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Second Thoughts on First Impressions

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The name of Emmi Sorokin’s image consulting firm is an inspired choice.

It’s a Man’s World is tongue-in-cheek enough to avoid raising the ire of feminists, and yet it is flattering to her male clients, putting those of us who don’t feel overconfident about our appearance at ease. Perhaps that was why Sorokin insisted on a lunch at a Japanese hotel, where kimono-clad Japanese waitresses scurry about with traditional self-effacing politeness. In Japan, it is still very much a man’s world.

Who: Emmi Sorokin, Men’s Image Consultant, It’s a Man’s World (

Where: Hakubai, The Kitano Hotel, 66 Park Avenue, New York

When: January 13, 2009

Menu: Sesame tofu, green tea and communication

I admit that coming to meet an image consultant, I chose my clothes with some trepidation, rummaging through my closet for a new suit and a Brooks Brothers shirt.

Apparently, I did rather well — although my Liberty tie could have been brighter and my classic L.L. Bean penny loafers could have been junked in favor of something more modern and perhaps less dusty. However, if I actually wanted to get a few free pointers on presenting myself better, I should have worn a different outfit.

“For my professional clients, their workplace attire is usually strictly codified,” remarks Sorokin. “A plumber or an attorney doesn’t have to think what to wear to work.”

To be sure, there may be adjustments in the cut or color of a business suit, to make sure that it is appropriate both for your coloring and build, as well as the image you wish to project. Sorokin notes that men’s fashions change slowly, but they do change. For example, a couple of decades ago, men’s suits were all about size and power, with large pockets, broad lapels and bulky shoulders. Now the look is much slimmer and more elegant, and, unless you consciously go for a retro look, you should not be showing up in an out-of-date cut.

Still, when you are at the office, says Sorokin, people already know who you are and what to expect of you.

“It is in presenting themselves on their personal time, their social time, that most people need assistance.”

The Importance of Being Earnest

Some of the most important business contacts, especially for professionals who need to expand their client base, are made outside the office — at community events and networking parties, but also in ordinary social interactions or even on the airplane.

“You can meet your next big client on a line at Starbucks,” says Sorokin.

But when you meet people outside the office, when you’re on your own, the window of opportunity for projecting the right image is very narrow, Sorokin warns. She observes that the first impression we make on people has an enormous influence on our quality of life and professional success. The first impression is even more important today, in a rushed, multitasking environment, when we are often forced to make snap decisions about people we meet casually.

“Everybody understands the importance of the first impression,” she says. “But very few people make a conscious decision to shape it.”

Sorokin’s clients are very successful and knowledgeable in at least one aspect of their lives, but they often can’t see themselves from the outside and can’t judge what kind of impression they make on other people. Some people are naturally charming or elegant, and they don’t need the services of an image consultant.

As for the rest of us, Sorokin cautions that a DIY makeover may not be a good idea. Just as investing should be best left to a professional, so a professional can point you in the right direction and help avoid the costly mistakes that go with the trial and error approach.

“I see people all the time going for fancy designer labels even though those particular clothes may not be suitable for them,” she says. “They also end up spending hundreds of dollars on an ill-fitting polyester suit even though they could have had a custom-made suit tailored for them for the same amount of money.”

Another common mistake, she says, is confusing “well-dressed” with “fancily dressed.” It is exactly the opposite. Fancy dress can make you uncomfortable, whereas clothes should be both appropriate and comfortable, making you feel confident. Then, not only other people would want to engage you in a conversation, but the way you feel about yourself would improve the way you come across.

“It is an entire package,” says Sorokin.

Tough Times for Finance Pros

As Sorokin describes her approach over sesame tofu — she is a vegetarian — it becomes clear to me that many aspects of her work are similar to what financial advisors do. Especially since many finance professionals see client interface as a crucial part of their job, no less so than picking stocks and developing investment strategies.

She starts with a face-to-face interview to learn as much as possible about her client, his project and professional and personal goals. Based on these findings, as well as her observations of the client, she then comes up with a personal wardrobe that suits her client’s needs, and then also helps him purchase clothing and accessories. But it invariably ends up being more than that. Sorokin concerns herself not only with wardrobe, grooming, hair, facial hair and articulation, but in the course of their work she often ends up getting deeper into the client’s personal and professional life, into areas where he feels he is not entirely fulfilled.

By the nature of their work, an image consultant and a financial advisor discuss with clients what many people feel is extremely personal, private aspects of their lives –their appearance and their money. There is a small step from there to becoming a life-coach.

Maybe this is why Sorokin has interesting insights into challenges facing financial advisors. She notes that even in good times, people who work in the financial services industry need to closely watch how they come across in social situations.

“Whenever people find out that you’re a finance professional, they expect you to offer them advice or try to sell your services,” she warns. The wariness has increased in the current environment, and your appearance should work to dispel this impression rather than reinforce it. The purpose of the contact may indeed be getting a new client, but it has to be a soft sell, and that soft sell should start at the level of the first impression.

Knowing that many people are currently facing major financial losses, it is obvious that the time for ostentation is past, and over-the-top suits, oversized watches and other signs of success are likely to send a wrong message. However, Sorokin also believes that it is time to take extra care of your appearance.

“You should certainly avoid the impression that you somehow don’t have it together, that you’re sloppy or not careful. It is during the boom times that the dress code, the accepted standard of how we present ourselves, begins to slip. Now is the time to take care of the basics.”

Financial advisors know it in their day job. You can let go during good times, but downturns are when strict discipline is definitely in order. Sorokin thinks it is the kind of message they should be communicating with their clothes.

Alexei Bayer runs KAFAN FX Information Services, an economic consulting firm in New York; reach him at [email protected]. His monthly “Global Economy” column in Research has received an excellence award from the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants for the past five years, 2004-2008.