Customer Service

“Following Wanted”: Whose Clients Are They?

 When a technician leaves a salon, can she take clients with her? If she leaves on good terms, the owner will probably let her, but in the end, it’s up to the client.

Imagine you worked for a salon for five years, during which time you progressed from independent contractor to employee, then were promoted regularly to more responsibility. You liked your job and were well thought of.

Then, things began to change. While the salon was highly reputable in the beginning, its facilities and employees became less professional as the company grew and expanded. After seeing many others leave, you decided you couldn’t take it anymore and gave notice and left to join one of your former coworkers at another salon several miles away.

Much to your shock, after working in the new salon one week you were served with an injunction ordering you to cease doing nails immediately because your former employer says you have violated a non-compete contract. What do you do?

In this case, the nail technician had two children, couldn’t afford not to work, and couldn’t afford an attorney. Thanks to one of her clients who offered her attorney’s services, she was able to get the injunction lifted, all non-compete charges were dropped because the employment contract was declared void, and the former salon owner was forced to settle by dropping all charges and paying all court costs. But that didn’t happen overnight.

In the meantime, 95% of the nail technician’s clients followed her to the new salon because they couldn’t take the conditions at the old salon either.

Sound like a nightmare for everyone? You bet! Thankfully, all partings need not be this difficult.

There Are Always Two Sides

Jackie Randolph, owner of Nail Expressions in Washington, D.C., has seen this scenario from all three roles – the nail technician who left a salon and had her clients follow, the salon owner who has hired nail technicians with a following, and the salon owner whose nail technicians have left and taken their clients with them.

“There’s really two sides to the issue of ‘Whose clients are they?’ Both the salon owner and the nail technician have to make the effort to resolve the situation professionally,” says Randolph, who is also chairperson of Nail Technicians America.

“On one hand, the nail technician sees it from the perspective that she’s the person who relates to the client, touches her, and has cultivated a professional relationship. Often, the nail technician believes the client comes to that particular salon only because the nail technician is there. It can be an emotional issue.”

“On the other hand,” continues Randolph, “the salon owner provides the space, the equipment, the products, the marketing support, and maybe even the advertising that first attracted the client to that salon where she met her nail technician. So, the owner feels a strong financial bond to the client.”

Parting Professionally

Not your traditional salon hopper, Barbara Griggs left a full-service salon after 16 years when she decided to open her own salon, Nail Visions in Pasadena, Md., a year ago. She readily admits that most of her clients – about 99% -- followed her to the new business six miles away.

“Most of them came with me because they weren’t happy at the other salon,” says Griggs. “My clients often mentioned what they didn’t like about the old salon to me. Since I really care about my clients, I feel I made the move for them.”

It was important to Griggs to leave on a professional note. “I told the salon owner I was leaving well in advance,” says Griggs.

“Since my new salon wasn’t ready on schedule, I gave almost three months’ notice. I also told my clients privately that I was leaving and asked them not to discuss the situation in the salon. I did not discuss my leaving with anyone else’s clients – that would have been unprofessional.

“In addition, I sent my clients a very professional letter on my new letterhead telling them I was opening my own salon, inviting them to see it for themselves, and giving directions. Handling it in this manner really impressed my clients.”

On the other hand, the salon owner made no effort to notify or retain Griggs’ clients.

Mark Amelotte, an industry educator and president of Impact Communications in Solon, Ohio, says that was the salon owner’s first mistake. He recommends that salon owners make a professional but aggressive approach to clients when a nail technician leaves.

“If the nail technician leaves on good terms, I recommend that the salon owner take the initiative and notify the clients immediately,” say Amelotte. “Write a very positive letter stating that MaryAnn is leaving to pursue new challenges and that she will be missed by everyone. I also suggest including her home phone number after checking with her to make sure it’s okay.

“Then, devote the remainder of the letter to letting the clients know how valuable they are to you and introducing Susan, the nail technician you’ve designated to take over MaryAnn’s clients. Emphasize that Susan performs the same caliber of work as MaryAnn and offers the same level of service.

“Since new clients may be uncertain about Susan’s abilities or whether their personalities will click with hers, you can overcome those fears by giving them an incentive to get to know her. As a bonus for trying Susan, extend an offer for a complimentary product valued at $9.95 if the client books an appointment during the next six weeks,” says Amelotte.

“It’s always best to be up-front with your clients. They will find MaryAnn on their own if they really want to. By including her number, you’re showing them that you are prepared to keep them and have confidence in your staff to continue servicing them. If you’ve made every effort all along to ensure that clients know all your staff members, the transition should be fairly easy,” he adds.

“This approach gives the owner the opportunity to control the situation without looking like the bad guy,” says Amelotte. “Most clients will feel good about you and the letter and will respond readily. But keep in mind that some will probably follow MaryAnn – at least initially – no matter what you do.”

Building Double Loyalty

You cannot prevent client or employee attrition. What you can do is cultivate a clientele from day one that feels like a part of the salon.

Building a clientele that respects their technician but is loyal to the salon takes double work – from both the salon owner and the staff – but it can yield positive, profitable results for all.

Randolph has developed a mutually beneficial apprentice/client cultivation program for salon owners who, for a variety of reasons, don’t hire nail technicians complete with clientele. The salon owner might think that nail technicians who salon hop with clients in tow are likely to leave again with their clients, an excellent experienced nail technician could move into the area from out of town, or the salon’s policy is to hire trainable staff directly from school.

“While most of my employees are paid commission, I will pay new nail technicians a small salary so they have some income while I help them build their clientele,” says Randolph. “But it’s a joint effort.

“In my apprentice program, which is great for nail technicians who want to work part time, the apprentices receive one hour of intense training from me for every day they work. During this learning period, they assist me and do manicures, pedicures, and polish changes while they meet clients and receive training in more advanced services. I pay them an hourly wage but they don’t earn commission until they build their own clientele – usually two to three months. In this way, we are investing in each other.”

For a more experienced technician who’s new to the salon, Randolph will provide intense marketing to help build her clientele, including mailings, coupons, fliers and word-of-mouth publicity for 60 days to entice new clients to stop in and established clients to try her if their regular nail technician is booked.

In return, Randolph expects the new technician to take the lead during downtime and introduce herself to clients, assist the other nail technicians, and work hard to develop a rapport with the salon’s clients.

“Then, when someone is busy, the clients will feel comfortable booking an appointment with the new technician,” says Randolph. “This process benefits everyone, including the clients.”

Randolph has also created a contract that requires her nail technicians to share the responsibility for generating new business by participating for five hours per month in programs from business card handouts to mall shows to wearing their nails proudly in public – anything that will create excitement for nails.

Follow You, Follow Me

Randolph says, “You can threaten former employees with an injunction or a lawsuit, but when all is said and done, their clients have the right to follow if they want.”

When Griggs opened her own salon, almost 150 clients followed and, more important, they’ve stayed. How has she done it?

Griggs says she tries to run her business so clients feel like they belong to the salon and the salon belongs to them. “Clients stay because they like the salon,” says Griggs, who now sees the issue from the salon owner’s chair. “It’s comfortable, it’s neat and clean and convenient. And, even though it’s only a year old, the salon is continuously upgraded and remodeled, and new services are added as appropriate. Our clients are conscious that as a salon we are always offering new and exciting things for them. It makes them feel special here.”

Griggs makes sure the clients get to know her, too. “I’ve done at least one nail on practically everybody,” she says.

Her final advice: Always act as a professional and treat your nail technicians and clients as professionals. They will appreciate it, and the payroll will come. “If one of our nail technicians left, I think her clients would stay here,” says Griggs.

She adds that clients catch on fast to nail technicians or hairdressers who constantly salon-hop, and they will quit playing tag quickly.

Client Records

Some salon owners try to prevent client migration by keeping their client lists a secret. Most of the professionals interviewed say that approach seldom works.

While Randolph’s client list is computerized for efficiency’s sake, her staff has full access to it. “There’s no way to prevent them from developing their own lists if they really want to,” she says.

Griggs concurs. Nail Visions’ client list is kept in a file cabinet and on a Rolodex, and the entire staff has access to both. “If someone leaves, the clients will find out where she is if they make the effort,” she says.

A Professional Future

“The best case scenario is the nail technician who gives you advance notice and leaves on good enough terms so that you feel comfortable telling clients who ask where she is,” says Randolph. “If some clients feel that there’s no one else in the salon who they want to service them, then the salon owner has to make the decision to establish goodwill and tell the clients the truth. In the long run, the clients will appreciate the openness and honesty.”

Employment Agreements Prevent Problems

The salon owners and nail technicians interviewed for this article agree on one point: The easiest way to deal with an unpleasant parting is to prevent it before it occurs.

The first and easiest way is to have an employment agreement between the salon owner and the nail technician. “That employment agreement would define up-front what occurs if there’s a separation,” says Karen Lessler, president of the National Nail Technicians Group. “If there’s a policy in writing, then the separation avenues are much more clear cut.”

In a written agreement, consider addressing the following points:

  • What responsibilities do the salon owner and the nail technician have for building her clientele at that salon?
  • How will clients be notified in the event the nail technician leaves?
  • Who will notify clients?
  • Will both parties be able to notify clients?
  • Will the nail technician have access to clients’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers while she works at the salon? If so, what is her responsibility in regard to this list?
  • If the nail technician is bringing clients with her, do they remain “her” clients?

As an owner, you might even want to include a non-compete clause that limits the distance from your salon where that nail technician can work for a specified period of time if she leaves.

Remember, it’s always best to consult an attorney before signing any document.

Legal Limits

Ethics and professionalism aside, nail technicians who leave the salon with their clients in tow could find themselves in legal hot water, depending on their state law, says Ann Hammersmith, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm of Smith, Heenan, & Athen, which serves as legal counsel for the American Beauty Association.

“It’s really a case-by-case situation and rests heavily on the understanding between the nail technician and the salon owner,” says Hammersmith. The salon owner could find the law on her side in several cases.

First, if there’s a signed employment agreement between the nail technician and the owner that specifically states that the nail technician will not compete with the salon, then the salon owner could sue over breach of contract if the nail technician leaves the salon and actively solicits her clients to follow by using cards, letters, advertisements, phone calls, or other means.

Even without a written contract, in some states the salon owner could claim that a common law contract existed. In others, the salon owner might possibly have a case based on state laws regarding unfair trade practices or unfair competition. For example, if the nail technician uses a client list compiled by the salon owner, the owner could possibly sue for theft of proprietary information.

But in reality, Hammersmith adds, the salon owner has limited legal recourse if clients follow the nail technician on their own and there’s no evidence that the nail technician did anything to entice them.

If you have any questions about the legal limits in your state, it’s best to consult with a local attorney who’s familiar with your state employment laws.

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