It’s those long-term clients, that loyal group of women you’ve shared marriage, child rearing, house-buying, and growing older with that are often the most memorable, satisfying, and lucrative aspects of a nail technician’s career. “I’ve been working in the same salon for over 30 years,” says Velma Vinson, a nail technician at Day Spa Beautique in Houston, Texas “So many of my clients have grown old, moved to nursing homes, gotten sick, even died. Last January, I lost a client I’d known for 30 years. She became so ill she couldn’t visit the salon anymore. So once a month I’d get up early and stop at her house on my way to work to take care of her fingernails and toenails. After so many years, a kind of friendship develops — a respect and appreciation of all those years of faithful service “

In a discounting, competitive business world where loyalty is often discarded in lieu of a dollar saved, nail technicians can take heart in the knowledge that most long-lasting salon relationships rise above monetary considerations. “When a client first comes to see you,” says Christine Evans, a nail technician at A Hairitage in Henderson, Nev., “you’re both on trial, feeling each other out. You’re learning about her nails, likes and dislikes, and she has to decide whether she likes your particular style and personality.”

Nails is such a one-on-one service, says Natalie Brown, owner of The Buckhead Nail Club in Atlanta, Ga., that after one to two months of seeing each other every week for a manicure and one to two times a month for a pedicure, it’s obvious whether a client wants to stay with a technician or is itching for another one “You can’t hold hands for an hour and be uncomfortable,” Brown says. “It only takes a few months to discover whether your touch and talent suits a client’s needs.”

After three to six months, the technician/client connection strengthens. “By this time, most women are not going to leave you if a cheaper salon opens down the street,” Evans says. “A special understanding and trust develop as the relationship grows.”

By the end of a year, these steady business acquaintances blossom — each in its own unique way. Some technicians become friendly enough to meet clients for a drink after work. Others prefer to limit contact within the salon’s four walls. Still other technician’s house-sit, take care of their clients’ dogs when they’re on vacation, and feel perfectly comfortable inviting them over for a family barbecue. “You don’t have to become best buds with all your long-term clients,” Brown says. “Some of you simply develop a mutual business respect based on your knowledge and nail skills.”

Other factors affecting the client/technician relationship include age differences and marital status. “If you’re single and they’re married, you probably won’t be hanging out on weekends,” Evans says. “Yet somehow most of the women I’ve seen since I started doing nails full-time nine years ago have become more like friends.”

Regardless of whether a technician tends to establish a deep friendship or a friendly business tie with her client, they all agree that it’s impossible to see the same men and women month after month, year after year, without feeling an attachment or link. “The salon relationship is so difficult to define,” Evans says. “It’s more than an acquaintance, yet different from a personal friendship. It’s a mutual fondness that requires a certain amount of respect to keep it going.”

Technicians report that the same elements that help marriages thrive also foster salon affiliations — trust, understanding, communication, and commitment.

A Uniquely Close Relationship

“A nail technician is like a therapist,” Evans says. “Clients confide in you about their unhappy marriages, divorces, problems with then children, illnesses, and it’s so important to be a good listener. But it’s also important to maintain your professionalism at all times. Never betray their trust in you and be careful about giving advice. That’s where you have to separate the friendship from business. There’s a fine line you should never cross.”

That fine line is what makes the client/technician connection so fragile, so unique. “No matter how close you are, no matter how nice you are, clients are paying you for a service,” Evans says. “And as soon as you stop giving them the quality nails they deserve, they’re going to start thinking about taking their business somewhere else. It’s this invisible boundary that separates you. Step over it and you jeopardize not only the relationship but your bread and butter.”

Understanding is another factor inherent in the long-term relationship.

Clients empathize when you shuffle your schedule because you’ve just had a baby who is keeping you up at nights; you sympathize with a client who has broken a nail and is about to embark on her first overseas trip by agreeing to meet her in the salon on your day off.

“After several years, strong bonds develop between you,” Evans savs. “You’ve seen each other through good and bad times and you don’t mind going out of your way to do favours for each other. You’ve known each other long enough so that you’re both willing to bend when the other person needs it. In between the ups and downs you sort of settle down, like a married couple, into a nice, steady routine.”

Commitment to consistent, quality service is another factor built in to long-term salon relationships.

Skimping on service or shuffling clients to accommodate your own needs is like cheating on your spouse. “I’ve seen technicians start to take clients for granted,” Evans says. “They’re running late so they’ll call one of their friendly clients and ask if they mind coming in later. That’s okay in a real emergency. But I strive to continue to give my clients the same, or better, service that I offer any new client who sits in my chair. I let them know I respect their time and patronage.”

Communication also plays an important role in any long-term relationship. “Recently I had to raise prices because I started using individualized kits,” Brown says “But when I explained why I made the change and how it would benefit them, hardly anyone complained. It’s so important to be able to sit down with your clients and let them know what’s going on. At least 20 of my clients have been with me for over nine years, and they’ve followed me all over Atlanta. If you’re always honest and never betray their trust, I’ve found clients won’t begrudge you raising prices, rearranging your schedule, or relocating to a new salon.”

Don’t Get Too Cozy

But while trust, understanding, commitment, and communication foster long-term relationships, these same factors can inhibit them. Some clients may take advantage of a personal association by expecting constant favours like free fills or nail polish. Others may start cutting into personal time by bugging you on your day off. Some even get bold enough to let checks bounce, fluffing it off with a hasty apology. “I don’t mind holding a check for a few days for someone I’ve known a long time,” Brown says. “I also throw in a lot of freebies for my steady clients during the course of a year. But this is a business and you have to set rules and limits. Sometimes you have to let people go if they re having financial problems. I’ve had clients leave me for a while when money was tight, but luckily, most of them have come back when their situations improved. It’s hard to deal with these types of problems when you’ve known a client for a long time.”

Technicians also encounter sticky situations involving clients’ personalities. “I had one client who had been with me so long, she started coming into the salon late, disrupting other manicurists by engaging them in long conversations, and generally taking advantage of our long-standing relationship,” one technician recalls. “When other clients started to complain about her, I had to take her aside. Luckily she understood and apologized. Sometimes, like any two people, you have to sit down and iron out your differences.”

While clients are occasionally guilty of overstepping business boundaries, so are some technicians. One woman complained that she left her manicurist after seven years because of a swelled ego. ‘When I first started seeing her, she owned a small shop,” this client says. “And she gave me excellent, personal service. A few years later, she moved to a much larger space and became so busy, she started giving me the bums rush. She made me feel like I was in the way, hurried, instead of relaxed. After a few months, I stopped seeing her, and do you know she never even called me to find out why.”

But fortunately most client/technician relationships are like fine wine — they improve with age. “Long-time clients can help you stay on track,” Evans says. “If I start getting lazy or burning out, they’re the first to notice and ask ‘Is everything okay?’”

“I enjoy the familiarity,” explains one woman who has been seeing the same nail technician for over a decade. “I don’t have to explain what I want or what I like. I don’t have to be afraid if a nail breaks before an important dinner engagement because I know she will always try to help me during an emergency. I respect her and she respects me. It makes for a nice, comfortable relationship.”

Besides mutual comfort, steady clients can offer technicians financial stability in a volatile market. “I’ve retained enough customers over the years to be able to plan my income for the year ahead,” Brown says. “There’s nothing better than having friends for clients. It’s someone you really look forward to seeing and spending time with — and you get paid for it!”

Equally, if not more important, technicians say it’s these steady clients who always appreciate and acknowledge their hard work and dedication. “They’re often the reason you come to work and strive to get better,” Evans says. “Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas-time are always times for celebration. I buy them presents or offer a free service, and they shower me with bonuses and gifts. It’s an emotional uplift when you need it most.”

Then there are the additional perks. “One of my steady clients made me a plaque that reads ‘Natalie Brown: manicurist/therapist,’” Brown says. “Another client lives in France part of the year and she flew me to Nice just to do her silk wraps! While I was there, I threw in a free pedicure. I get so much pleasure from my long-term clients. They really make it all worthwhile.”

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