Liza Lott walks in 10 minutes late, flushed, and quick to deliver an excuse. “You wouldn’t believe the traffic today!” she exclaims. Her entrance disrupts another client who is peacefully enjoying a pedicure. “Oh, and you’re going to hate me!” she continues. “I don’t even want to show you my nails! Three of them just popped off! You must have done something different last time.”

Did a particular client come to your mind when you imagined this scenario? Was your initial reaction to frown or to smile? The answer to this question is important because it’s your response that determines how this story ends. If you’re impatient, you’ll reveal that you don’t believe the traffic was congested and that you were annoyed by the subtle implication that your workmanship is mediocre. That attitude is going to result in a negative experience for both you and your client.

You have the power to create a positive outcome — if you can hold it together and respond politely and professionally.

Shift the Paradigm

We work in a service industry where that universal mantra is “the customer is always right.” And, even when they clearly aren’t right, the expectation is the service provider will respond with an affirmative head nod and a polite, “yes, madam” in a tone that would do an English butler proud. When reality pushes up against that paradigm, clients are frustrated, thinking they’ve received poor customer service. Conversely, it can be shocking when a client with otherwise good manners is completely bereft of self-awareness. The job of the tech, then, is to agree on mutual expectations, which may require a shift in paradigm. This happens early in the relationship, ideally during the first encounter.

“Establishing a healthy, professional boundary initially is one way to avoid disrespectful treatment later in the relationship,” says Aimee Villemure, a ­Sarasota, Fla.-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker with expertise in mediation and conflict resolution. “When you speak, assume a confident posture, and when possible, maintain eye contact. This will help you garner respect.”

During the client’s first appointment, take the time to set realistic expectations. Explain the importance of being on time, at-home care, and salon or spa etiquette. This is the time to explain nails aren’t tools, and the importance of protecting them from harsh household chemicals, such as paint thinners, acetone, etc. Clients will learn what types of things would likely break their nails or ruin their manicure. Ninety percent of them will understand.

Some clients, however, those few we like to call “special,” won’t respond well. They’ll continue to be perpetually late. They’ll break their nails and blame you. They’ll ask for nails to be extended too long. They’ll want to bring their pets. They’ll want to talk on the phone. When this happens, call upon your training and professionalism to stop the situation from spiraling out of control.


Listen With Empathy

“It’s so important to be empathetic when dealing with difficult clients,” says Lan Pratt, owner of Pure Natural Nail Lounge in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Saying you’re sorry and showing empathy doesn’t mean you’re apologizing for something you’ve done. It means you understand a customer’s position.”

“I try to get my staff to understand that everyone comes in here with a story,” explains Pratt. “We don’t know what happened earlier in the day; we don’t know what’s going on in their lives. What we do know is we’re here to relieve stress, so we try to relate to difficult clients in a way that defuses the situation.”

Nail tech Ashlee McMichael agrees. “We can help clients have an attitude adjustment if we respond well,” she says. Her background working with autistic adults and at-risk youth has helped train McMichael to succeed in her current position at Bella Trio in Durham, N.C.

McMichael recalls a story of a client who was unintentionally offensive. “My client realized I have an 11-year-old son, but had been married only nine years,” recalls McMichael. “She asked if I had considered giving up my son for adoption. It took a lot for me to stay calm, but I tried to understand why she would ask that type of question and then gave her the respect of a polite response.”


Kill Them With Kindness

“I find there are two types of difficult clients,” says Denize Lemos, owner of LaPlaya Spa on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Fla. “One complains about things that are legitimate — things that can be changed. The other complains because something is wrong in her story. She’s had a bad day; she has stress in her life. She may feel out of control, and you are the only person she can vent to.”

Lemos says her goal is to “listen, own, educate.” “I have to put myself aside,” she explains. “We are in the service industry. If a client complains, even if she complains all the time, I just listen and see how I can satisfy her. Sometimes, a client wants the red carpet rolled out for her. And you know what, I roll out the carpet. When difficult clients come to me, I kill them with kindness and make them feel special. My reputation is too important to risk a bad review,” she says.


Offer Solutions

One particularly annoying quirk of difficult clients is their propensity to place blame on the tech or the salon. We’ve all had those clients who come back in with chipped polish or broken nails and can’t for the life of them think of anything that may have caused the problem. It’s as if the nails self-combusted. “You can’t respond in an angry way or defensively,” says McMichael. “Instead, offer solutions.” McMichael suggests techs fix the problem either by re-polishing using a different color or by offering a complimentary repair. “I explain as I’m doing the repair or re-polish that there is usually a charge for this, but I’m waiving the fee today,” she says.

Villemure suggests making a general statement, such as, “When we do certain things, it’s hard on the nails and it may cause them to pop off. The only way to avoid this is to avoid using our nails in this way.”

This response may sound tolerant, but it isn’t to be confused with accommodating the client who repeats bad behavior. A tech can use the situation as a way to teach and to set the stage for future interactions. This works in nearly any situation. When a client is late, for example, Pratt and her staff try to accommodate her, but use the ­situation as a way to educate. “We’ll say we understand these things happen. Then we’ll explain our position. Sometimes we let them know since a client is not booked immediately following, we have time to complete the service. Conversely, we may need to apologize and say we can’t accommodate her tardiness because we do have someone booked,” she says. Either way, the client walks away understanding her appointment reserved only a limited time on the books.

Pratt says that when they can’t complete a service, there may still be a way to offer options. The tech may be able to perform a pedicure without a massage, or a manicure without polish, for example. Then it’s left for the client to decide if that’s acceptable. “Clients are usually understanding,” says Pratt. “They know it’s not the salon’s fault they were late.”

To clients who answer their phones and speak loudly, despite the “no-phone zone,” McMichael provides a solution. “I suggest clients finish their conversation in a different area of the salon, away from the other customers,” she says. “But I’ve had to go out after them to let them know to get off the phone so we can finish the service,” McMichael laughs.

When clients balk about getting off the phone, Villemure suggests soliciting empathy for other patrons. “Clients can relate to the experience of your customers,” she explains, “so they will more likely be willing to change their behavior when you explain how it impacts other clients rather than how it impacts you.”

Solutions to offer a difficult client may be to suggest a different tech (if a client regularly complains about your work). It may be scheduling a client only as your last appointment of the day (if you know she’s going to be late). The solution may be to stock the salon with distractions, such as a tablet or games (for kids who create chaos). A helpful solution could be to call a manager over (to let a client know her complaint is important to you). When the manager affirms your solution as a client’s best choice, this often calms the client’s frustration.

“Regardless of the situation, speak in a tone that’s respectful — one without judgment,” says McMichael. And remember, sometimes you are having a bad day, so the client could be reacting to your vibe. (If you’re having a hard day, admit it. Set up a stress reliever in the break room, such as mobility bands or a stress ball.) And remember to remain professional — in and out of the salon. The last thing you want to do is walk into a grocery store with a snarky attitude after a hard day of work and realize you have become the cashier’s difficult client.  


Actionable Advice

If Your Client Is Perpetually Late…

> Greet her with a warm smile

> Listen to her story with empathy

> Explain politely your time constraints and her options

> Avoid having an attitude during the service


If Your Client Is Constantly Complaining…

> Combat her negativity with a positive attitude and kindness

> Avoid being trite and flippant; respond with empathy

> Try to hear her larger problem

> Be patient

> Never take it personally


If Your Client Exhibits Unruly Behavior…

> Limit the number of complimentary (alcoholic) drinks you serve

> Lower your voice when she raises hers

> Provide alternatives (to occupy children)

> Remind clients of other guests (and of the no-phone-zone policy)

> Model respectful behavior to the client and other team members


If Your Client Has Unrealistic Expectations…

> Explain the “why” behind your inability to meet her request

> Affirm you understand what she desires

> Offer possible alternatives


Preventative Measures:

> Create a checklist of at-home care instructions and spa etiquettes to review with new clients.

> Never sacrifice service to satisfy a client. Maintain quality standards.


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