Hair salons have made assistant programs work for decades, using assistants to help with everything from shampooing clients and giving scalp massages to applying color and styling the finished cut. But few salons have shaped successful nail assistant programs. The excuses range from nail services being too intimate for a threesome, to too-low of a profit margin, to not enough to keep an assistant busy.

Four salon owners and managers NAILS interviewed prove all the excuses weak by sharing how nail assistants contribute to the salons’ profits and growth. One owner has found it so profitable that he splits the assistant’s salary with any nail tech at his spa who wants one. Other owners and managers admit they invest more time into assistants than they initially get. However, they insist the long-term payoff — of skilled and loyal nail techs who stay on with the salon — is well worth the effort.

No two salons do nails exactly the same way, and we found that the same holds true for how they structure assistant programs. From pure trainees to strictly right-hand women, these salons prove that an assistant’s job can be whatever you need done — which may vary by the day or even hour.

1. Drudge work is part of the package — but the training perks make it pay

Maisie Dunbar first implemented an assistant program three years ago when she expanded from a single-operator nail salon to M&M Nails & Wellness Center in Silver Spring, Md. Ironically, she didn’t intend the program as a means to recruit staff — although it has evolved into her strongest tool — but as a way for her to accommodate more clients because she couldn’t find good technicians.

Dunbar recruits assistants from the vocational program at the local high school, where she conducts volunteer workshops. Assistants are charged with conducting salon tours, disinfecting implements, and preparing client folders and manicure rolls (which contain the client’s abrasives and disinfected implements rolled in a clean table towel).

“They also put files away, remove nail enamel, set up pedicure stations, do laundry, and assist me with prep work,” says Dunbar. As their skills develop, Dunbar graduates her assistants to handling prep work alone. Eventually, she says, “All I have to do is apply product and polish.”

Dunbar makes sure the assistants get as good as they give, however. In addition to an hourly wage, Dunbar ensures they graduate to nail tech with full honors. She keeps a training log in which she notes every skill taught as well as when it’s mastered.

Clients were slow to welcome M&M’s first assistant, a hesitation with which Dunbar empathized. To help them warm up, assistants spend their first few weeks giving salon tours and doing service set-ups and clean-ups, which gives everyone time to grow accustomed to their presence. Dunbar also gives clients plenty of advance notice that someone else will assist her with their service.

“I’ll explain to my client that next week Angela is going to remove her polish and ask her to sanitize her hands, and then she’ll have a seat at Angela’s station,” Dunbar says. “I also find it helps to educate them on why we have assistants and the importance of their training.”

While nail assistants have proved cost-effective at M&M, allowing the rest of the staff to boost their productivity by assuming much of the set-up and clean-up, Dunbar urges owners to give assistants more than drudge work. “Practice what you preach,” Dunbar advises. In Dunbar’s view, the first step in creating an assistant program is to develop a written job description that clearly outlines your expectations. Typically, assistants are ready to graduate to nail technician after 60-90 days. By then they’ve mastered at least the basic manicure and pedicure skills and adapted to the salon culture, Dunbar says. As soon as they receive their license, she helps them to begin building a book with those services.

First, though, they have to pass muster. At the 90-day review, Dunbar evaluates the tech’s character and attitude — which she’s had plenty of time to observe — and her product knowledge. Nor is every assistant invited to stay on. A self-admitted perfectionist who describes herself as “fanatical” about the client experience, Dunbar says some assistants fail to meet her standards.

Those who do, however, garner recognition and rewards. “Let them know when they’re doing well and reward them with small things like movie tickets,” Dunbar advises. “Or help them build their professional toolkit with a pair of professional nippers, a cuticle pusher, or toenail cutter.”

2. When training takes priority, give them plenty of life experience

The Phoenix-based Elizabeth Arden salons and Chicago-based Mario Tricoci salons may be under one corporate umbrella, but national nail director Bobbi Kulczycki has her hands full managing two diverse training programs. All new nail and pedicure specialists at Mario Tricoci’s 26 salons located mainly near Chicago work anywhere from five weeks to three months (depending on their specialty) at the corporate training center. In addition to step-by-step instructions on the chain’s numerous nail and pedicure services, trainees learn to meet the chain’s exacting technical standards as well as its rigorous customer service expectations, which include individualized consultations and personalized service recommendations.

With 74 locations nationwide, however, Elizabeth Arden salons don’t have the luxury of a training center. Instead, each salon hires new nail technicians as assistants. In addition to attending hands-on training classes for six hours each Monday, assistants work 20 hours each week in the salon. They spend much of their time practicing on models as well as helping where needed.

“When the salon is busy they offer waiting clients a beverage, remove polish, and do whatever else they can to help,” Kulczycki explains. They also learn the computer system and assist clients in choosing polish colors. Assistants also are expected to educate clients about services and suggest upgrades when appropriate.

Kulczycki admits a partiality to the dedicated training center, where techs are immersed in training every moment they spend there. Even so, she believes assistant programs like Elizabeth Arden’s are highly effective with hands-on supervision. As an added advantage, she believes assistants relieve the pressure to rush. “Assistants make it possible to spend more time taking care of each client,” she comments.

And anything beats nothing, she insists. When Kulczycki first started at Mario Tricoci eight years ago, her training consisted of spending two days trailing the salon manager. “When I first started with clients I was afraid of everything,” she says with a laugh. “If the client requested a manicure upgrade, I was scared to say yes.”

Accordingly, she urges even the smallest nail salons to train all new technicians, even those with experience. “Technicians who are new to a salon need a minimum of one to two weeks to learn the clientele and to understand client expectations and customer service levels,” she says.

“The weekly class plus assisting gives Elizabeth Arden techs time to really learn each service and gain confidence,” she adds. New techs at Elizabeth Arden assist for at least three to four weeks, after which they slowly segue into their own clientele by booking clients for services they’ve mastered.

Customer service gets high priority at both Mario Tricoci and Elizabeth Arden. “I call it taking care of the client from A to Z,” she explains. Techs also develop their listening skills and learn to focus their own conversational efforts on product education and recommendations.

Like Dunbar, Kulczycki recommends setting training goals. “Even with full-fledged techs, setting monthly goals makes them continually stronger,” she observes.

Nor should an owner let nail techs talk them out of an assistant program. “Sometimes nail techs who have been with us six to seven years want to know why we keep hiring assistants and promoting them to nail techs,” she says. Never wait until someone leaves to hire a new person.”

3. Assistants work hand-in-hand with techs to ensure client satisfaction

In Chris Searle’s view, a nail tech’s job has much, much more to do with making people feel good than it does with making their nails look good — which in his mind makes it extremely important, indeed. “When you work this way, you’re always giving,” says Searle, owner of The Nail Spa in Key Biscane, Fla. “People can get their nails done anywhere. It’s the experience we provide and how we make them feel that makes us special.”

That’s not to say Searle doesn’t put a high priority on top technical skills: Few assistants graduate to nail technician in less than a year. And that’s after working hand-in-hand — quite literally — with Searle and the rest of the staff.

“We work concurrently on one client,” he explains. “The assistant sits next to me and preps one hand while I prep the other.” As Searle applies the tips, his assistant blends and shapes them. By the time she’s finished, he’s almost done laying product. Each observes the other’s work, which Searle believes is how assistants ultimately develop an eye for true nail artistry. It also allows him quick access to critique and comment on their work.

It may sound chaotic, but Searle insists services actually flow more smoothly. “We’re always flowing and curving, taking the corners as they come,” he says philosophically even as he laughs.

Independence grows along with skill level, and assistants soon focus on keeping the staff and clients on time by prepping the next client’s nails while Searle — or whom- ever the assistant is helping — finishes the first client.

Short two assistants when we spoke, The Nail Spa typically has as many assistants as nail technicians. Every nail technician who wants one has one — and the spa will pay half the hourly wage. Both the tech and the spa win, Searle says. “If the tech can do more clients, her volume offsets the increase in salary,” he explains.

The only exceptions are technicians recently promoted from assistant themselves. “It’s hard before that for them to have the flavor of dealing with clients and to be doing preventive rather than corrective work,” Searle says.

These techs aren’t in it alone, however.

There’s no “I” or “mine” when it comes to assistants, clients, or anything else at The Nail Spa. “Everyone, including the client, becomes part of the team,” he says. And everyone — whether it’s an assistant, nail techs, or Searle himself — helps out as needed.

4. Look past the short-term time demands for the long-term benefits

Patricia Yankee Williams is in the fortunate minority of nail techs whose book has been jam-packed for years. With a long waiting list for her nail art, Williams sends long-time nail clients off with few regrets, particularly as most of them move to another nail tech in her salon for artificial services while remaining loyal to her nail art.

Nor do clients mind who they switch to, knowing Williams trained each tech personally. And since each tech got that training working as Williams’ assistant for three to six months, clients already know their personalities and work styles.

Unlike Searle, whose assistants help to grow the salon’s bottom line by pumping up productivity, Williams says assistants actually may slow her down, particularly during their first six weeks. However, she views it as time well-spent growing her staff and, ultimately, the salon’s client base. “The benefit to me is that it gets their technical skills up to where I want them,” she explains. “In the long run that helps me to service more clients by giving me another tech to whom I can move clients.”

In the first week, Williams says assistants come for two to three days just to observe her work. Little do they know she’s observing them just as closely. “It gives me time to see how diligent they are: Do they show up on time, are they paying attention and asking questions, etc.,” she notes.

During the following two weeks, Williams schedules new assistants to come in during slow times so that she can work one-on-one with them. They also observe and do other salon tasks. By the time an assistant touches a client’s nails, Williams ensures her technical skills are up to the assigned task.

In the early days of the program, Williams intended for assistants to boost her productivity by overlapping clients. But she quickly discovered that it increased, rather than decreased, her service times. “Because I wasn’t taking the time to train them, there were always things I wasn’t happy with, such as their polish. I would end up re-doing it anyway.”

Pattie’s Place in Baldwin N.Y., has become so well-known for its consistently high-quality technical and customer service, that Williams has a list of four nail techs who want to mentor with her, and an even longer list of salon owners who want to send new techs to her for one-on-one training.

“I’m trying to develop a program where it would work,” she says, “because I think the industry would really benefit.” And if she can figure a way to involve her established technicians, she believes the salon’s bottom line could grow as well.

Her advice to other salon owners? “Find out your assistants’ motivation and long-term goals,” she says. “Then give them lots of encouragement because they often feel like they’re nothing. Show appreciation and let them know their worth because they’re assisting, learning, and growing. All of those are valuable.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.