Color Clients, Color Habits

Haircolor services are some of a salon’s most lucrative opportunities, but also among the most technologically complex items on the menu. To achieve beautiful color results, your team’s expertise is critical in guiding your clients’ color decisions. MODERN SALON Media’s new research sheds light on where colorists are succeeding in understanding and communicating with color clients as well as identifying areas of challenge that may surprise you.

MODERN SALON Media recently conducted exclusive, broad-ranging surveys of both colorists and consumers to help salon professionals understand what clients want, design the most effective ways to “talk color” to them and build the color ticket. The following overview, with input from some top color salon owners and colorists, is a companion piece to the expanded PROCESS Haircolor Research 2015 Special Report in the bonus guide delivered with the October issue of SALON TODAY. It is also available online at, along with additional content and updates on the critical color market.

“Listening is the number-one skill required to give the ultimate client consultation,” says celebrity hairdresser Marco Pelusi, owner of Marco Pelusi Hair Studio in West Hollywood. “This is not your moment to shine or sell; it’s all about your client.”

MODERN’s research indicates that hairdressers understand the value of a full color consultation, which Pelusi believes should take 15 to 20 minutes. More than nine out of 10 colorists we polled reported discussing hair color options with the client “always” or “most of the time.” Our client poll backs up the stylists’ claim: 94% of surveyed salon clients reported that their colorist asks sufficient questions about the kind of color they want.

“It’s so important to ask the right questions in the consultation to get the full history of the client’s hair,” says Cassandra McGlaughlin, salon director at Platinum Salon in Tampa, Florida, where she and stylist Dominique Limone specialize in color correction due to either botched home haircolor jobs or a previous stylist’s work. “Then we set up expectations based on a philosophy of ‘under promise and over deliver.’ There’s so much you can’t predict when you do color correction. You’re working on very uneven color canvases.”

By the consultation’s conclusion, stylists and clients each believe they’ve had the final say about the color decision, according to our research. While 75% of colorists named themselves and 56% named clients among the top three people or factors that influence the client’s color decision, our consumer poll reversed the order, with 82% naming themselves and 61% naming the professional. This could be a communication gap, or perhaps it reflects colorists’ brilliance in being able to steer their clients toward a direction while making them feel that they’re in charge of the decision. In estimating what else influences the look clients seek, colorists ranked “celebrity styles, other clients in the salon and advertising” all higher than those rankings in the consumer poll, which gave more credit to parents and family. In fact, when asked why they color their hair at all, only 5% of consumers indicated that they were inspired by a celebrity look.

Our stylist respondents may have naturally drawn the conclusion that celebrities have a lot of influence because clients are always bringing in photos of celebs’ hair looks. Colorists encourage this.

“A picture is worth not just 1,000 words, but 1 million words,” says Candy Shaw, owner of Jamison Shaw Hairdressers and Jamison Shaw Academy in Atlanta. “I keep a pinboard on my iPod with categories of blondes, reds and brunettes to show to clients, but today’s clients usually come prepared with their own pinboards of looks they admire. Still, they may show me a picture of brown hair and tell me that it’s red. We all see color differently; blue eyes see color more opaque, while brown eyes see more saturation.”

Pelusi adds that a colorist can even base the formula on a good photo. “That photo also reveals whether the client has realistic expectations,” he adds. “You may have to explain the limitations of what the client’s hair can do, but that’s how you train clients to bring in realistic photos.”

To pinpoint a client’s color taste, many surveyed colorists indicated that they rely on swatch books, with 43% saying they reference swatch books multiple times each day and 75% saying that they reference them at least once a week. Younger colorists—those under age 35—were more likely than their more experienced peers to grab swatches.

“The biggest question is whether a look will work with that client’s skin tone and eye shade,” Pelusi says. “That’s when you can bring out the swatches. Especially with reds, swatches help you to conduct a good consultation.”
Use language that aids you in figuring out the needs behind what the client says, advises Deb Gavin, international color educator and owner of Fresh Hair Studio in Southampton, Pennsylvania. “Clients use terms like ‘semipermanent’ and ‘demipermanent’ without knowing what they mean when applied to the canvas of their hair,” says Gavin, who suggests speaking in less familiar terms such as “lift color” or “non-lift color” to shift the control from the client to the colorist.

“Suggesting ‘highlights’ to a red client may scare her, but she’ll be open to ‘detail with lighter shading,’” Gavin elaborates. “I never use the word ‘lowlight,’ because the client will picture something dark. But when she asks for ‘lighter,’ I know that what she really seeks is contrast. You want to be able to steer the journey.”

Knowing their underlying motivation for coloring is key to delivering what your clients want. Our surveyed consumers’ top reasons for coloring their hair were, in order:
• covering gray
• wanting to feel attractive
• needing a change or change of color
When asked to rank what mattered most in color results (after receiving the actual color service), the “overall health of my hair” was the most important factor for clients, followed by “beautiful color” and “long-lasting color.” Colorists were only slightly off target on this, when asked what their clients valued most, with most respondents gauging that “maintaining color” was most important to their color clients, followed by health of the hair, performance and trends.

More than half (56%) of consumers polled said the seasons impact the timing of coloring their hair, with summer playing the largest role. Colorists recognize the importance of change to clients, with 64% indicating that the start of a new season impacts their business.

Gavin notes that clients switch stylists when they’re not being offered change. “I try to do a color update every two or three visits,” she says. “I might change placement, add detail or shadow depth. Even though my bread-and-butter clientele get gray coverage, I always want to give them an update or they’ll get bored. These are my best clients—they have money, they have a network of friends for referrals and they still get excited about their look.”

Although the conventional wisdom is that a client’s upcoming special occasion triggers a visit to her colorist, only 30% of our surveyed salon clients regarded special events as influencing the timing of a color appointment. Nearly 60% said they seek color when their hair needs a touch-up, 46% when their hair needs an update and 40% when their budget permits. Their schedule drove the decision for 35% of respondents.

In addition to the easy availability of salons, there’s no shortage of home haircolor companies vying for color dollars. With so many options, how do clients choose where to get their hair colored?

Our consumer survey reveals that the salon professional—the stylist or colorist—is the number-one driver sending clients to a salon, with price ranking second and reputation/quality rounding out the top three factors. When it comes to selecting a specific colorist, however, price falls to fourth place behind the colorist’s competence, the client/colorist relationship and the client’s history with the colorist. In fact, when asked the direct question of whether they were loyal to one stylist, 91% of salon clients responded “yes.” Our respondents had been with their colorist an average of nearly seven years, and 83% said they would be likely or very likely to follow their stylist to a new location.

Highlighting continues to be the star of the color story, emerging in our research not only as clients’ most frequently received salon color service but also as colorists’ most profitable—and most enjoyable—color service. Single process color and retouch followed as second and third, respectively, on clients’ most-frequent list, while those two services were nearly tied for second in profitability for colorists. However, colorists placed balayage as the runner-up in enjoyment. Nearly a third of stylists found a fashion color service enjoyable.

More than a quarter (27%) of surveyed colorists said they “often” or “all the time” have clients come in for a color correction because of home haircolor mistakes, with another 44% reporting that this happens “sometimes.” With this much demand, it’s alarming that color correction is by far the aspect of color education our polled stylists said presents the greatest struggle.

Their color company is the color education resource that surveyed stylists trust most, followed by private advanced color programs, trade shows/continuing education and websites.

Accessing education, however, is a challenge for many. In fact, 28% say their salon neither provides nor arranges for color education. Of salons that do provide this training, most hold it every few months or a little less often, with 58% offering color education at least a few times a year. In reporting their personal out-of-pocket spends on color education, 55% of responding colorists estimated that they spend less than $250 annually. This figure held true whether the respondent was a renter or worked on commission
for a salon.

Nearly half of stylists working in a salon told us that the top colorists are compensated in the same manner as everyone else. However, respondents also indicated that some top colorists benefit from higher pricing, higher commission and paid education.

Colorists’ prices in general have been trending upward, according to our research; 73% of respondents have raised their prices within the past two years. Perhaps that recent hike is why only 22% felt that raising rates ranked among their greatest opportunities for future growth, listing it far behind “getting clients in more often” and “building the ticket with add-ons and special services.”

“At our salon, we do nearly exclusively balayage, which is much faster than foils,” Shaw says. “If we book an hour for a color service and it takes only 20 minutes to paint the hair, there’s lots of time for upsells to other services.”

Limone and McGlaughlin build the extras into their color correction services. “Clients can’t opt out of the toner or the deep-conditioner,” McGlaughlin explains. “We don’t negotiate; we give them a price for what we think they need, and we think they all need a deep-conditioning service. After a lightening service, we use an additive treatment before the shampoo. Then we do the toning service and might finish with a product that has protein and moisture to make the hair smooth.”

Eliminating any of those steps for a price-sensitive client will compromise the hair, Limone explains. “That would be doing half the service, and we never do that,” she says. “To help with the cost, we suggest breaking up the correction over a couple of visits before achieving the end result.”

Pelusi agrees that setting up a six-month plan to achieve a desired color look can work for clients. “When you let clients know what it will take to get the color they want, the subject of price comes up organically,” he says.

“You don’t want them to be surprised! Maybe they’ll choose to focus on color at that appointment and return for a cut.”

With a new client, Shaw establishes trust before she mentions price. “There are times I’m still applying the base color without knowing what we’ll be doing,” she explains. “Then I tell the client that if we go ahead today and do the balayage and the toner, she’ll have what she really wants. She’s more likely to agree at that point, when she’s beginning to trust me.”

Another add-on, preparatory service Shaw and many colorists have been introducing to clients in increasing numbers over the past year is “bonding,” a rapidly growing category of color additives designed to protect the integrity of the hair. The category has been called a “game changer” by colorists throughout the world. It was formulated and pioneered as a stand-alone brand, Olaplex.

Awareness among colorists and even clients is off the charts. As happens typically with any successful new innovation in professional beauty, other brands are entering the space. 

Some colorists offer bonding as an option for a fee, while others fold it into their service price. There’s also a retail component.

Shaw put a video online to demonstrate bonding’s beautiful results. “Bonding can help the stylist’s bottom line,” she says. “This is a revolutionary new tool that hairdressers have never had in our arsenal.”

Confirming the category’s meteoric rise, 64% of our surveyed colorists said they used treatments formulated to crosslink broken bonds and eliminate breakage due to chemical services, with nearly a third of those using the treatment with a majority of color services. Of the respondents who were not using this type of treatment, exactly half indicated that they were not familiar with these types of products.

Sally Hershberger Salon stylist Aura Friedman, known professionally as just Aura, is one of the converts who now adds bonding products regularly to color formulas. “I do extreme color transformations, so I was happy to hear that a product could re-bond the hair,” Aura says. “Before bonding products, I still could transform a virgin level 5 to a platinum in one visit, but adding it leaves the hair in much better condition. I was raising my prices around the same time I began bonding, so my new price ranges absorb the additional service, and I use it with every client.”

The way that bonding-related retail flies off Friedman’s shelves demonstrates how readily salon clients will purchase professional products they value. On average, our surveyed colorists estimated that 38% of their clients purchase retail products specific to color care. While 64% of surveyed clients reported buying at-home colorcare products at least sometimes, beauty retailers edged out hair salons as the primary source for those purchases. The good news? Two-thirds of color clients are in the habit of purchasing colorcare products. That leaves one-third to grow overall market share—to convince to try for the first time—and another third to focus on to improve your salon share.

Haircolor remains a critical revenue and profit driver for salons, and owners and colorists alike must collaborate and analyze haircolor “results” that go beyond technical skills and artistry in order to effectively grow business for the future. Access the special supplement online at in early October to inform your dialogue and brainstorming, and to make 2016 your most colorful year! 

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