now, I admit it, I’m not Emily Post and I do not consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be an expert on how people should dress. However, even though times have changed a lot since I was a young manager at Texas Instruments many years ago, I still believe that neatness and cleanliness are universals in any organization and particularly in call centers. I also believe that managers who have a very tidy and neat/clean appearance set the tone for their employees.

I always try to teach that important lesson to my students at the University of Wyoming. A few months ago, a former student visited me at my home. He asked if I remembered several years ago when I threw him out of my university office for looking like a bum. I didn’t remember the specific experience, but I knew it was true because I had done it many times. He reminded me, "I came into your office one day. I didn’t have an appointment and I stood in front of your desk until you looked up at me.

You said to me, 'Son, you look like a bum. Your fingernails are dirty, you haven’t shaved this morning and your hair’s a mess. You’ve got stains all over your shirt and you smell like a beer hall. Why don’t you leave, clean up, and make an appointment to see me.’" He went on, "I left your office feeling very bitter and angry. I did come back and you smiled and said, ‘Now, that’s better, what can I do for you?’ Honestly, Dr. Mitchell, it hurt but that was one of the best lessons I have ever learned."

First Impressions Important on Any Job

I consider that experience to be a cheap lesson for students, because I wanted them to experience the feeling of how their appearance affects the way people think about them. I consistently reminded students, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

I think this concept of clean and neat personal appearance particularly applies to call centers because by their very nature they tend to encourage informal dress codes which, if not closely monitored, can start a downward spiral that will ultimately affect the job morale and even performance of employees.

Now, a reminder, I stipulated I am not comfortable writing about this matter. So, rather than spout off about my perceptions, I called a few call center managers and asked for their anonymous input on the subject. Here are a few thoughts based on their responses.

It was universal that managers don’t have to be fashion plates, but owe it to their employees to be neat and clean. Several of my sources mentioned that cleanliness starts with the vehicle you drive to work. Your vehicle must be washed and always be ready to give an employee a ride somewhere. It’s really a turn off to hear someone say, "Let me clean this seat off before you get in." When visiting call centers, I have gone to lunch in vehicles with dirty diapers, spoiled drinks and, worst of all, cups half full of tobacco juice.

Dress for the Job You Want

Some other things that will lead to an unruly personal appearance or lack of personal decorum: stained or wrinkled clothing. Denim was consistently mentioned as not appropriate. I personally like khaki pants with a plaid shirt. Plaid shirts hide a lot of spills. I know it’s hard to keep stains off of khaki , but you can’t go wrong with khaki and plaid. Men, here’s a tip. I personally like Travelers shirts from Jos. A. Bank. They really don’t wrinkle and it saves ironing and they are relatively inexpensive. I own several of them. I promise, I don’t have any stock in the company. I just like the shirts. A tie would be nice, but I understand that times are casual. It’s not necessary.

Hair should always be trimmed, faces should be shaved, beards trimmed, and shoes shined. Sneakers are OK if you are on your feet all day. Dirty, unwashed sneakers are never OK. Most of my sources said they wished tattoos would be covered and that all shirts must have collars and be tucked in. Sandals and flip-flops are never appropriate. And, with reference to some managers who come to directly to work from a vigorous work out session, perfume, cologne, and deodorant never trump a shower!

Oddly, the managers I talked with were reluctant to discuss dress codes for women. I sure as hell am not going to do that either. I just know that I can usually tell when someone is unkempt.

Many years ago, as a PhD project, I worked incognito on a Dallas, Texas garbage truck for two weeks. I drove up and down hundreds of miles of alleys picking up bags and cans full of other people’s trash. I remember observing the backyards on my route. Some were neat and others were a mess, but could have been neat with a little work and almost no expense. As far as I am concerned, you can learn a lot about people by looking at their back yards.

First published on Customer Management IQ