If you have ever watched the original movie “The Wizard of Oz” you will probably remember the scene where the wizard is unmasked by Dorothy’s dog Toto. His cover blown —and trying to recover while deflecting the obvious — the little man tells his guests through amplified sound effects to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

It didn’t work for him and, of course, his ruse was discovered and exposed. In today’s business world perception often trumps reality. If your marketing strategy and execution is sound, you can project a much larger (or better, or impressive) image of your company than reality provides. Is it dishonest to give the impression that your company is bigger, better and more profitable than it really is? Not at all! It’s smart and good business.

Let’s say, for example, a guy is doing service, repair and remodel work. He works out of a bedroom office in his home. Does it matter to his clients? Maybe, maybe not. With all else being equal; i.e. — showing up on time and doing a good, professional job, which plumber would you want working in your home?

No. 1: Does he wear sneakers, torn jeans, a baseball cap and/or t-shirts with the name of a sports team (or a local bar) on them? Does his truck have faded paint, dents and dings with tools and material piled high in the bed or box? Is he respectful of his client’s home and property? The perception of the customer would most likely be suspect, if not outright hostile to allowing the man back, even if he were a solid journeyman and did good work. The entire picture would be a negative one of the company he represented.

No. 2: If that same guy wears nice, clean uniforms, uses foot coverings when entering a client’s house, is personable and personably presentable, and has a clean, well-stocked and professionally painted truck, the chances are it will not matter what type of office he has or where it is. The customer’s perception will be that of a professional craftsman. If he does the work in a neat, clean professional manner, he will be someone who they would not hesitate to have back or to recommend to others. Such is the power of perception.

Some of you might make the case that it costs money to have uniforms and a nice, professionally painted truck, and that a new startup might not be able to part with that much cash. My answer would be, “don’t start.” Excuses don’t pay the bills. If you want to be in business and be successful, you need to set yourself apart from the rest. Good business habits and good business sense are learned. Once you’ve made the decision to go out on your own, these things are important to your future success. Remember, 95 percent of new startups fail within the first three years of operation. If you don’t want to be one of them, you need to learn the things you will need to do to be successful. 

That customer we were alluding to above wouldn’t know that the guy in scenario No. 2 was a one-man show, working from his home unless the journeyman told him. Conversely the guy in scenario No. 1 could well be one of several plumbers working for a shop that either didn’t notice or didn’t care about their image.

On a large scale, the same applies. If your company does commercial/industrial, multi-family or tract work, how do your prospective clients see you? Are you prompt and punctual when attending meetings? Do you come prepared, appropriately dressed and well spoken? Do you command details of the project that are relevant to the meeting at hand? Do you project an image of a successful sub-contractor whose intention is to do the job and do it well?

Perception can make all the difference. The thing is, if you exude a professional appearance and attitude, you will in reality become that which you project. If you are not detail oriented (read anal) it is sometimes difficult to grasp the importance of doing the right things consistently and all the time. Having said that, however, it is always possible to do those things consistently if you give it time.

Put yourself in the place of your customer. Think about what they see when they look at you and your company. If you can critically appraise yourself and your people, you can make the changes necessary to project the image that will make you successful. Caring about your image and tailoring it to the way you want to be perceived will make all the difference.  Marketing that image, and working to keep it, will make it much less likely that the reality will be exposed and, eventually, the image and the reality will come to be the same thing.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at allen@proquilldriver.com.