I had a distinct dislike for one particular company on Long Island with which we butted heads often. I hated them — or, at least for a while I did.
My dad had long preached: “Bless your competition. They make you better.” Good advice, though tough to take.
Just one of the reasons I hated them was because they had cleaned up their logo and their truck and even raised the level of dress of their employees. It cast a long dark shadow on us by comparison, and I didn’t like it.
What this meant to me and my company was that we now had to elevate our game in order to stay competitive and relevant to the market segment we both served. Yes, we all hated them, but we were all smart enough to know that you’re either getting better in business or you’re getting worse. There is no such thing as standing still.
The decision came down and the day arrived for us to clean up our look, too. We started with a redesigned modernized logo, which dramatically changed the way our truck design looked; it became clean and very eye-catching. And we changed how our field staff dressed.
For years, they would get dirty, so we would lower the bar and dress them in darker uniforms and relax any dress standards we had in the hopes that they could jump over the low bar. It never happened. They proved they could limbo under even the lowest bar.
That’s when we decided to try a different tack and raised our dress standards.
Since no one was going to be immune from this dramatic change, we knew we, as owners, had to lead the way. Gone were the golf shirts, blue jeans and construction boots for us. Instead, we agreed to dress in button-down shirts with company logos and standardized black or khaki business-type slacks. We took it so far we even started wearing new logo watches. Our commitment to raise the bar and demonstrate our conviction to do so was not lost on our staff.
We had agreed that the only name to be promoted by our company was ours, but what we quickly realized is it can be expensive to dress a whole team of techs and apprentices.
But, we were ready and willing to pay for a professional uniform service to keep our new and improved professional style looking good. Our staff received logo uniform shirts and pants that conveyed a newer and more professional look than we had ever worn before. The bar had definitely been raised.
And since we were serious about keeping the bar high, we detailed exactly how to dress oneself properly in our manuals; we even took pictures of the techs looking sharp in their new uniforms so we could hold them to these objective standards.
Being reasonable people, we felt that the shirts and pants were surely going to be enough. After all, we didn’t think it fair that we should also have to pay for uniform logo hats and logo outerwear.
That was until we met up with them in the field. What we saw firsthand was our beautiful uniform shirts and pants obscured by their own choice of plaid jackets and hunting hats. They looked more like an army of cloned Elmer Fudds than professional techs.
So, we gave in and paid for logoed hats and coats thinking that was going to be it. But then, one fine rainy day, I went to a call to meet one of my techs. When he climbed out of his truck to greet me, he was sporting a rain poncho. The bad news is it had the name of the utility company I was directly competing with sprawled across his back.
That’s when we brainstormed with the techs about how to address this in a more comprehensive way. What we decided was the following:
- We were going to have a specific list of the logoed clothing items the company would provide;
- We were going to have specific instructions on how these items were to be maintained and by whom; and
- We were going to have clear guidance on what must be logoed clothing or what at the very least had to have no other name than the company on it.
If employees wished to wear a clothing item not yet addressed by all of the above, then they would have to be in our defined company colors, which were spelled out in the manual.
Finally, we had moved the needle in the right direction when it came to making and keeping a professional image in the field — or so we thought. What we had failed to address, however, was how the techs could stay clean and neat from the first call to the last. They started out looking great until they did their first call in an attic or crawl space. The uniforms degraded as the day progressed.
Having run calls myself, I had the answer this time.
As both a tech and a sales person, I had to change literally and physically during the day to look and act the part of each, and the trick I learned was to use logoed coveralls. That’s why we made the use of logoed coveralls mandatory anytime there was a chance the uniform could be soiled.
We took it one more step and installed a standardized clear plastic bin in the cab of each vehicle — it held specific company-issued clothing items we deemed necessary for them to work that not only kept them looking sharp but also kept them warm, dry and safe. Items included a full spare uniform, coveralls, 12-inch-high ruber boots, a spare pair of socks (once your feet are wet, you're done), construction boots if the job requires it, knee pads, goggles, and a back brace.
What we found was as we raised the bar, their work improved. It became a point of pride to look professional, and we all saw the difference in the level of respect we received from our customers as we cleaned up our act.
So, raise the bar at your company. It’s smart to aim high.