Leisel Jones.

Four-time Olympian Leisel Jones has copped flak for not looking like your 'typical' Olympian. Photo: Reuters

So you've been successful. You've won a few awards. You've dominated your competitors. But now, things are a little different. You've been around for a while and, to some people, you're looking a little like you don't care any more.

Maybe you've taken easy street and don't have the hunger you once had. Or perhaps you're so confident in your abilities that you simply know that you're going to blitz the field, regardless of the fact that you don't look like you have what it takes.

If you don't appear like you can deliver the goods, this is going to affect your image, personal brand and, ultimately, sales. 

It happens with Olympians. And it happens with businesses. If you believe the naysayers, swimmer Leisel Jones is out of form. If you're a supporter, you're convinced that her physique is not going to make one iota of difference to her athletic performance. Either way, she's got one shot at it in the coming weeks. She'll make it – or she won't – and then the brouhaha will be over.

However, when you are running a business, it doesn't work that way. If you don't appear like you can deliver the goods, this is going to affect your image, personal brand and, ultimately, sales. You see, human beings are a judgemental lot. We judge books by their covers. We believe that first impressions count. Our perception is our reality. And we want our heroes … to look like heroes.

While it might be nice to think that we should simply be judged on merit - on our work - this is more fantasy than reality. If this were true then the kids with high marks at school would be at the top of the BRW Rich Lists. The people who work most effectively in the corporate world would become CEO. And the many talented women in the corporate world would be appointed to boards. But, as you've no doubt experienced by now, life's not like that.

So the reality is that you can live in a fantasy thinking that your "great ideas" and "hard work" will get you where you want to go. Or you can join the real world and embrace the fact that you also have to add a few other things to the mix. What are they?

1. What are your customers' expectations?

I know that the rebels among you will say: "I don't give a toss what people expect of me. I'm only going to be myself. People can take it or leave it." That attitude is totally fine because you may well repel the customers you don't want, and attract the ones who resonate with your approach. If this is what you want going for, go for it. But make sure that the latter are the customers you actually want.
It boils down to identifying who your ideal customer is and appealing to the very market that you want to attract. And that means meeting - or exceeding - their expectations, particularly if you want them to buy from you.

2. Who are your champions?

Who is in your corner? If you don't look like you can deliver the goods, you need people around you who can vouch for your commitment, credibility and performance. These might include customers, suppliers and experts in your industry. If you are straying too far away from the perception of what a good performer should be like, don't wait till crunch-time before you have to prove yourself. Silence the detractors - and your competition - with some powerful PR to back you up. Don't give the impression that you're on the outer, ensure you have a posse of people who will sing your praises.

3. Knock it out of the park

This is the final step. Of course, the best way to show that you still have it is to win – and leave your competitors in the dust. That way, you'll be proving to the detractors that you can do it your way. Humans are fickle beings. We'll be judgemental about someone who isn't fitting our idea of what's normal. But we'll also cheer on a winner every time, regardless of whether they are fat, thin, or have a penchant for assaulting people in nightclubs. (The same level of support for the latter, however, may not apply to the business world.)

Ultimately, it boils down to your "care factor". Some entrepreneurs pay close attention to their personal brand and public image. Others don't. Yet others care deeply about what people think of them but prefer to exude a devil-may-care persona. Whichever category you fall into, your longevity in business boils down to how your customers feel and what they think of your product, service or brand. Because they are the ones who will keep you in business. And that is something that will never change.