Business Management

9 Ways to Keep Techs Happy

Prevent employee turnover from turning your salon upside-down by providing a work environment that attracts and retains your business’s most valuable asset. (Hint: Money isn’t all that matters.)

Unemployment has hit a decade high, but you’d never know it in the nail industry, where salon owners complain that good nail techs are harder than ever to find. Many salons can’t meet client demand for nail services because they simply don’t have enough staff to service them. Even more costly are the multiple clients your salon loses with every nail tech who leaves. All of which makes keeping the nail techs you have a top priority.

“The cost of attracting, recruiting, hiring, training, and getting new people up to speed is tremendously more costly as well as tremendously more wasteful than most realize,” states Gregory Smith, author of Here Today, Here Tomorrow and president of Chart Your Course, an Atlanta-based organizational development firm.

High staff turnover — the bane of the beauty industry — impacts your business’s bottom line in more ways than one: “Companies with high turnover are at risk for low productivity,” Smith explains. “Studies from the Gallup organization show that employees who have an above- average attitude toward their work will generate 38% higher customer satisfaction scores, 22% higher productivity, and 27% higher profits for their companies.”

But how do you keep those good employees? Many salon owners think it’s about money, but nail techs cite far less tangible — but, in their eyes, more important — factors, such as management support, opportunities for personal development, and a sense of personal accomplishment.

According to Kathleen Gage, author, speaker, and principal of Turning Point, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based small- business consulting firm, the key to employee retention is acknowledging and appreciating employees’ contributions.

But that’s not all: The human resources experts and salon owners with long-term staffs we asked identified nine different factors that have a huge impact on employees’ decision to stay or go. Find out how these salons keep staff over the long-term.

1 Recognize Individual Contributions

Recognition is perhaps the most powerful tool in a salon owner’s box—who doesn’t thrive on acknowledgement and rewards? Recognition can be as formal or informal as you like: Be generous with verbal praise dispensed in staff meetings or quick, personal notes for going above-and-beyond.

Cincinnati-based Mitchell’s Salons and Day Spas go even further by rewarding contributions with perks and other incentives. According to operations manager Sherri Williams, managers keep lots of inexpensive but valued perks on hand to express appreciation.

“We’ve done everything from ‘three-hours late’ Saturday passes to gift certificates for local restaurants and theaters,” Williams says. “We trade certificates with other local business so it’s not that expensive.”

Mitchell’s has also created a more formal program to reward employees’ contributions to the bottom line. Each year every nail tech receives annual goals for service sales, retail sales, client retention, etc. Each month that she achieves or exceeds her goals, her name is entered into a prize drawing held at the end of the year.

2 Offer Growth Opportunities

Continuing education is one area where most salons measure up, whether through internal training programs, in-house classes, or outside education. Formalize and tout your support for continuing education as part of your benefits package. The salon owners and managers we asked recommend that the salon bear the expense for ongoing education, particularly if it’s mandatory.

Next, consider other ways to help employees develop and grow. For example, if a nail tech expresses interest in esthetics, encourage her to pursue training. Or perhaps someone shows a particular aptitude for retail display. Encourage her to sign up for a visual merchandising class in the community and offer to foot the bill in exchange.

Also explore personal development options. For example, numerous owners have had a great response to in-salon seminars on topics such as retirement planning and stress management. Often you can find resources in your community who will either give a free presentation or be open to taking their fee in the form of salon services.

At Mitchell’s, nail techs don’t have to move on to move up. They can progress from nail technician through four additional levels (master tech, director, senior director, and senior artistic director). Service prices increase at each level, which passes most of the expense to clients, who, Williams says, are happy to pay because of the established relationship.

3 Cultivate Open Communication

How many times has something you’ve said come back to haunt you? In the high-touch salon environment, miscommunications and secrets breed an us-vs-them mentality. You don’t have to be best friends with staff members; however, keeping the lines of communication open will keep you abreast of the big picture and ready to act on potential problems. For example, if an employee tells you of an impending divorce, you can express sympathy—which engenders her goodwill and loyalty—and discuss how you both want to handle potential situations such as a need for extra time off.

How you keep in touch depends on the size of your staff and your personal style. Patricia Yankee-Williams, owner of Pattie’s Place in Baldwin, NY, has a full-time clientele in addition to her frequent travel as an educator. For her, the most effective way to keep up with her staff is to call them outside of salon hours for brief chats.

At Mitchell’s, on the other hand, staffers meet weekly one-on-one with a manager for a five-minute “what’s up” meeting. “We briefly review what’s going on with them at work and discuss ideas on how they can boost their client retention or retail sales, “Williams says. “They also have time to bring up any problems they’re having in the salon.”

Just remember, an open-door policy means keeping an open mind as well. At Maxine Ltd. In Chicago, spa director Bonnie Canavino says employees are so comfortable that what they say won’t be held against them that they are honest in their desires to, say, open their own salon or change careers. Recently Maxine lost its top nail technician to the hair department. But because the employee felt comfortable in sharing her plans, she worked with Canavino to groom her replacement and changed departments rather than salons. In exchange, Maxine not only enjoyed a smooth transition in its nail department but gained a proven high-performance employee as a junior stylist.

4 Celebrate Achievements

Acknowledging personal achievements validates employee’s individual worth. From professional achievements to personal milestones, show employees that you care by marking the occasion.

Shari Finger, owner of Finger’s Nails Studio in W. Dundee, Ill., emphasizes the importance of acknowledging individuals’ achievements. “Everyone needs to know where she sands,” she asserts, “especially junior techs, because there’s so much to learn and it’s easy to get discouraged as you work your way up.” Finger’s solution was to create milestones in her junior tech program to mark mastery of certain skills.

Studio 904 takes a similar tact but goes one step further by celebrating individual successes at the monthly staff meeting. Kay Hiral, owner of the Seattle-based salon, misses nothing: Customer feedback on the salon or individual employees is shared and individuals are recognized for everything from meeting goals to achieving certifications.

Maxine goes one step further by creating press releases to highlight an employee’s achievements such as a competition win or development of a new service. “It’s a powerful tool for promoting employee loyalty,” Canavino notes. “There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your name and picture in a local newspaper or magazine.”

5 Lead by Example

The best salon owners and managers lead by showing rather than telling. “It’s not glamorous,” Canavino admits. “It’s you not being too proud to pick up after employees if it’s needed.”

The most effective managers are made, not born. Take advantage of management seminars and classes offered in your community and at industry tradeshows to continue evolving your style and skills.

Hirai takes an admittedly unique view on salon management’s role, describing her philosophy as “servant leadership.” “When you are a leader, you are a servant to others,” she says. Her first priority, she explains, is to fulfill employees’ needs—through training, tools, support, marketing, etc.—so that they can perform at their best.

“My business centers on Kaizen, a Japanese phrase that means ‘lifelong learning in small, incremental steps,’” Hirai says. “It’s not just about work skills but also things that help them grow their entire life, such as setting goals for themselves and developing guiding principles in how they live their lives.” Hirai cultivates a sense of ownership in employees with an open-book policy on expenses and profits.

6 Provide Benefits

The most-valued job benefits—health insurance, paid vacations, sick leave—are outside the budgets of most salons, but with a little creativity even the most budget-conscious salon can provide some perks.

“Regardless of whether you can afford to provide insurance or paid vacations, you need to have some type of formal program in place that sets you apart and lets employees know that they have some kind of support,” says Canavino.

Health insurance ranks first as the most-desired job benefit. Investigate your options even if you can’t afford to pay employees’ premiums yourself. As a small-business owner, you may be able to access affordable group policies through business associations. If enough employees are interested, your business may even quality for its own group policy with lower premiums than individuals would pay. You can also brainstorm ways to make health insurance pay for itself. For example, a few salon owners told us that they added retail and use the profits to pay a portion of their employees’ premiums.

Other possible benefits include a 401 (k) or SEP retirement savings program, product discounts (explore reciprocal relationships with other local business), discounted or free salon services, etc.

In Renee Borowy’s view, however, scheduling flexibility is the best any owner can offer—and what most techs really want and need. “When you hire, get a commitment to a schedule and then do your best to accommodate it,” says Borowy, owner of VIP Salon and Spa in Riverview, Mich.

To make it work for the salon, Borowy double-shifts nail stations. “The key is having a locked cabinet on each side of the table where each person can keep her own supplies,” she comments.

Yankee-Williams, who shares this philosophy, says her staff doesn’t abuse the practice. “Usually when someone takes a Saturday off, for instance, they’ll work extra evenings before or after to fit everyone in.”

7 Hire the Right People

With such a dearth of nail techs, it’s tempting to hire whomever you can and work the problems out later. Unfortunately, later often arrives much sooner than you think, and one bad fit can sour the entire staff.

For this reason, several of the owners we spoke to emphasize personality and passion over technical skills. “Number one, I look for people who are passionate about the industry and who have an open mind to learning new techniques and ways of doing things,” says Yankee-Williams.

She also looks for an easygoing personality that can cope with stress. “Sometimes it gets grueling, so I want to know they can handle the pressure if we start running behind,” she explains. To get a true sense of a tech’s character, she asks potential hires to spend some time in the salon observing how things run.

A cohesive blend of personalities is a must, but Finger cautions against hiring solely in your own image. This self-described “bubbly and loud” tech recalls a quiet, dry-humored tech she once hired against her better judgment—only to have that tech quickly build a full clientele and remain for seven years before moving out of state.

“One day it all came together when a client told her that she would never come to me because I’m way too loud. I realized that I needed personalities like hers because not every client every client wants someone like me,” says Finger. And meeting clients’ needs is what it’s all about.

Likewise, Finger urges owners to leverage each person’s strengths. “I had one tech who did everything slow,” she remembers with a laugh. As someone who is as concerned with speed as quality, Finger easily could have dismissed the technician but instead began booking her for pedicure services and with clients who wanted a leisurely service.

8 Foster a Team Spirit

The staff that works together stays together. Communicate clearly an expectation for staff members to share responsibilities and to help their coworkers, whether that means answering the phone when everyone else is busy or removing polish to help a fellow nail tech get back on schedule.

Teamwork is particularly challenging in large, multi-location salons like Mitchell’s. Even so, Williams says persistence and consistency pays off. Mitchell’s has a voluntary mentor program that pairs veterans with less-experienced nail techs. “They meet monthly and come up with a program of what to focus on—retail sales or a particular technique—but they mostly help to guide new employees and be there for them when they need help or are just having a bad day,” Williams says.

Teamwork starts at the top, Canavino reminds. To this end, she encourages nail and spa techs to actively participate in conceiving and creating new services, “I meet with them and help them to know their market and to stimulate ideas for signature treatments,” she says. Both Hirai and Yankee-Williams, however, believe the salon structure sets the foundation for teamwork. Both Studio 904 and Pattie’s Place encourage clients to book appointments with any staff member.

9 Create a Productive Environment

No two salons are alike, but the ones with long-term employees all have one thing common: a pleasant, productive environment that has no space for divas.

First, Canavino advises, take the lead by creating your own clear definition of this desired environment. Then create the policies to support the definition. For example, professionalism is of utmost importance, what does that mean in terms of dress code of conduct? “Implement those policies, remind people of them at meetings, and do one-on-one training with those who don’t understand,” Canavino urges.

In Finger’s view, clarity and equality are the most important aspects of creating productive salon environment. Finger’s employee manual clearly communicates to expectations—from technique to professional demeanor to customer service.

“The manual even covers who is responsible for attracting and keeping new clients Finger says. “It covers that I do the marketing to bring them in, but once the client is in tech’s chair it’s her job to bring her back.”

Then look to the physical setting: Canavino emphasizes the need to provide employee with the tools and products needed to do their job well “I believe in only using the best products and trying everything new.” agrees Yankee-Williams.

A salon’s most valuable asset is its long-term employees. Meet some nail techs who’ve stuck around and learn why they stayed.

Tech: Karie Siriscevich

Salon: Maxine Ltd.

How long: 4 years

“I like the clientele, and management treats us very well. There are rules and structure, but we have some flexibility as long as clients are taken care of. I like a large salon because of the energy level and the clients. Bonnie and Maxine have supported me in becoming an educator.”

Tech: Lee Derchow

Salon: Studio 904

How long: 7 years

“Kay [Hirai] creates opportunities for everyone originally, I was a stylist and moved up to senior stylist. Then I took advantage of an HR opportunity within the salon for a year before becoming the technical trainer. Now, after returning from maternity leave I’ve taken the lead in developing the spa services and I’m doing nails and getting into pedicures. Clients love ft, and it’s something new for me.”

Tech: Jamie Spencer

Salon: Mitchell’s (Kenwood, Ohio)

How long: 5 years

“The managers are all very fair. In the nail department we work very well together; when a problem arises we address it right then. I feel valued. In our weekly reviews they notice when a job is done well.”

Tech: Kim McKenzie

Salon: Mitchell’s (Westchester, Ohio)

How long: 7 years

“Management is constantly there for us and keeping us going. If we have an issue, they stop and take care of it. We do contests that really help motivate us. And I know that if something comes up personally, someone is going to be there for me because we work as a team. I’m a director and working on being promoted to senior artistic director — that really has boosted my confidence and motivates me to go above and beyond.”

Tech: Paula Allen

Salon: VIP Salon and Spa

How long: 12 years

“Renee [Borowy] really cares and is loyal and fair. She is very responsive and tries her best to accommodate our needs. The salon is very clean and has a wonderful atmosphere. People tell me that I’m so patient, but I see it as being relaxed. This is the only place that is so relaxing — and I’ve worked in many.”

Tech: Kristi Frohling

Salon: Finger’s Nail Studio

How long: 10 years

“Shari [Finger] stresses the point that we all work together. She’s always way ahead of the game and she’s right there, working with us. She’s empathetic to our issues because she’s gone through them, too.”

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