We have said, from time to time, that an industry's publications and trade organizations exist, in large part, to allow operators, suppliers and manufacturers to engage in an ongoing conversation. This discussion continues over months, and years, and decades. New subjects are introduced, gradually or suddenly; old subjects die out. Some themes recur, after long silence.
One of these is the idea that, in tough times, the way to survive is by "getting back to basics." We heard this in the mid-1970s, and several times thereafter when the economy turned down. We are rather surprised that it has not surfaced recently, in response to the economic stagnation that is now in its third year. With a view toward contributing to the ongoing conversation, here is an attempt to revive part of it:
The pioneer full-line operators of the 1960s knew the importance of appearance in creating confidence. We met many of them shortly after we got out of the Army, and we remember front offices that had something in common with a military "orderly room:" the full-length mirror topped by a sign reading, This Is How Others See You! Even companies that did not issue uniforms to their field personnel had dress codes, and supervisors paid attention to the drivers' grooming. No one expected people who were taking cartons off a truck in July to look as though they had stepped out of a bandbox, but they were expected to shave, wear socks, and otherwise conform to mainstream canons of costume and hygiene.
Soon thereafter, rebellious youth became convinced that those canons were repressive, chaining the powerless to the oars of conformity. They said (with some validity) that their parents' society had been militarized by the Second World War and its aftermath. As they grew older and gained power, they began implementing "casual Friday," then casual Monday through Thursday. Jeans became acceptable dress for most occasions. And any reluctance to be as casual as the next person might be regarded as snobbery or, at least, subtle elitism. To be sure, not everyone ever went along with all of this; but the long-term effect has been pronounced.
What was overlooked is something that adolescents, in most times up through the 1950s, learned about getting ready for a date: taking some pains with your appearance is a subtle but effective way of paying a compliment to the person you are meeting. Good salespeople never forgot this, and adapted to the varying degrees of casualness by learning how to dress just a notch less casually (or more formally) than the prospect upon whom they were calling. However, we have met experienced observers who have spoken sadly about encountering young, eager operators or route personnel who cannot seem to get appointments or inspire trust, and who cannot understand why. No one ever has told them that people who have access to a machine dispensing food or beverages really want the individual who is taking care of that machine not to be too casual about it!
It has been said (often) that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. However, we think you do get a chance, every day, to make a better impression. Introducing a modest dress code, for example, or adopting a company uniform will not cause a dramatic reversal of fortune. But, after six months, existing clients will have gotten used to the idea of being served by people who look as though they care about what they're doing, and probably will have forgotten what they looked like before. New clients will start with the higher level of respect, automatically.
The same point might be made about manners. We may not be in the majority, but in our experience, today's youngsters in general have better social skills than most of their counterparts in the 1950s did. They are less often awkward, more forthcoming, more sympathetic; and these are all very good things. But many of them have not learned that there are gradations of formality, to be used in the same way as dress is used: to express regard for another.
We think it would be worth every operator's while to stand back and try to take a look at the field force through the customer's eyes. If you don't like what you see, change it.