Top salons and techs honored at industry awards.
Athena Elliott (here with last year's winner Shari Finger) took top honors as Nail Technician of the Year just a few weeks ago. However, she is already working on new goals, including becoming a manufacturer's educator and eventually becoming education director of her salon.
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When Athena (pronounce like "la-ti-da") Elliott was a teenager, she would accompany her mother to her nail appointment and afterward sympathize with her complaints about this or that detail. “I told her to buy me a kit and I would do them, and that’s exactly what I did,” Elliott exclaims.
In the summer of 1980, between 10th and 11th grades, she got her manicurist license and formalized her career. Today, she’s a nail technician and general manager at The Upper Hand, a new Houston nail salon. Never forgetting her mother’s frustrations, Elliott considers no detail too small when it comes to 100% customer satisfaction.
“I have been a client of nail salons across the country and have worn acrylic nails for the past 22 years,” says client Sarah Wilson Smith. “Until three months ago, I had come to expect mediocrity…Athena is more critical of her work than any customer could imagine and always provides little extras that make a simple manicure or pedicure a special event.
“Additionally, Athena consistently ‘goes the extra mile,’” Wilson Smith explains. She recounts a time when one of her co-workers was preparing to leave the country for three weeks and needed her nails done. Athena squeezed her in with an early morning appointment, even though she was scheduled to work until 8 p.m., which Wilson knew because she was that late appointment! “My co-worker was delighted, and when I walked in that evening, Athena, as usual, greeted me with a smile and made me feel welcome.”
In fact, whether it’s 8 a.m. , 1:30 p.m., or 5:30 p.m., Elliott’s clients consistently rate her professionalism, service, and sanitation as outstanding. Comments on the survey each client completes after their service range from a simple “Fabulous!” to “Nails are better than they have ever been” to “I am extremely hard to please, but you guys did it!”
To earn these comments – along with clients’ unending respect and loyalty – Elliott continually hones her skills, testing all the new products and systems on the market and taking as many continuing education classes as she can. “After I take the classes, I turn around and do the training in our salon, and we give out certificates on everything from drill use to MMA knowledge,” she explains. “I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I didn’t make use of the knowledge that’s everywhere.”
For example, when Elliott noticed she was getting a lot of questions about foot disorders, she scheduled a consultation with the podiatrist in the same building as the salon and learned that 75% of the disorders they were calling a fungus weren’t that at all. “I had him come into the salon with pictures and show all of us what we needed to be aware of and look for in clients. Now we refer clients who need a doctor to him, and it’s a great relationship.”
While she acknowledges the importance of technical skills and spends much time keeping hers sharp, Elliott says she puts as much emphasis on what she calls “the lost art of customer service.” “There are enough people in this industry who have strong technical skills,” she observes. “I’m not interested in raising just the professional standard, but the salon atmosphere as well.”
Elliott's technical skills have earned her rave reviews from clients and first-place competition trophies. She offers a wide range of services, including gels, wraps, acrylics, and natural nail manicures and pedicures.
All new clients receive an in-depth consultation in which she obtains information about their medical history and their work and hobbies. Based on this information, she decides which artificial service best suits them, or recommends a natural nail care program for those interested. “My technicians don’t do anything to a customer until they ask these questions,” she says. “The most important thing is to get the customer to open up and tell you what you want to know. And it helps develop trust.”
Elliott also develops client trust with a 100% guarantee that if they ever choose to remove their artificial enhancements, their natural nails will be in the same condition as they were when they first came to her. “Each new client and I rate the condition of her nails on a scale of one to 10,” she explains. “If she doesn’t agree that they’re in that same condition upon removal, I will perform complimentary manicures until her nails are back to normal.” In exchange, the clients promises not to salon-hop for maintenance, and that if she decided to remove her nails, she would allow Elliott to do it correctly. Not one client has ever invoked the guarantee, although one doubting client has had her remove them four times to prove it!
Because sanitation has become such a big issue in Houston as in other areas, Elliott recommended to The Upper Hand’s owners that they implement a dental-grade autoclave to sterilized nail implements between services. “It’s for the client’s peace of mind. We have two clients who are disease specialists and they just laugh about it, but it reassures others that we are paying attention.” Upper Hand, along with Salon of the Year winner Hair Spa, has been featured in local news reports informing consumers about salon sanitation. Both were held up as examples of what clients should look for in a good salon.
In her entry packet, Elliott submitted page after page of letters from clients who went on at length – and in great detail – about Elliott’s technical skills and customer service. To this, Elliott can only say that she truly enjoys working with people. “I love the feeling you get when a customer tells you how wonderful you’ve made her feel.” Well aware that she has her clients to thank in part for her success, Elliott writes a thank you note to each and every one – both first-timers and those who have been with her forever – at least once a month.
Just weeks after taking top honors as Nail Technician of the Year, Elliott was already talking about her newest goals: She hopes to become a top manufacturer’s educator, attend another management seminar, and take classes for the two latest nail systems she’s introduced to The Upper Hand. She also recently went back to school to earn her nail instructor’s license because her next goal is to become education director of the salon and build and institute where she can teach others.
Elliott says that she and Nail Technician of the Year finalist Georgette Garber-Torrell became fast friends once the finalists were announced. They finally met in person during the Salon of the Year ceremony.