Hospitality gurus, like Eric Fisher, create unforgettable experiences for each and every guest.
Hospitality gurus, like Eric Fisher, create unforgettable experiences for each and every guest.

For more than 15 years, SALON TODAY has been educating its community about The Experience Economy, a theory and book by B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore who argue that businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory or experience itself becomes the product that’s being sold. Further, they believe advanced businesses who deliver experiences, can charge for the value of the ‘transformation’ that an experience offers.

While many salon and spa owners have found that clients are more willing to spend their money on professional services and products post-recession, they’ve also noticed a subtle shift in power. Today’s clients are constantly calculating the personal value they receive and constantly deciding if they will pledge loyalty to a brand.

For those salons and spas who’ve mastered delivering a valuable experience each and every time, price seems to be somewhat irrelevant. But is it possible to make your prices irrelevant? “Absolutely!” says John DiJulius, owner of the John Robert’s Spas in greater Cleveland, Ohio, area and a customer-service consultant who’s authored Secret Service and What’s the Secret?

“Otherwise how have companies like Starbucks, Apple and Nordstrom dominated their markets when they charge premium prices? Most of us have a few businesses that we are loyal to because of something that they repeatedly do for us, something they give us that we can’t get elsewhere or a certain way they make us feel. We have no idea what their competitors charge, nor do we care.”

According to DiJulius, being price irrelevant doesn’t mean you can raise your prices significantly and not lose some clients--it means that when you deliver an experience, fewer of your clients will be price shopping your services. “Where would you rather compete, in the price wars or in the experience wars?” he asks. “I’d rather compete in the experience wars where there is less competition. I’ve found that many times when customers complain about price, it doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to pay for something, it’s because the experience didn’t warrant the price.”

Are you worth it?

To illustrate his point, DiJulius shared a story from John Robert’s Spa in his weekly blog. “We had a client upset about a haircut she paid $45 for because she didn’t feel it was worth it. To make things right, I gave her money back plus a complimentary gift certificate to visit one of our senior level stylists who charges $85,” he says. “Three years later that client is still coming in to see the higher-level stylist who now is charging $100. At $45 she felt she was overpaying, but she has no problem shelling out $100 every six weeks. It wasn’t the price she was upset about, it was the total experience. In fact 85 percent of consumers report they’d pay up to 25 percent more to ensure a superior experience.”

Creating the Experience

Ritz-Carlton, Apple Stores, Starbucks, LuLuLemon—as a consumer, you recognize a great experience once you’ve been exposed to it. And, just like any major retailer, salons need to seek ways to create memorable experiences.

When Eric Fisher was a young boy, he says every kid took their bike to Doc’s Bike Shop because they were so friendly and really created a special experience. “It was such a sensory experience, you actually anticipated it before you went in, and we’d go to Doc’s even when there was nothing wrong with our bikes,” remembers Fisher, who works with his staff and students to transcend a haircut service into the same kind of sensory experience in his three Eric Fisher Salons and his academy in Wichita, Kansas.

The Age of the Guest ExperienceFor Van Council, who with his brother Michael, owns Van Michael Salon locations in Atlanta, Miami and Tokyo, that transformational service begins when the guest walks in the front door and is greeted not by a massive front desk, but by a friendly greeter at a podium.

“We’ve always done this,” says Council, who thought it was important to separate his appointment booking in a separate phone room and his checkout area in a separate section of the salon. “When a guest walks in, our focus is on them, and a new guest always gets a tour of the salon, with a history of why we’re departmentalized, why our training program takes two years, and how our New Talent program works. Every service comes with a sensory experience and every haircut ends with a complimentary makeup touchup. And, managers introduce themselves to new guests and give them a gift of travel-sized products.”

In his newest salon in Strongville, Ohio, DiJulius took the deskless-reception concept one step further. As a customer service consultant, DiJulius regularly trains top executives from companies, such as Starbucks, Dominos and Chik-Fil-A, and on the first day he’ll break the group into parties of four or five and have them visit top retailers and experience masters like Nordstrom’s, LuluLemon, Teavana, and when in Atlanta, he’s even taken them to Van Michael. On the following day, he’ll ask the executives what all those businesses had in common—things like creating a memorable experience, educating instead of selling, and making it easy to do business.

The Age of the Guest Experience“But I realized, I had never done this exercise with my own managerial team, so we did it before creating this new location and we decided, much like an Apple Store, we needed to take away the barrier of the front desk,” says DiJulius. “Instead, guest walks into an experience area with beauty products displayed on tables that they can test. Another table features a touch screen monitor where guests can look up the latest fashion style. The concierge comes to guests with an iPad and checks them in while they are experiencing the retail area.” 

The floating receptionists also can visit guests during the service and check them out, schedule their next appointment, gather recommended retail and ring it up—saving the guest valuable time after the service is completed. “I didn’t tell our team about the deskless reception area until it was built because I knew they’d protest, but after a few months they want all our locations to go deskless,” says DiJulius, who also claims the design has had a measurable impact on business. “This particular location has the highest retail sales per client—almost $3 more per client than any of our other locations—and a higher rebooking rate.” 

At Van Michael, the iPad factors heavily into the service as well. Stylists use it as a mobile portfolio, showing guests recommended styles and color choices, and making sure that both stylist and client are on the same page. Throughout the service, Van Michael stylists engage the guest in the experience. “When styling a new guest or a new haircut, our stylists will blowout half of the guest’s hair, then stop, place the dryer and brush in the clients hands and talk them through how to style a few sections – so clients leave confident they can recreate their new look at home,” explains Council.

For Ian and Beth Weber, who own two Studio Be locations in Fort Collins, Colorado, part of the magic happens in the Wash House. “It’s really an extension of what a Paul Mitchell mentor of ours did while creating a Lather Lounge, but we’ve designed both our salons with quiet, dedicated shampoo rooms,” says Beth Weber. “We’re essentially celebrating a part of the service that the clients like most and really designing an entire experience around it. As an added benefit, it’s helping our staff really prepare the canvas of the hair to best receive the color or service the client is receiving that day.”

When guests arrive at the Studio Be, they are handed a menu and encouraged to check off their preference for beverage (water, coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer, wine) as well as one of five complimentary washes. The menu includes a protecting Hue wash, a hydrating Wild Ginger wash, an invigorating T3 wash, a brightening Blonde wash and a clarifying Detox wash. The menu also gives the guest the opportunity to add on one of nine upgraded washes for a minimal fee. “For example, we recently created a refreshing citrus Lemon Head wash that uses Paul Mitchell’s Lemon Sage shampoo with fresh lemons and a Perrier rinse to detox the hair and bring out the highlights,” says Beth Weber.

No matter how salons design the experience into their salon and spa environment, these owners agree that before any magic happens on the salon stage, quite a bit of strategic planning, preparation and practice happens behind it.

Filling the Parts

When The Experience Economy first came out in 1999, Fisher says he became obsessed with hiring the right people who could embrace his mission, vision and core values. “To some degree, you can’t change human behavior--You can train someone in customer service standards, but if you’ve hired the wrong person, their performance will not be authenticate and sincere. But if someone is empathetic and caring by nature, they’ll be empathetic and caring when in your salon.”

Many new stylists have never experienced five-star service, so they don’t know what it looks like, says Fisher. “And, we don’t have a Ritz Carlton in Wichita, so we constantly role play situations with staff and demonstrate what five-star service would look like.” From their first days in Fisher’s Academy, he trains students that their number one goal is to bring the client back and that quality is defined by going beyond the call of duty.

The salon’s leader has to show the team what enlightened hospitality looks like, each and every day, in the way he or she interacts with clients, says Fisher. For example, just the other day he received a call from a husband whose wife got a bad haircut at another salon and was in tears. Fisher stayed after hours and invited them to the salon, and completely re-cut her hair. “They were in jeans and scruffy T-shirts so I told them it was on the house, that I was happy to be able to do a good deed. After they left, I found three $100 bills on my chair—so now I use that as a teachable moment to my staff of how you can never make assumptions about clients.”

The Age of the Guest ExperienceAt Studio Be, part of finding the right people is creating the right part. A number of years ago, as Studio Be got busier the Webers say they stood back and looked at the visual of their guests lining up at the front desk and decided that no matter how great a guest’s experience was in the salon, it wasn’t ending on a great note. So they too transitioned the ringing phones to a call room.

“We also reshaped the role of the front desk,” says Weber. “We felt a receptionist was there to receive but that’s where the client interaction ended. So we created Experience Managers who are in charge of managing a guests’ experience throughout their entire stay.”

At Studio Be, Experience Managers are the ones who walk the guest through the Wash House menu, fetch their beverage and help them select their experience choices. “We tell them at our salon, the party starts at 8:45 a.m., and you are the hostess,” explains Weber.

And, like Fisher, the Webers are looking for the hospitality gene when they hire staff. “We use a really cool online application process that asks a number of intelligent questions designed to uncover their core personality, such as, ‘If you had a super hero power, what would it be?’”

Practice Makes Polished

All of the owners point to a strong customer service training program as the foundation of their overall guest-first cultures. Council’s <B>New Talent<B> members, who go through two years of training before they are full-fledged stylists, receive almost as much instruction on the soft skills as they do technical skills.

But the key for all these salons is that the hospitality training doesn’t stop once service providers have earned their place on the floor. Van Michael has established 21 customer service standards and each day one of the standards is reviewed with the entire team as part of the salon’s twice-daily lineups (their phrase for huddle).

At Studio Be, the staff, whom the Webers refer to as the tribe, were involved in developing the core values or service standards. Anytime the salon rolls out a new service or product, the tribe will review it through the lens of the core values. “For example, our first core value is ‘Be Unforgettable,’ so when we launched the Lemon Head upgraded wash we talked about how to make that service unforgettable,” says Beth Weber.

The Webers also infuse new ideas about experience making into their staff meetings or Pow-wows through book club-style reading assignments. For example, the team currently is reading <I>Delivering Happiness<I> by Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. The Webers bought hard copies or audio copies for each staff member depending on their preferences, and the tribe will discuss a chapter of the book at each meeting.

From students’ first day in Fisher’s Academy, he trains students and that their number one goal is to bring each client back and that quality is defined by going beyond the call of duty. Over the years, Fisher gathered his ideas on creating the best guest experience into a training manual called <I>Enlightened Hospitality<I>, which not only is drilled with each team member, but he also retails to other salons and spas.

“For millennials, the average attention span is 8 seconds, so you really have to train new staff how to be focused on the client. It’s hard to stay engaged, focused and listening throughout an entire appointment,” says Fisher. “But you can train staff to mention a customer’s name throughout the service, to say please and thank you, to exhibit the proper body language, to nail the consultation, to make the client feel important throughout the service, to rebook them, to ask for a referral and to sell them something. That’s all part of the job.”

When it comes to customer service language and sales, repetition is the key, says Fisher who conducts classes every Tuesday night and always has staff practice a product or service add-on. “It’s a matter of practicing it until you feel comfortable, until it rolls off the tongue and isn’t clumsy.” And while Fisher helps them also by sketching out a script, he encourages staff to personalize it and make it their own so it feels authentic.

Delivering Secret Service

All companies try to teach their employees about customer service, says DiJulius, but salons have a distinct advantage, “You know who is coming in today. Your stylist knows her 2:00 appointment has two kids, like highlights around the face, just got back from a trip to Jamaica and likes to read People when she’s processing,” he notes. “It doesn’t cost any more or take any longer to record that information and use it to make a deeper emotional connection. But, too many salons miss the opportunity.” That’s one of the strategies behind DiJulius’ book Secret Service.

For John Robert’s, the Service Vision is ‘To be the best part of our guest’s day,’ and it’s a vision that Dijulius says is not only aspirational but achievable. “From the moment your client gets up, she could be making lunches, getting the kids off to school, dealing with traffic, bosses, curve balls—it should be easy to make a manicure and pedicure the best part of her day.”

Empowering the Team

Even the most talented stylists make mistakes and the finest salons host unhappy clients from time to time, but empowering your team to go above and beyond to make things right no matter whether an owner or manager is in house is key.

“Just this morning, Allison handed me the notes from the end of the day yesterday and told me we had to give a client a free color and haircut because we rinsed her too soon and had to reapply the color and the client was inconvenienced,” says Fisher. “I simply said ‘Good for you,’ and they’ll be recognized publicly in a group meeting for making that decision.”

When a staff member does go above and beyond to help a guest, celebrate it at an upcoming team meeting, stresses DiJulius. “For example, Beth at our Chagrin Falls location had her last appointment no-show because of inclement weather, so she gathered the keys of all the guests in the salon, went out and warmed up their cars and brushes the snow off their windshields. Sharing that story at a team meeting will encourage the rest of the team to think out of the box on how to create a memorable guest experience.”

Fisher adds that empowered team members will continue to exceed expectations because making surprising and delighting guests feels good. “We have one client who is not in good health and doesn’t have much money, but comes in four times a year for a cut and color and we always give them more value than they pay for,” he says. “On her last visit, she was telling us her son just got out of prison and stole all her jewelry. While she was getting her service, my staff, on their own, quietly took up a collection and went to a nearby jewelry story and bought her a lovely $100 necklace. That client was filled with such a deep heartfelt sense of appreciation, do you think she’s ever going to go somewhere else?”