Camie Bressler did something many salon owners wouldn’t dream of doing. She left her shop for a five-week vacation in Europe – and she didn’t lose a single client while she was gone. In fact, her salon did just fine without her.

Bressler was able to spend more than a month across the Atlantic thanks to a well-thought-out plan. She knew what would happen if she couldn’t be in her shop. She knew who would take care of her clients, who would do her banking, and who would order her supplies.

For many salon owners, taking a week away from the shop is impossible. Some go years without a vacation. With no contingency plan in place, some are forced to close their salons when an unexpected illness or accident keeps them away.

“My trip was quite a feat to arrange,” admits Bressler, the owner of LA Image in Glendale, Ariz. “But as long as you plan it well, it can work out.”

Choosing a Right Hand

Whether it’s a general manager, a team leader, or just a lead nail tech, having a designated second-in-command is essential to the success of a salon – and the sanity of its owner. Choosing the right one, though, can be a daunting task.

Michael Cologione, owner of Nail Polish Limited in Bellmore, N.Y., depends on his manager, Michelle Sparacino, both when he’s out of and in the office. “We have the same vision. She knows what is expected,” says Cologione, who has been in business for almost two years.

“I don’t have a partner, so it was essential to find somebody I trust who works the same way as I do. Most owners feel that nobody takes care of their business the way they do. That may be true about certain things, but if I’m not here I know I have someone to run things.”

Bressler has a team leader in her salon of seven nail techs and says she doesn’t have to worry about how things go in her absence. “My team leader is somebody who has been with me for a long time and knows how I run the business,” she explains.

She didn’t just go by seniority, though. For Bressler, the person who fills that position has to be trustworthy, have some common sense, and be someone who doesn’t panic in stressful situations. Bressler also makes sure the person is financially responsible in her private life as well. If someone doesn’t pay her own rent on time, how likely is it that she’ll make sure the salon bills are paid?

Chicago-based small business consultant Ray Silverstein tells salon owners to choose the most business-competent person. “That may or may not be the best person at doing nails,” he says. “It should be the best person as far as business sense. It should be someone who can handle the responsibility and knows how to follow through – someone who does what they say they’re going to do.”

Be careful when tempted to designate your best friend as second-in-command. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. “You may feel better with your best friend, but if she is not competent, you could ruin a friendship,” adds Silverstein.

Regardless of who you choose, don’t just make the choice and be done with it. After all, filling your shoes isn’t going to be easy. “You have to be willing to let that person make a mistake,” he advises. To avoid a major mistake, delegate things by the spoonful instead of by the bucketful. “Delegate things so that if someone makes a mistake the loss is minimal. Let them handle little things in the beginning,” he advises.

The key to successful contingency planning is to delegate, not abdicate. “You don’t want to just say, ‘Here’s the responsibility’ without completing the information loop,” says Silverstein. Instead, set up some informal training with the employee. Let your second-in-command walk through the steps while you’re present. Then, let them go solo while you’re still in town.

Put It in Writing

Jacqueline Edwards, a small business consultant and owner of , advocates having a written standard operating procedure (SOP) that would help anyone fill in should a salon owner have to be out unexpectedly.

“It needs to explain the important tasks of the day or week in writing, step-by-step – simply enough for a responsible husband or child to review it and say, ‘Okay, we’ll do this,” Edwards says.

An SOP would allow someone to step into your shoes if need be in an emergency. In a planned absence like a vacation, the person you’ve left in charge can turn to it to answer any questions or know what to do in an unforeseen situation. In an unplanned absence like an illness, a family member or trusted friend can use the SOP to make sure the shop continues running as you would want.

Here’s a possible table of contents for your SOP:

  1. The Typical Day. This section should include the regular hours of the nail techs and other employees of your salon. Detail how to open and close the store, including how much cash is needed to open and what happens with any cash on hand at the end of the day.
  2. The Not-so-Typical Day. Consider this your emergency preparedness plan. List other nail techs that your family or manager could call on to come into your shop and take care of clients o a temporary basis. Your insurance agent and the type of policies your have should also be listed.
  3. Names and Numbers. Your client list, the names and numbers of your suppliers and other contact information should be kept up-to-date here.
  4. Things to Do. Anything that doesn’t fall in your typical day list should be in this chapter. Special promotions you have planned or your yearly advertising schedule might go here.
  5. Financial Info. List where you accounts are, but don’t include the umbers. Instead, put those in a safe deposit box and let responsible parties know where they can find those.

Calling All Worrywarts

Many small business owners aren’t very good at delegating – a quality that has a significant downside. Trying to de everything limits your growth, say most business advisors. If you’re not going to trust someone to run the shop while you’re out of town for a week, how are you going to open a second salon? It also limits your life outside of the salon.

All news isn’t bad for the control freak, though. The good news is that change is possible. If you struggle with leaving your salon, here are some behavior-modifying techniques.

Take a few baby steps. If the thought of leaving the shop for a week is overwhelming, start slow. “Start going out for lunch or leave early. Take a few days off and see what happens,” advises Silverstein.

Use technology. Cyber-snooping tools have enabled many moms to relax, comfortable in the knowledge that their toddlers are being well taken care of by nannies under constant surveillance. The same technology can help you keep a close watch on your baby, the salon. Silverstein estimates that a video surveillance system costs $5,000-$6,000, but can be worth it for the peace of mind it gives a worried business owner. You can videotape salon happening to spot-check or review if a problem occurs, or you can have your own web hook-up that lets you peer into your salon from any computer.

Set up a system of checks and balances with an outsider. While it’s good to have a coworker or an employee you can trust, your contingency plans may also include an outsider who signs the checks and provides another set of eyes to watch your business. For some, the natural choice is a family member or a trusted friend. For others, it’s an accountant.

Send in a secret shopper. “Have someone go into the shop and make sure that everything is done according to your rules,” Silverstein suggests. You may want to make sure the mystery shopper is charged the correct rate, receives a receipt, and is treated professionally. The shopper can also scope out the cleanliness of the salon and make sure nail techs are adhering to the dress code.

Contingency Planning for Your Clients

Salon owners aren’t the only ones who need to worry about contingency planning. Far too many nail techs have left work for a while only to return to an empty book and empty station. Katherine Escalera was afraid that would happen to her when surgery complications turned what she thought would be a few days away from work into a three-month absence.

“I’ve had some of the same clients for 15 years. I was scared I would lose them,” says Escalera, a tech at Nail Polish Limited. To her surprise, she didn’t lose any. She credits owner Cologione and the other techs with helping her come back to a full schedule of clients.

The rest of the staff took care of her clientele and fit them into their schedule, even working on their scheduled days off if needed. Cologione kept Escalera in the mind of her clients by featuring updates about her condition in the salon’s newsletter and running ads counting down the days until her return.

“He kept me involved in the salon. I wasn’t forgotten,” says Escalera.

Like many salon owners, Cologione and Bressler both have strict rules against client hijacking, which helps protect a tech’s income source while she’s absent.

“This is a non-competitive salon,” Escalera explains. “We all feel the clients belong here.”

If you’re working in a competitive salon where other nail techs are free to lure your clients away in your absence, you may want to have a list of nail techs you trust to take care of your clients without stealing them. While Bressler trusted her nail techs during her vacation, she knew the workload would be too great for what was at the time a very small staff. She turned to a network of nail tech friends that includes her mother.

“I didn’t want my clients to wander off, so I asked friends to come in on certain days,” she explains. The substituting techs tended to her regular clients at her workstation. The nail techs picked up some extra money and Bressler didn’t have to worry about her clients finding a new salon.

Remember that this network works both ways. Just as you might call on a trusted colleague to fill in for you, be prepared to do the same for them.


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