Is the sharp suit dead?

First posted in 2011

The current mini heatwave this week has caused a few tweets from agents who are unsure how to remain comfortable at work in their suits. If you are not an estate agent, this may seem an odd thing to be concerned about in the current housing climate (no pun intended) but, for many agents, wearing a suit to work is hard wired in from birth. Do I wear short sleeve shirts and risk being confused with someone who works in IT or, do I ditch the tie and jacket and roll up my sleeves and risk being thought of as laissez faire? You have no ideas the agonies some agents will have gone through this morning.

I haven’t worn a suit to work for years now but, I went through exactly those agonies a few years ago having watched so many television programmes and News reports and cringed every time when I realised that the typical estate agent sticks out a country mile in a crowd. I knew I needed to change when my kids started playing ‘spot the estate agent’ and laughing when the suited and booted gentleman that they had identified was, indeed, the agent. But, there was something else that occured to me. If my kids saw estate agents in suits as a clichéd joke, so did their customers.

Suits first started to be worn because they conveyed a sense of businesslike professionalism. It was the done thing, very British and commanded respect from the lower social classes of course. But times have changed since then. We may not live in a classless society quite yet but the ‘them and us’ barriers of expected deference have certainly gone. So what does wearing a suit actually say about us today? In my view, it creates an immediate barrier to business. A sharp suit is now associated with sharp practices and actually seen not as a status symbol, but quite the reverse. It is a salesperson’s uniform; it puts customers on their guard.

What did I do? Having spent most of my career dreaming of the day I would be able to afford a really nice, hand tailored suit and how great I would feel in it; I went mad and went to work with no tie. Rebel! Eyebrows were raised, expletives were uttered and the mickey was taken by my (female) colleagues. However, I persisted and we discussed my reasoning. The ladies, who were at the time my counsellors and fashion consultants (I was going through my divorce), suggested that I try a genuinely causal but smart approach rather than the half way house ‘Simon Cowell effect’ I had managed to achieve. So, over the course of the next few weeks, I slowly weaned myself of the suit entirely and took regular sounding from my customers, acutely aware that, breaking from the accepted norm could have a real impact on my income if customers didn’t like the new relaxed look.

My main concern was the more senior market. The generation for whom a suit was important. For a while, I even kept a suit at my office to change into just for the occasions when I knew I would be going out to see just such a customer. Looking back, I know why I did it and they were for good sound business reasons; but it sounds ridiculous today. After a few weeks of doing a rapid change out in the back office and coughing loudly whenever I heard one of the ladies heading towards the door; I decided to have the courage of my convictions and ditch the suit entirley.

My bold move paid off. My next appoitmnet was with a dear old soul in Gunwalloe (a beautifully sheltered cove on the Lizard Peninsula). I nervously stepped out of the car in my new casual rig and was greated by the beaming smile of my 80+ yeard old customer and the immortal lines “Ah! Mr Wood, so nice to see a young man (her words, I may be 44 but I moisturise regulalry) who doesn’t look as though he’s coming to sell me something.” The discussion that followed and, with other customers from whom I took soundings, convinced me that the suit in estate agency (with the exception of some niche markets) is dead.

So having made the switch to my now usual work attire of good quality shoes, jeans, shirt and jacket if its chilly; did my business crumble? No. I did initially receive some politely concerned words from  some colleagues at the NAEA during board and council meetings who were genuinely concerned that my dress was… ‘well… just… not really the done thing’ but even these gentlemen, I noticed, started to enjoy dressing down after they became used to the idea.

For me, business suits set up an immediate barrier, they put sellers on their guard. Moving home is a stressful experience without having to worry that you are about to be ripped off by a smooth talking, sharp suited, shark which is; like it or not, how many customers perceive estate agents. Requin

Good agents know that the best way to sell is not to sell at all; it is all about listening, understanding and being able to find a solution to someone else’s problem. That requires trust to be established and, if the clothes you wear create a barrier to that trust being built, then you need to think about what you take out of your wardrobe in the morning. Good luck!

Chris Wood

I welcome feedback so please feel free to leave constructive criticisms or ask questions below. If you could also take a second to rate my blog and pass it on to others who you think may find it interesting that would be great. Thanks.

About Chris Wood: Chris is an estate agent with over 25 years of property experience and is based in Penzance and Helston, West Cornwall. He has worked with all sizes and types of businesses from single office independents to the management team and board of RBS and Tesco. A former President Elect of the NAEA and board member of NFoPP until he resigned in 2009, Chris has always championed the highest professional standards for estate agents in the UK. No stranger to the media, he has appeared on various programs including BBC, News 24, ITV, independent and BBC radio and is a regular contributor to trade journals, local and national Newspapers. Chris is on LinkedIn  Ecademy Facebook and Twitter He lives in Penzance with his two dogs. In his spare time; Chris sails and likes to keep fit and was a long-standing member of the Territorial Army. He mobilised for a tour of duty in Afghanistan with 1 Rifles as part of 3 Commando Brigade in 2010.

Please support the men and women in my unit, The 1st Battalion The Rifles, who become casualties in the line of service during their tour of Afghanistan by making a donation here www.swiftandbold.org

9 thoughts on “Is the sharp suit dead?

  1. Great post Chris – I think you are spot on in terms of how people feel when they come across a person in a sharp suit and tie. I haven’t given it a great deal of thought before, but looking to another industry where I am a consumer, I feel more at ease in an Apple store with them wearing polo/t’shirts than in a mobile phone shop where they are in suits.

  2. Thanks Ben. I think more and more traditionally ‘suited’ business’s are catching on to this now but, it is such a hard wired uniform that the habit is hard to break, especially with more traditional, perhaps older, owners in charge.

  3. Great post, I was with you right up to the jeans….maybe I am just not quite ready for that! Otherwise I totally agree, people sometimes ask ‘could you try not to look like an estate agent?’ as they don’t want the neighbours to know! It has become obvious over the years that if you wearing a suit and tie you are an estate agent clinging to an outmoded concept! We need to put clients at ease, a professional manner is more important than a ‘professional’ appearance

    • Thanks for your comments, especially the ‘could you try not to look like an estate agent?’ one, which sums up my article’s theme entirely. Be bold and leave the comfort blanket of charcoal grey flannel worsted behind you! If you need a reason to dare to be different, just watch ‘homes under the hammer’ and take a look at the majority of agents. You can spot an agent a mile off and its, generally, not a good look; quite apart from the aforementioned need to set clients at ease.
      Chris

  4. As you said, view yourself the way you view others when you purchase services or products. Someone who is comfortable in their aspect and attitude suggest a longevity in business and as such give confidence that you will listen as well as sell.
    JohnCalder Tisbury.

  5. Great blog. Now are you going to advice female property people about suitable clothing! As a property finder I might be looking at a house worth £4 million, looking round an investment flat for £245K, doing site visit re new build. Found that the more expensive the property then the more acceptable people are of less formal attire. Before you ask I go for smart casual which often involves wearing smart jeans (not ripped). Had the experience when one chain of estate agents who do more luxury end of the market refused to deal with me as I wore jeans! Competitors next door did not have a problem and said they benefited from the “jeans bias”.

    • Hi Alison, thanks for the comment (and story). I wouldn’t dare comment on what women should wear; I’d be lynched! On a slightly more serious note, I think you’ve already answered your own question. People should dress as they feel comfortable for the circles they move within or, are likely to be moving in. I think a sharp dressed lady can be just as off putting as a man in a sharp suit. Power dressing is very ’80’s in my book but then, I’m no fashion guru (as my wife will happily tell you).
      Chris

  6. Great blog Chris – I haven’t worn a suit for years now and my work “uniform” consists of coloured jeans (but most definitely not red ones!) shirt and fine knit jumper if chilly and as you said….good quality shoes. I’ll happily leave the suits to mobile phone salesmen and photocopier reps!

  7. Great post Chris as usual and i am a believer that as long as you look smart in a suit and crisp shirt then you do not need a tie. I used to work in the West End of London and many people i dealt with were in the media and generally CEOs of the company. They used to meet me in a shirt/sweater and jeans (top brands of course) and i think that if i had turned up in a tie they would have looked at me like i was mad. At the end of the day its your skill and professionalism that wins the day, not what you wear, although i would never endorse meeting anyone less than 100% smart if a little casual.

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