How many of you would like 10 people working for you who are just like you – or your best staff member?”

When salon owner/educator Kenneth Anders asks that question during a seminar, all hands shoot up immediately. His solution? Establish a salon assistant program.

Hairdressers who make the most money have studied under the great masters. Why shouldn’t that approach work for nail technicians, too?

“It’s like cloning your best people,” says Anders, owner of five Kenneth’s Design group Salons in Columbus, Ohio, and founder of Club Kenneth, a business building program for salon professionals. “If your best nail technician trains three people, they’ll do what she does. It’s like sharing her energy, enthusiasm, technical skills, and artistic level with all your new nail technicians – before they develop bad habits.”

Such a program also provides trainees with exposure to all aspects of salon business, from polishing and applying tips to retailing.

Besides teaching juniors, an assistant program is also a phenomenal reward system for veterans. How? It virtually eliminates the potential of peaking out financially and lets all employees work smarter, not harder.

“Your best nail technicians can grow and give themselves a raise continually by increasing their volume and their prices, rather than by you paying them a higher percentage,” says Anders. “That’s one reason our staff retention is so high!”

Book $3,000 a Week

A nail technician can earn as much as a hairdresser when the work flow is charted into a system. Just ask Rachel Mathes, a nail technician and salon manager at Class Act Salon in Iowa City, Iowa.

Mathes weekly books $3,000 in service and adds another $625 per week (about $2,500 per month) in retail sales. That’s all in a three-day, 40-hour week. The assistant program allows her to work three tables at once, so each day she’s fully booked with 36 to 40 clients.

In comparison, working at a salon without assistants four years ago, Mathes took home only $250 a week. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s a substantial increase.

“With assistants, the sky’s the limit to what I can book,” says Mathes. “Without them, I’d be stuck booking $1,200 tops per week – only 12 to 15 clients per day – or working 80 hours.”

Basic Training

Mathes’ assistant training program lasts 12 to 18 months, depending on how aggressive the trainees are.

“They have to perform specific service segments in a given time frame,” she explains. For example, they must polish nails perfectly in three minutes.

If they can’t pass one service segment right away, they can work on others while they hone their skills. When they pass all the segment requirements, a complete manicure must be given in 45 minutes.

The final exam consists of the trainees caring for nine models to Mathes’ expectations. The exam requires proficiency in a number of services, including tips, gels, liquid and powder overlays, and fills for all applications. Trainees who pass the final are eligible to start building their own clientele part-time.

“Each assistant is training at a different level,” says Mathes. “For example, Janelle is fairly new so she’s not eligible to do everything yet, but Rhonda is ready to go on her own and can perform every service. This staggering keeps everyone fresh.”

While technical skills are important, Mathes believes that the most important part of the training is learning professionalism. “I teach my assistants how important professionalism is for them and the salon,” says Mathes, “and how clients carefully watch everything they do.

“They learn that when they act professional, they grow faster. And, when clients observe their professional behavior over a period of time, the clients won’t mind booking an appointment with them when I’m not here or when they advance to their own clientele.

“Once they’re on their own,” adds Mathes, they build their clientele fast, usually averaging $600 to $800 per week immediately because they build from my client overflow.”

Talking It Up

“Your most experienced nail technicians probably have the best communication skills and therefore the highest client retention,” says Gary Ahlquist, founder and president of Tensorlon consulting and training services in Chattanooga, Tenn. “By observing and listening in a hands-on working situation, your assistants will learn and develop their communication skills.”

Your team establishes its credibility with clients by the way the team members relate.

“The three tables are set in a semicircle, so I can see what’s going on all the time,” says Mathes. “All three clients can hear me and I can control the control the conversation so that everyone is included. The assistants learn from jumping in on my discussions.”

According to Ahlquist, there are three important steps during this interaction:

1.      Introduce the assistants to the clients.

2.      Establish the role you and each assistant will play with the clients.

3.      Ask your assistants’ opinions to show the client that you respect their knowledge and value their opinion.

4.      Ahlquist adds this advice: ‘The key is working together. When the client-assistant relationship is unsuccessful, it’s usually because the clients only see the assistants taking orders and never learn to respect them. The assistants have to go to another salon to become masters in their own right, and that defeats your reason for having this program.”


Paying Their Way

If you think you’d like to start an assistant program but worry about the cost, consider this: The extra clients the experienced nail technician and assistant team can book will pay the assistant’s salary and bonus, as well as provide a hefty increase for the senior nail technician. The really good news is that there’ll be plenty left over for the salon, too.

At Class Act, Mathes says assistants earn minimum wage and work on a bonus system – both planned and surprised.

“For example, I might say that if we make $1,000 on a given day, I’ll pay each assistant an extra $50. Last week we had a really good week, so when my assistants arrived for training on Saturday, I gave them both $50 and took them shopping instead.

“Bonuses are important so the assistants realize how much I appreciate them, because I could never book the business I do without them,” adds Mathes.

As an alternative, Ahlquist recommends guaranteeing a small weekly base, then setting goals for the team based on what the experienced nail technician was doing weekly prior to having an assistant.


How to Pick the Perfect Assistant

The perfect assistant is willing to learn and adapts easily to change,” says Rachel Mathes. “I can teach anybody a technical skill, but I can’t teach them to want to learn,” she adds.

Class Act recruits assistants primarily from cosmetology schools. Salon employees plant ideas into high school students’ heads by speaking at local career days.

“I talk to them about how cosmetology is a profession in which they can make a lot of money if they’ll invest time and effort, says Mathes.

Her enthusiasm for her career obviously influences others. Two of her clients recently went to cosmetology school after taking with Mathes and have returned to the salon as assistants.

For example, consider a nail technician who books $1,000 per week without an assistant. You’ll guarantee her assistant $100 per week. Then for the team, set a minimum booking goal of $1,100; that’s what the experienced nail technician booked on her own plus the $100 you’re guaranteeing her assistant. The team pays the assistant’s salary right off the top.

Next, set goals in reachable increments. For our example, the team’s goals are $1,300, $1,500, $1,700, $1,900, $2,100, and so forth. Each time the team hits a new goal, the team members split 50% of the $200 increment.


For example, if the team grosses $1,500 in service for the week, their bonus is derived from the $400 difference between their expected goal and their reached goal. In this case, the junior technician would receive her $100 guarantee plus $100 bonus (25% of $400). If the senior technician earns a 50% commission, she would receive $650 (50% of $1,100 plus 25% of $400).

While Ahlquist suggests that a 25%/25% split shows the senior technician how valuable the assistant is to her, you can set your own team goals. You might want to pay the senior technician 30% and the assistant 20% of the bonus commission. Ahlquist recommends that you don’t go below this level.

“By Friday or Saturday, your teams will be asking you where they are and really going for their goals,” says Ahlquist.


Clients Love Assistants

Finally, while the assistant program is a learning experience and a business-building strategy, the biggest benefit might just be your clients’ reactions. They’ll appreciate the higher value they receive for their money based on the attention and expertise they get from both staff members. With many salons preaching privacy, it is interesting to note that Class Act’s clients love the social atmosphere.

“Many of my clients who met here book at the same time so they can chat. Without our assistant program, that wouldn’t be possible,” says Mathes.

“To me, the most important job of my assistants is to pamper my clients and make them happy,” she says. “When they make the clients feel comfortable, it helps me serve them better, and that’s the bottom line.”

A Day in the Life

Working with two assistants allows me to book three clients every hour,” says Rachel Mathes, nail technician and salon manager for Class Act Salon in Iowa City. Here’s how it works: Rachel and her team work three full days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Each morning begins with a review of the days schedule. While the assistants prepare the tools and supplies, Mathes reviews the day’s client flow and discusses any potential problems. “Make sure that each of you touches every client and that someone is with every client at all times,” advises Mathes.


8:00     Mathes greets Client #1 who arrives for her fill. Assistant A removes Client #1’s polish. Mathes takes down the length and buffs her nails so she’s ready for the liquid and powder. Assistant A is talking with the client about her service and helping her select a polish color.


8:15     Client #2 arrives for manicure. Assistant B removes her polish. Before applying the liquid and powder to Client #1, Mathes greets Client #2 and discusses the length and shape she’d like for her nails then instructs Assistant B on the service. While the assistant gets started with the strengthening treatment, Mathes applies the liquid and powder to Client #1 and gets one hand filed and ready for buffing.


8:30     Client #3 arrives for her full set and is greeted by Assistant A. Mathes repeats Client #1’s desired color, recommends any retail products, then switches with Assistant A, who will buff and polish Client #1’s nails. Now Mathes consults with Client #3. Mathes then buffs her nails and applies the tips.

By this time, Client #2 is ready for Mathes to check her manicure and massage her, while Assistant B clips, shapes, and buffs Client #3’s tips. Assistant A completes Client #1 and everyone says good-bye.


9:00     Assistant A brings back Client #4 and prepares her for a fill. Client #2’s polish is done and everyone says good-bye. Assistant B has buffed Client #3, so Mathes applies her strengthener.


9:15     Client #5 arrives and Client #3 leaves, and the cycle continues.



Salon Coordinator Charts Success

In plotting your team’s game plan, your salon coordinator’s role is to develop a system for booking clients that ensures maximum use of time but doesn’t keep clients waiting.

To do that, Gary Ahlquist recommends that your salon coordinator find out what steps are involved and how long it takes each technician to perform each service.

The salon coordinator creates a chart of the steps and timing for every service and records any downtime that exists within a service, for example, while polish is drying.

“When the salon coordinator knows all of the intimate details, he or she can efficiently insert clients within the steps of another service,” says Ahlquist.

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