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15 Basics You Need to Know Before Starting Your Salon Career

July 10, 2011 | 10:15 AM

A top-notch education is essential, but there’s so much more to launching your beauty career than color and cutting. We asked industry educators, seasoned beauty pros and a few school leaders with real-world experience to speak up about other qualities that can nurture a fledgling salon professional and help them make a name for themselves. None of these tips are a secret, but they’re overlooked or ignored by so many students that making an effort to master these key strategies will put you head-and-shoulders above the rest. What are you waiting for? Start reading!

1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
There’s no two ways about it—the beauty industry is about taking risks, being confident in your work and putting yourself out there. Dan Ricci, owner of Ricci’s Salon Spa & Academy in Newtown, Connecticut, prepares his students by putting them in the spotlight right off the bat. “Our students have to cut hair in front of their classmates,” he says, which acclimates them to performing for an audience. The school also holds four photo sessions a year where students have to perform in front of him, as well as a whole set crew and several models. Ricci doesn’t take nerves as an excuse: “Whatever makes you uncomfortable is what you should do at least three times, until you are comfortable.” When you’ve performed in front of dozens of your peers and veteran stylists, cutting hair for new clients will be a breeze!

2. Recommend like an expert.
Retailing is part of the service, agree our experts, and the right recommendation only solidifies your reputation as a beauty authority in your clients’ eyes. “It’s not about being pushy; it’s taking the time to educate your client on what you are putting on their hair, why, and how to use it,” declares Jen Dauble, general manager of Stella Nova, which has several salon and spa locations in the Charleston, South Carolina area. Recommending gets easier when you look at it as suggesting rather than selling, advises Tracee Barber, salon and retail specialist at Marinello Schools of Beauty in the Western U.S. “The main reason to retail is to help your client achieve the same results at home, and that will create one happy customer,” adds Barber. “Once you see retail as a tool to improve the quality of service they receive when they visit you, nothing can stop you.”

3. Develop a retailing strategy.
The first rule of retailing is to set reasonable and attainable goals, says Barber. “When you are first beginning, it’s important that your goals match your comfort level of retailing. As your level of comfort rises, that’s when you can begin to push yourself to increase your sales.” Barber suggests starting easy by recommending a styling product you love that works for multiple hair types: “The more you believe in the product you are recommending, the better explanations and reasons to use this product you will be able to provide.” Set an initial goal of having each client purchase at least one product. As you improve your retailing skills, increase your goal to have each client purchase at least two of the three products you recommend. Barber’s tips to close the sale: “Avoid using these words: ‘purchase,’ ‘buy,’ ‘sell,’ ‘retail.’ Use phrases like ‘Which of these products will you be taking home today?’ and ‘Are there any other products that you would like to include from your visit for today?’”

4. Look the part.
It’s no secret that stylists must set a great example for their clients. One motto at Stella Nova is: “We are in the beauty business and your appearance should reflect that. Make sure your hair, make-up and wardrobe are polished and professional everyday!” At Ginger Bay Salon and Spa Group in Kirkwood, Missouri, marketing director Katie Beck says even tight budgets aren’t an excuse for looking less than your best. If your finances prevent a wardrobe upgrade, Beck recommends new stylists talk to their salon mentors about different alternatives for a fresh look. And if you’re just not sure how to present yourself, Ricci recommends this fail-safe option: wear all black, be well groomed, and make sure your make-up is done.

5. Be humble.
Your salon clients make your chosen career possible. “The guest always has a choice to go somewhere else, so remember to thank each and every guest for coming to see you, and extend an invitation to come back,” says Dauble of Stella Nova. And gratitude goes double for the salon staff. These are people who want to see you succeed, so be sure to recognize all they’ve taught you to get your career of the ground, and the doors that have opened for you. And keep letting them teach you! Adds Dauble, “You don’t know it all and each and every day you have the opportunity to learn something new.”

6. Find a mentor.
“It’s key for new stylists to have a coach spend quality time with them in their first six months,” says Beck of Ginger Bay. Maintaining regular coaching sessions will help you instill good habits at the start and make a professional attitude second nature. If possible, find a salon mentor before you leave school. At Ricci’s Salon Spa and Academy, students shadow working stylists in the salon for 40 hours a week. The students assist, learn customer service skills, develop their confidence and even get the opportunity to show off their skills. “Not only do they get real-world experience,” says Ricci, “but 80 percent of students come away with a job offer.”

7. Sell yourself.
“Never, ever stop promoting yourself!” says Tracy Berryhill, director of education at Ihloff Salon and Day Spa, which has three locations in Oklahoma and Kansas. “Use every opportunity to let people know you’re a talented stylist and have great ideas for their hair.” You can’t expect the salon to give you clients, adds Dauble of Stella Nova: “Make sure you have business cards and use them.” One of the easiest ways to keep clients coming back is to ask them to pre-book appointments with you. Dan Ricci has shown his students how prebooking gets a stylist 33 percent more dollars, because clients will typically be back in your chair sooner instead of waiting 10 to 12 weeks before calling for their next appointment.

8. Turn the tables on the interview.
Always be selective about choosing where to work, says Berryhill. “Do your research on prospective salons to determine if the culture and policies are the right fit for you.” Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions when meeting with your prospective employer. Ricci, who has interviewed many stylists in his years of operating a salon, says, “I’m impressed when students come prepared, ask me questions and interview me.” What should you ask? Inquire about commission structures, benefits and ongoing education. Find out how long it took the last assistant to get on the floor. Don’t worry about overstepping your bounds. “Asking questions shows confidence,” says Ricci.

9. Visualize your future.
Do you want to concentrate on color? Curly hair? Short cuts? Ricci’s salon is based around color, and requires his stylists to be certified in color. Although you don’t always have to specialize, it’s important for you to know if your path is one that will be supported by your salon. Beck of Ginger Bay recommends using the job hunt as a way to research salons and their specialties, as well as how they promote new talent. For example, Ginger Bay’s website has a new talent section where up-and-comers post their own bios and talk about the areas in which they specialize.

10. Be computer savvy.
Whether it’s Facebook or MySpace, getting connected will open up a whole new world for your career. Not only can you market yourself better with an online profile, but you can send e-mail referrals, keep up with industry news and stay abreast of what other salons are doing. So much is done online these days, says Beck, that stylists without computer skills may be left behind.

11. Go the extra mile.
From the moment you meet your client, it should be all about customer service. Be attentive, says Dauble of Stella Nova. “Lead your guests to the chair, offer to hang up their jacket or purse. Offer them a beverage and repeatedly check in with them during the service; how’s the water temperature, are you comfortable?” It’s also important, as in any profession, to always leave your personal challenges at the door, adds Berryhill of Ihloff. “Your guest comes first when she is sitting in your chair, and you will often, if not always, find that making someone’s day by giving her a great new color or hair cut makes your own day better, no matter how difficult it began!” And don’t forget the small touches, like a firm handshake when meeting new guests or a value-added service like a scalp massage, says Beck, which is something the salon is constantly evaluating in their new stylists.

12. Look, learn, listen.
Nothing is more important than communication, says Andrina Monte, director of education at Brio Academy of Cosmetology, which has several locations throughout Connecticut. “That’s the core of building a rapport with clients and ultimately growing your clientele. Listening is the core of a successful consultation, which should come before each and every service.” And that applies to the rest of your time in the salon as well. “Make the most of it,” says Dauble. “Be proactive and be present. Ask questions and observe senior staff in the salon.”

13. Make the front desk your ally.
The front desk can be your best friend. At Brio Academy, students undergo business development training that teaches them how to retail, how to add-on sales and how to give a “wow” experience. According to Monte, front desk coordinators can help stylists with all these things—by helping close the sale, doing savvy scheduling for add-on services, and providing first-rate service that will keep your clients coming back. Front desk staff can also suggest new stylists to walk-in clients to help build books. Their systems will also track your requests, referrals, and completed services. With their power and a treasure trove of information at their fingertips, consider the front desk a huge asset in helping build your career!

14. Stay hungry.
Learning isn’t over once you start working. Beck of Ginger Bay says students should always opt for a salon that offers internal training, which builds upon your school program and ultimately provides you with more career options. The best part? Most salon education is free! A graduate or assistant training program can be golden because it will buy you a little extra time to refine your skills before you get your own clients, says Berryhill of Ihloff. “This will help you be 100-percent confident and comfortable behind the chair.”

15. Keep it clean.
“Respect where you work,” concludes Dauble of Stella Nova. “Your station and salon are a reflection of you! No one likes to eat in a dirty restaurant, why would they want their hair done in a dirty salon?” The way you look and your sanitation all communicates how you perceive yourself and those around you, agrees Monte of Brio Academy. As a professional on top of your career, don’t you want to give the most beautiful impression you can?

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