Unfortunately, we can’t always expect clients to exhibit what we consider to be common courtesy. If we want them to play by our rules, we have to clarify our expectations in the form of policies that prohibit and punish negative client behaviors. While it can be easy to write policies, it can be tough to enforce them. Effective, straightforward communication is critical when difficult clients challenge you.

Of course, there’s a difference between a client’s valid complaint and her effort to escape consequences for policy violations. Difficult clients are motivated by self-interest, so they will attempt to do whatever they can to subvert your policies and diminish your authority. Never forget that you are the defender of your business because you alone have the salon’s best interests at heart.

The following tips will teach you how to confidently assert yourself without compromising courtesy or diminishing your professionalism:

> Don’t get emotional. Stay level and neutral. When you get emotional, you give clients the opportunity to get emotional also.

> Keep your tone level. Most of our communication is non-verbal. Be very conscious of the volume you’re speaking at and the tone you’re using. You want to be authoritative, not apologetic or rude.

> Maintain eye contact. Just as eye contact communicates to a person that you’re listening, it can also be used to command their attention and respect. Failing to maintain eye contact will diminish the power of your message.

> Stick to the facts. Many interpersonal communication experts recommend using “I-statements” instead of more accusatory sounding “you-statements.” I-statements communicate your thoughts, feelings, and values. (For example, “I feel disrespected when clients don’t arrive on time.”) You-statements tend to make the listener defensive. (For example, “You are disrespecting me when you don’t arrive on time.”) 

But in work situations, you can never assume that the client cares about how you “feel.” The “I-statement” approach may work with your significant other, but it’s not effective or appropriate in a professional setting. Point out your policy and stick to the facts.

> Assume the client doesn’t know better. It can be hard not to get exasperated when you’re trying to explain to an adult why their bad behaviors aren’t acceptable when your reasoning feels so obvious, but give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s your job to communicate your boundaries to them, not to compensate for their poor upbringing.

> Enforce your policies without exception or apology. Policies serve no purpose if you don’t enforce them, or if you enforce them sporadically. Inconsistency confuses and frustrates clients. Once you define your expectations, don’t deviate from them.

Apologizing for enforcing a policy is disingenuous and sends mixed messages. You aren’t sorry, so don’t express remorse. When you’re the wronged party, the client should be the one apologizing.

Apply the Formula

You can handle many communication challenges in the salon by using a Direction- Facts-Consequence- Solution formula. Tell the client what you expect her to do, explain the reason your policy exists, state the consequences for violating the policy, and present the client with a possible solution. In these scenarios, you’ll see how the formula works and how to apply it.

Scenario 1: The Last-Minute Cancellation

“Last week, my client blew off our appointment. She called me five minutes after her appointment time and said she decided to meet friends for brunch instead. This isn’t the first time this has happened. I’m angry and hurt. How do I tell her that this isn’t acceptable?”

Direction: Provide adequate notice of cancellation in the future.

Fact: Late-cancellations leave gaps in your schedule that are often impossible to fill, causing lost revenue.

Consequence: Clients who cancel with short-notice will be charged a fee and will have to reserve future appointments with deposits at the time of booking.

Solution: If she prefers not to commit to appointments, she may call ahead, place herself on your daily waitlist, or walk in and hope for availability.

You say: “In the future, please provide advance notice of cancellation. Late-cancellations leave gaps in my schedule that are impossible to fill, which causes lost revenue. Clients who cancel without notice are charged a fee and will be required to secure future appointments with deposits. If you prefer not to commit to appointments, you’re welcome to call ahead, walk in, or join our daily waitlist.”

Scenario 2:The Chronically Late Client

“My chronically late client became upset when I told her I would have to abbreviate her service to stay on schedule. She insisted I either do the full service or discount her bill because I didn’t have time to perform the entire pedicure. What should I do?”

Direction: Arrive promptly.

Facts: As an appointment-based professional, you must remain on schedule. Clients who book appointments reserve billable time, during which operational expenses are being incurred. Their tardiness negatively affects salon productivity and profitability.

Consequence: Salon policy doesn’t award refunds of any kind to guests who arrive late.

Solution: Like the late-canceller, this client may find it more suitable to call ahead, join the waitlist, or walk in.

You say: “To keep from having an abbreviated service, please arrive promptly for your appointment. Client tardiness affects our ability to remain on schedule, causing delays other customers rightfully consider unacceptable, so delivering the full service isn’t an option. We cannot discount abbreviated services because the time a client books is reserved exclusively for her. During this time, operational and labor expenses are being incurred. If you’d prefer, you’re welcome to call ahead, walk in, or join our waitlist instead of committing to an appointment.”

Scenario 3: Turning Away the Client Who Needs to See a Doctor

“How do I explain to pushy clients that I can’t serve them if they are ineligible for services? I don’t want to be rude, but I’m uncomfortable being pressured into working outside my scope of practice.”

Direction: You will have to see a doctor.

Facts: You are not qualified to diagnose or treat medical disorders and you are not willing to risk the client’s safety or your professional license by working outside of your scope of practice.

Consequence: Clients who challenge your refusal will be dismissed.

Solution: Should a client wish to be served even after being told they’re ineligible for salon services, they can take their business to someone less ethical, at their own risk.

You say: “I’d love to serve you, but state regulations prohibit nail technicians from treating clients with skin or nail abnormalities of any kind. Doing so would jeopardize my professional license, and I’m not willing to risk my livelihood or your health. You may find a salon willing to perform the service despite the risk it presents, but we care about your health more than we care about your money. I’m happy to provide you with a physician reference. When they have determined you’re eligible for salon services, we would love to have you back.”

Scenario 4: The After-Hours Caller

“Some clients call and text whenever they please — even on weekends and in the middle of the night. How do I put a stop to it without being rude?”

Direction: This situation requires no explanation to the client, just some time spent re-configuring your phone’s settings and organizing your contacts.

Fact: When the salon closes, business ends.

Consequence: Clients can expect a response by the next business day.

Solution: Most smartphone devices come with a “blocking mode” option. Enable it and specify the hours you’d like to disable calls and text messages. Then, customize your contact list by selecting callers who can bypass the block. Your device will save these preferences, allowing you to enable and disable the blocking mode at the touch of a button.

You say: “We no longer accept business communications after hours. You’re welcome to leave voicemails and send texts. You’ll receive a prompt response when business hours resume.”

When it comes down to it, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your policies, but when challenged by a curious or defiant client, you should be able to validate your reasoning in a rational manner, leaving no room for debate. None of the policies we implement at our salons are arbitrary. Each one has a logical foundation intended to protect our salons, professionals, and customers. We can’t expect clients to do better until they know better, but those discussions don’t have to be confrontational or defensive. Stick to the formula, enforce your boundaries consistently, and you’ll never feel used, abused, or taken for granted by your clients again. 

Tina Alberino is a licensed cosmetologist, consultant, and beauty industry advocate. She provides a wealth of information and personalized advice on her blog, This Ugly Beauty Business, and in her book, The Beauty Industry Survival Guide.

Also by Tina Alberino:

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