The Joys of Soft Selling

Competition getting hot? Turn down the volume and get a little personal. For today’s clients, superior service and directed dialogue are the fastest routes to sales success.

A 1980 list of the skills required to become a nail technician highlighted the following: patience, a friendly personality, manual dexterity, and steady hands.

A1990 computerized career-guidance program listed these required abilities: advising, counseling, persuading, selling.

But if you cringe at the word “sales” and despise the idea of “product pitches,” listen up. There’s a change in how effective salespeople sell — from the mass market, hard sell to individualized, “consultive” selling.

In fact, if you hate “pushing product” and enjoy treating your clients like individuals, you may be the best person to sell in today’s changing market, where aggressive and manipulative sales techniques are yesterday’s dinosaurs.


Client-directed dialogue and customer service are the hallmarks of today’s selling style, which means knowing your business inside and out, persistently building a foundation for a sale, and understanding your client’s needs and expectations.

Advertising people, who make it their business to know everything that goes on in the mind of today’s consumer, are building campaigns around what they’ve dubbed the “inner-directed” client. According to ad agencies, mass markets have transformed into fragmented markets, making personal, individualized selling most effective. Craftily, they’ve learned to capitalize on the fact that clients are less interested in what’s fashionable and more interested in personal needs. Note Subaru’s new campaign that soft sells cars and emphasizes individuality with the slogan: “If your neighbors care about the car you drive, you have the wrong neighbors.” The campaign was built around studies that show yesterday’s “outer-directed” client made her buying decisions to secure acceptance from others; today’s inner-directed client buys based on what benefits her.

To prepare yourself for sales success, pinpoint the needs of your clients and try to identify with those needs. In the past, this meant finding out what everyone else wanted and convincing your client she needed it to “keep up with the Joneses.”

A modern approach to identifying needs is to get your friends to complain to you. (Not too difficult.) Find out what they don’t like about their nails or their current nail services. If they don’t get their nails done professionally, ask why. They’ll provide fertile ground for learning. As soon as you get people to complain, you can solve problems — ones you can relate to your clients.

Armed with an understanding of individual wants and needs — and a few solutions — begin applying them.

Whether your client is a first- timer or a 20-year regular, sales is synonymous with service. Greet clients with a smile; it hasn’t gone out of style. After all, your doorstep is where the service edge begins.

It’s a good idea to define on paper what service means to you. At Personal Concepts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, owner Marcia Lavender has a lengthy, written service definition that all employees follow It includes such items as all clients must be greeted within 30 seconds of entering the salon, employees must keep updated file cards on substantial events in their clients’ lives, and everyone must suggest retail. Adds Lavender, “We review individual service records at weekly meetings to make certain the policy is being met.”


Creating a positive first impression is an important part of selling. Your appearance is one element; exuding confidence is the other. Knowledge of your clients, your services and products, and the marketplace in general will give you a confident aura.

The next component of the successful sale is the open-ended question — preferably a professional one. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask a client about her daughter’s wedding, but such subjects are best addressed first. That way, you can direct the conversation to “professional” topics as early and smoothly as possible.


According to Chicago sales consultant Bonnie Mincu, the relationship between clients and nail technicians is best when the client is comfortable and enjoys the visit, so a small amount of rapport-establishing chitchat is good. However, continuing with gossip is non-productive.

Says Mincu, “Open-ended questions can be of a personal nature, but the goal is to gather information that will help you make a sale. Questions about a client’s job and lifestyle are important in determining her needs. If you find out nothing personal about the client, it’s hard to presume what she might like. Use open-ended questions to get her to open up to you, but avoid conversational tangents that lead nowhere.”

Asking open-ended questions is sometimes referred to as “the probing sequence.” Examples are. “Does your job require a great deal of public contact?” and “Do you like your nails long or do you have a hobby that requires short nails?’

If your client makes product presentations, great-looking nails are important to her; if she plays guitar, longer lengths make no sense.

Also ask clients what they don’t like about their nails. Even if they’re regulars, continue to ask if they’re having any nail problems.

Open-ended questions help you discover client’s wants and needs; closed questions move you closer to a sale. If your client says what she dislikes most is that her polish chips easily, ask her a closed question that she’ll answer with a yes. For example, “Would you be happier with your manicure if your polish didn’t chip?” Getting clients to say yes is an important part of reaching a sales agreement. It opens the door to your solution.

If your client says she’d be happy if her polish didn’t chip, say, “Great. We have a new top coat sealer that’s incredible.” Move on to describing the product in terms of its benefit to her.


The open and shut case is rare. When selling a service, the clients needs usually aren’t as simple as wanting to avoid chipped polish. Say that your probing questions reveal that what the client dislikes most are her weak nails. Rephrase her need to be certain you’re on the same wavelength. While ibis is sometimes referred to as the reiteration stage, you aren’t really repeating back, but rephrasing, so that if there’s a fine line difference between what she said and what you heard, it’ll become apparent.

Using our weak nails example, possible paraphrases are, “Are your weak nails what you dislike most?” or “Would you like to strengthen your nails?”

Since there are many solutions to weak nails, from natural nail strengtheners to wraps, rephrasing the client’s need will begin to narrow the options. She might reply, “Well, they are always breaking, no matter what I do.” Now you have to find out why. Are they filed wrong? Does she use a strengthening polish but do heavy gardening every weekend? Would she like to make them stronger but keep them short? Which preferences limit the solutions? Each open- ended question should narrow the choices.

There’s no right or wrong in deciding whether to ask a question that’ll elicit a yes or deciding to rephrase a need. In general, complex needs require rephrasing, and it’s always good to get a client to say yes at least once about something.

YES, BUT ...

Let’s say that your probing questions and paraphrasing have brought you to the conclusion that nail wraps are best for your client. Present wraps as your solution, emphasizing what’s called the WIIFM factor—What’s In It For Me? What’s in if for the client isn’t that you can put a silk wrap on her nails (a feature), it’s that wraps will  strengthen her nails, keeping them at the same length she likes (a benefit). The unspoken question to every client is “What’s the benefit to me?”

Once she knows, you can move to close the sale—or you might face the famous and much-dreaded objection. Says Mincu, “Objections are a positive sign. The mean your client is communication her feelings to you, giving you the opportunity to paraphrase the objection and overcome it.”

The most common objection nail technicians encounter involved wraps, tips, and sculptured nails. The specifics: upkeep, concern about fungus, not cost.

Possible objection rephrasing are: “Would you like a strengthening service that doesn’t require upkeep?” or “If you could come into the salon later, would you be able to come once every two weeks?” The fungus issue must be addressed directly. Products do not cause fungus or infections; improper application and poor maintenance do. Educate your client thoroughly to determine if this is her real objection.

Answering definite objections generally follows a “feel, felt, found” pattern For example, “I understand how you feel about fungus, a lot of clients I’ve seen have felt that way, but since fungus is very rare and only incorrect application or poor upkeep can cause nail infections, my clients have found they never have a problem with it. And once they’ve had the nails for a week, they really love them.”

Here, nail technicians have a luxury many other professionals do not. You can offer to do a single nail on a trial basis. This gives you the opportunity to book a follow-up appointment on the spot, call your client a week later to see how she likes the nail, or open her next appointment with the question “How did you like the nail tip?”

Sales pros claim that price objections often aren’t the client’s real objection. If you know your market, your client, and what other salons charge, it’ll help you determine if this is the case. Often, it’s value for dollars that the client is really thinking about. Her confidence in you and her belief that the service will fulfill her needs can overcome dollar value objections.


Once objections have been addressed, you’re ready to close. There are two major types of closes: the assumptive close and the alternative, or contained-choice, close. The assumptive close is best when you know your client is excited by the service and wants it. Examples: “Should we go ahead and do the tips today?” or “Do you want natural-finished tips or would you like to pick out a polish?” Essentially, you’re asking for the sale.

When you aren’t certain the client wants the service, give her alternatives. “Would you like to try the tips or should we wrap your nails and see if that helps them grow?” “For the party, tips would look beautiful but since you want something special just for tonight, you might want to look at our air- brushed designs. Which do think you’d prefer?”

If your client hasn’t decided, go back to open-ended questioning to find out why.

The most important thing to remember when you’ve answered an objection—and particularly when you’re closing the sale — is how to use silence. Says Mincu, “Once you’ve closed, shut up. If your client stalls, saying she wants to think about it, it’s often because the presentation lacked energy. Showing excitement about the service or product and building your client’s trust eventually overcomes the stall.”



First-time clients are the most difficult, because you know the least about them. Spend extra time asking probing questions, and by the third appointment, you’ll know better what service or product meets their needs. You know the most about regular clients, so they’re the easiest to service. That’s right — service, not sell, because it’s only excellent service that brings clients back.

Says J. Yee of Perfect Ten in Brooklyn, N.Y., “I didn’t want my regular clients to feel like I was always trying to sell them something so I just gave them what they asked for. Then I ran into one of my manicure clients in a store and she had tips. She was a little embarrassed and said she just wanted to try something new. I learn fast. I told her that they looked great and that if she liked them, I knew how to make them last even longer. Then I mentioned all the clients I have who like tips with wraps even better. I explained how I did them and told her that if she was interested, I’d give her a cuticle treatment, too, and that I knew she’d just love it. About two weeks later she rebooked.”

So, if your clients are your friends, try a little tenderness. Be a friend to them by understanding and meeting all their nail needs. It just so happens that the great service you give translates into sales and profits for you.



Here are commonly used turn-offs heard coast-to-coast. See if you can find an alternative that’s a sales turn-on.

  1. Would you be interested in... (Don’t lead with a blind subject. Find out what your client likes first.)
  2. To be honest with you... (Sounds like you’ve been lying up to this point.)
  3. You won’t believe this but (she probably won’t.)
  4. Could you do me a favour and try... (Why should she?)
  5. What can I say to get you to try...(Nothing.)
  6. I’ll try... (Sounds like you aren’t reliable.)
  7. Everyone is getting...(Then I sure don’t want it.)

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