Bobbi Kulczycki still cringes when she thinks of her first months as a nail technician. Not so much at the two-hour sets or the occasional re-do — she had expected those — but at the remembered feelings of fear and inadequacy: Was she saying and doing the right things? Was she meeting the customer’s expectations? What if the client wanted a service she hadn’t perfected?
Now national nail director for approximately 150 Mario Tricoci and Elizabeth Arden Salons, Kulczycki makes sure none of her staff experiences the same uncertainties. Every quarter, a new class of nail techs begins a three-month training program. Each Monday, trainees attend a hands-on training class with three instructors. Over the rest of the week, trainees spend 20 or more hours assisting in the nail department — serving beverages, sanitizing equipment, and removing polish — and practicing on models the techniques they learned that Monday.
“Even those who have experience don’t know the clients or their expectations,” Kulczycki says. Many of them could probably start servicing clients themselves much earlier, but she keeps her sights set on the long-term goal: “We want clients to return, this is what makes you and the salon successful.”
Top-flight salons and spas are known for the depth and breadth of their nail tech training programs, which some deem a luxury only “the big guys” can afford. But their nail department managers — and their bottom lines — beg to differ.
“We have 68 nail techs across seven locations, and they did $3.5 million in services last year,” says Linda Green, education director at Seattle-based Gene Juarez Salons and Spas. She deems it no coincidence that the department’s growth came in tandem with an increasing emphasis on new-hire training and continuing education.
Nor do you have to have 10 or more techs to be able to justify—or afford— a training program. Nail department directors, managers, and trainers tell what it takes to turn out top gun techs even on a tight budget.
Practice the Highest Form of Flattery
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the training programs of top salons and day spas. At Charles Penzone Grand Salons, each department head oversees each new tech’s training, but the hands-on training comes from experts in each area. New-hires enjoy a flexible training schedule that includes the option to come in for a few hours one or two evenings a week.
Trainees spend up to two weeks in the booking room, learning the computer system and customer scripts. Next, they spend time in each department to acclimate themselves with the atmosphere and clientele. In the retail department, they gain product knowledge and a comfort level with making product recommendations. Once they reach the nail department, they first familiarize themselves with the equipment and learn the spa’s sanitation procedures. When they finally start learning the services, spa manager Patty Roberts says the trainer puts as much emphasis on consultative skills as on the technical steps.
“If someone comes in for a basic manicure, the tech has to know if she would benefit from one of our other manicures — we have 12 manicures and 12 pedicures — and be able to explain why to the client,” Roberts says.
To graduate from Grand Salons’ training program, nail techs have to get past Roberts first by performing a French manicure, a toenail polish change, and applying red polish to her nails — which she feels are the three hardest steps to maneuver.
At Gene Juarez, new-hires get a similar start in their four-week training program. “We take them through the fundamentals, which familiarizes them with our philosophy, our code, our ethics, our mantra,” explains Green. “We also teach them our history so they get a true understanding of our belief system. It’s not just about teaching services, it’s about getting into their heads and teaching them how special our guests are.”
The four-week training program takes place at the Gene Juarez Advanced Academy, so new techs quickly go hands-on with clients who know what to expect. But first, they experience it from a different perspective. “They see each service done by the instructor, then they have it done on themselves so they know what it feels like,” Green says. “They also do services on each other in the beginning.”
Touch, feel, and see, says Green, emphasizing the choreographed movements and personal touches that separate the great nail services from the good. As they learn the procedures, new techs also learn how to consult with and educate clients. After two weeks, nail techs go hands-on with clients with the support of a trainer who offers pointers to the tech and confirms the client’s satisfaction before she leaves.
Focus on the Essential Elements
It’s great to emulate the big guys, but do it on a scale that makes sense for your salon, staff, and clientele. The first step to developing a training program is to identify your salon’s and staff’s needs. Examine your operations objectively, consulting staff and long-time clients for their opinions. Do all staff members meet your minimum service standards? Does each follow your policies and procedures for customer service, salon cleanliness, and sanitation? Do they perform client consultations and execute techniques consistently? Do they all have solid product knowledge and the ability to educate consistently on features and benefits? Do they all know to pre-book appointments and suggest add-on services?
Take baby steps by starting with your staff’s most immediate needs, with the plan to evolve the training program. For example, if your current staff’s technical procedures are adequate but customer service is substandard or inconsistent, start training with the soft skills. Alternatively, if you find that service steps, times, and results vary by staff member, set your own standard and train everyone to meet it.
“Lead by example,” advises Jae Henle, a nail technician and trainer for Zanos’ Lyle, Ill., location. “For instance, every client is supposed to get a neck and shoulder massage, so new techs need to see that everyone — including me — does one with every client. They also need to see that I help clean and that I will jump in and help someone who’s running behind.”
Next, put your policies and procedures in writing — including the technical steps to all of your services. Provide each new tech with a manual to study and reference while she practices on other staff members and models. (Some ask new-hires to leave the manual in the salon.)
Keep the manual simple at first, starting with the bare bones and fleshing it out over time. “We’ve revised our procedures many times, so we have to keep the instructions up-to-date,” Henle says. It’s extra work, but clients know they will receive the same service from any technician at any Zanos salon.
However long you allot for training — and whether you schedule it in one lump or over a period of weeks as part of an assistant program — Kulczycki advises setting timely goals for staff members to reach for at each stage.
Experience Makes the Best Teacher
At Zanos, techs start straight out of school with a 40-hour week of observing and assisting coupled with one-on-one training. “We’ll have them fill pedicure tubs and sanitize them between clients, help other techs, fold towels, give neck and shoulder massages to clients, pre-schedule appointments, and remove polish,” Henle explains. “It gives them a feel for the salon and our procedures.”
An assistant program like Zanos’is ideal for salons that need trainees to contribute to the salon’s bottom line in some way, but Henle cau tions against using assistants as cheap labor.
“Cleaning retail shelves is grunt work, but it’s a good way for a trainee to get to know your product lines,” she says. “Just make sure they’re not cleaning shelves for 10 hours a week. Have them clean shelves and familiarize themselves with the product lines one day, then maybe next time have them work on sanitizing workstations, equipment, and implements. Another time, they can fold towels and observe services.”
Schedules are good, but allow for individual differences. Some trainees may learn very quickly and benefit from an accelerated training schedule, while others may require more time to master some skills.
If a tech progresses well with her training but has problems with — or just feels uncertain about — a particular service, Rosa Romano, nail department manager at Marlene Weber Day Spa in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., advises letting her proceed with other services.
“Work her into the [problem] service gradually,” she says. “Have another staff member book the service with her, and just take her out of the computer for that service until she’s more comfortable with it. Don’t make new techs feel bad about things.”
Leverage Existing Resources
Large salons often have designated trainers, or they divide the task among senior technicians. In a smaller salon, the task may fell to you, but the managers we interviewed recommend leveraging all available resources.
For example, Zanos incorporates manufacturers’ videos into the training, and assistants attend in-salon education with the department. “I have them take videos home, and I instruct them to watch them five times in one week,” Henle adds. Established technicians also are expected to offer pointers to new staff members, observing and assisting with their clients.
At Grand Salon, new techs attend every class on the salon’s product line offered by its distributor. Larger salons — which make larger purchases — may have more clout in this area, but Kulczycki insists that most salon owners can negotiate with distributors for free or reduced-price classes on product knowledge, marketing skills, and technical instruction. Kulczycki also suggests sending your staff members who are strong in a particular service to advanced classes on those services. They not only can share what they learned, but you’ll be grooming them for a trainer slot.
In-salon experts on different services can greatly ease the training burden, says Romano. “If you have someone who does great acrylic nails, let them work with the trainee,” she advises. “I’m responsible for the training, but I want new techs to sit with everyone because there may be someone who adds a little something and makes them better.”
Shared training also helps break the ice and foster a team environment, Romano adds. It makes it easier for new techs to ask for help and more likely the old hands will offer it.
You also may be able to free up some of your own time by juggling your appointments. If Wednesday mornings tend to be slow, for example, see if you can shift appointments to other slots during the week and slate that time period for one-on-one training.
As training progresses, run a special, “this person only” promotion on services she’s mastered. She’ll gain practice and confidence, and you or another experienced tech will still be available to provide pointers and answer questions.
If you don’t have the internal resources to do these things and your distributor doesn’t offer the classes or resources you need, contact your manufacturers directly. Ask about educators in your area, as well as any other resources they can offer — training videos, step-by-step instruction sheets, troubleshooting guides, and more.
Next, look to your community. Seek out the most talented techs in your region (but outside of your salon’s realistic competitive reach) and ask them to teach some classes in your salon.
Network with salon owners you meet at trade shows and through industry associations (as well as with contacts you get from distributors and manufacturers) and ask about their training programs. What works best — and what mistakes have they made that you can learn from?
In today’s competitive marketplace, say Green and Kulczycki, technician training programs can make or break a salon’s repeat clientele. “You have to have standardization because clients have to know what they can expect,” declares Green. “If you want certain results and you know what your guests expect, then you need to train your staff on everything you want them to emulate. Otherwise, they’ll make up the standards themselves.”
“If I Were to Design a Training Program….
We asked nail department directors managers and trainers what their first steps would be if they were hired to design a training program for a salon with three to eight nail techs. Here’s what they would do if they were you.
Jae Henle, Zanos. “I would start with the basic manicure and pedicure and work on that. There are lots of upgrades you can and Secondly, distributors hold so many classes that I would call them for a schedule and sing people up to go. If I had five techs, I would investigate having the educator come to our salon.
Linda Green, Gene Juarez: “When we were much smaller, I trained new techs one day a week. We would teach one service then put the person on the books for that service. The following week, we taught another service and put them on the books for it.”
If you can’t afford the time for training, pay your highest-skilled employee an hourly rate to mark herself off the books for training. Green advises If you have more than one new tech rotate them on services so that one is learning a manicure while the other perfects a pedicure, for example. This allows you to balance your clientele’s demand with your technician supply.
Rosa Romano, Mariene Weber Day Spa: “Figure out the immediate challenges. For example, if you’re not seeing the same clients come back, focus on why. Then create a manual and outline step-by-step how you want things run. Hit every subject—every type of client, every product, and all the services. Work your way through the salon, from how to greet a client, to how to do a manicure, to how to handie and angry client.”
Bobbi Kulczyck, Mario Tricoci: “Review your services and teach them the basics. First check that you have the right steps for each service, and then figure out the easiest way to explain those steps. One you’ve trained everyone and they’ve practiced, check that they’re doing the right steps in a consistent manner.”
Validate your training program by evaluating service bookings. Of techs aren’t booking say, aromatherapy manicures, Kulczcki suggests they may not fully understand the service or its benefits.