Editor's Note: This story was originally published in March 2020, but it couldn't be more pertinent than it is today. There continues to be a stylist shortage, and as clients are returning to the salons in droves, many owners are reporting their team can't keep up with demand. As the professional beauty industry strives to recover from the pandemic, it's more critical than ever that salons know how to meet today's graduating cosmetology students and displaced stylists and get them on board and trained as soon as possible.
The predicament of too few stylists for too many salons has hit especially hard in communities where the schools producing these beauty professionals have closed or moved away.
In St. Louis, Laura Ortmann, owner of two Ginger Bay Salons and Spas, says this is one of the issues contributing to a very challenging situation.
Over a four-year time period, there has been a consistent trend of closings of cosmetology schools, trade schools, and forms of secondary education. In St. Louis, where Ortmann has her salons, they have lost almost 60% of the trade schools. At the same time, there has been an influx of beauty franchises and salon suites. The result is a smaller pool of licensed employees in a market where opportunities for beauty professionals has doubled.
On top of that dynamic, there’s the economy. “While the very low unemployment rate may be wonderful for the economy, it’s horrible for small businesses and terrible for the hospitality industry,” she continues. “Salons, along with hotels, restaurants, doggie day cares and stores in the mall, are struggling to get front desk staff because we don’t have the resources to pay even what Starbucks can pay them.”
With the rise of booth rental, walkouts have grown increasingly common for salons, but Ortmann hadn’t experienced one until 2019, when during a period of several months, she lost nine employees. “It is really hard to watch someone you took a chance on right out of school leave after seven years, with a full book, and walk out with your business.”
While this tsunami is battering salon business, the promise of a rainbow keeps owners searching for some creative solutions. Before you start reaching out—via school visits, social media, or marketing—you need to be clear about your story, says Stefanie Jackson, owner of Canvas Salon and Skin Bar in Powell, Ohio.
“I study consumer behavior and I look at how we shop and how we assess brands we want to engage with,” she explains. “If you look at most salons, their Instagram has a lot of pictures of hair, but you also need to show who you are as a team—are you fun and loud or are you more serious and focused? Your story is what will be out there in the world for potential employees to see, so it should match up with the kind of people you want to attract.”
Jackson encourages salon owners to do an audit of their brand story and see if they find it compelling. “I often invite salons to dig into their existing culture, and then put the lens on what they would evolve and what they’d want to look differently. Once they are very clear about that story, owners need to put it out there with an eye to marketing to future team members.”
Jackson’s business, Talent Match, was launched to help owners strategize, while providing support during talent acquisition. This business-to-employee marketing has evolved to meet those savvy searchers, the Pinterest generations of Millennials and Gen Z.
“They care about finding a team that feels like a family and they are doing their research in all the places that your brand shows up,” Jackson says. “That means we must be very intentional with our brand story, telling who we are so that they can envision themselves in our space, with us.”
COOL FOR SCHOOL
The reduction in the number of people becoming licensed hairdressers makes staffing up more complicated.
“I spoke to the National Association of Accredited Cosmetology Schools, and they have data to support the finding that whenever we have a prosperous economy, there is a reduction in people going to cosmetology school,” Jackson says.
While owners historically have visited beauty schools as a first stop on the search for promising new talent, today they need to go above and beyond a handshake and a smile to create excitement around their brand.
Even though Chris Sulimay, media strategist for the Salon 124 Group in Atlanta, just hired 32 new staff members (and had many more apply), it wasn’t always like this.
“Salon 124 Group owns its own academy, but our top students were going to other salons,” he says. “The reality was that there is much more attracting a stylist’s attention on the internet, so while they were getting ‘wowed’ on the internet, they weren’t getting wowed in our environment.”
Salon 124’s wow-factor increased, though, with the launch of a podcast called Shop Talk by 124Go. Originally created as a way to connect and communicate among the team—not necessarily as a recruitment tool—the podcast has become a point of difference that helps the salon chain stand out.
“When we go to a school career fair, all the other salons are there competing for attention, too, and this is where our social media becomes relevant,” Sulimay says. “Right away, we talk to candidates about our podcast, but we also bring a few of our A-list stylists and we engage with the students right away. We want to see that look in their eye that says they’re interested in being involved in a community like ours.”
The number one recruitment effort with the biggest ROI for Ortmann has been reaching out to students on social media. She attends every cosmetology school recruitment event in her area and while there, she offers students a chance to win prizes in exchange for sharing some of their information—their name, their day of graduation, and their Instagram handle, etc. This is all entered in a spreadsheet that Ortmann and her management team divide up and use to direct message students—up to 20 a day.
“It’s so simple, and it’s free, but it’s also incredibly time-consuming,” she shares. “I’m on Instagram constantly. I’m doing hashtag searches for the schools and to find stylists in suites, and I’m reaching out to students who are about to graduate, inviting them into our salons for tours.”
These direct social media marketing efforts have yielded such a positive response, Ortmann is making it a requirement of those on her management team to reach out to so many prospects a week, and she’s holding them accountable.
An “ah-ha” moment at her keyboard convinced Ortmann to develop a marketing campaign that spoke to a specific audience.
“I was on the computer looking on the State Board to make sure one of my stylists had renewed her license, and I decided to click on that list and I see 15-20,000 licensed cosmetologists,” Ortmann says. “I realized that while my nearby pool of students had shrunk considerably, I still had this big pool of licensed pros out there. And I knew there had to be people on that list who needed benefits—service providers who were not growing in their current environment, and stylists who want a salon home like Ginger Bay, where they can learn, do their passion, make money, be part of a team and then go home.”
Ortmann began reaching out to people who had left the industry or had gone out on their own and began asking them what they were missing—and a theme began to emerge.
“I heard variations of ‘I take care of my guests, but I want someone to take care of me’ and out of these discussions we came with our ‘We’ll Take Care of You’ campaign,” she explains. “I would never walk into a school and tell the students not to do booth rental because I think there are a lot of business models where people will thrive. And I never recruit from another salon.”
Instead, Ortmann focuses her recruitment efforts on the why. “Why if you’re not entirely content as a booth renter, why you might want to consider a team culture. We’ll take care of supplies, pay for education, help you with health benefits, so you can focus on what you love doing.”
Sulimay, in addition to the podcast, has launched a video series on YouTube for Salon 124, to connect with consumers, which is also enticing stylists. They started shooting video in September 2019 and launched the channel in late January 2020.
“In the creation of these videos, word got out and we had people wanting to come and assist our featured team members,” Sulimay says. “Students would come and work with us on a shoot and they all loved it. Our business is the client, so we want to attract them, but this also interests students who want to be that stylist who is on camera.”
Having made a big investment in hair extensions, Salon 124 has developed a series of videos on extensions, as well as DIY styling, makeovers and more.
“You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to invest time. If you’re a small salon chain like ours, this is a no-brainer.”
REASON TO STAY
As enthusiastically as she approaches recruitment, Ortmann puts even more energy into retention.
“Recruitment and retention are inseparable, and you have to do those concurrently,” she says. “If I brought them into a place of business that I hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t retain them. I must give them everything I promised when I was recruiting and then some.”
Jen Baudier, owner of Bella Style Salon in Slidell, Louisiana, says that stylists need to have a reason to stay. And she speaks from experience, having been a self-described “chair-hopper.”
“I had such a hard time as a stylist finding a place where I could take care of a guest in a premium way and give them a five-star experience. I also needed more opportunities for growth and education—so I had to create them for myself.”
Today, one of the techniques Baudier employs to encourage her team of 11 to experience a five-star treatment, so she plans luxury experiences for them. She believes this offers them a better understanding of what she is teaching them to deliver.
“Our team holiday parties are always planned around an experience,” Baudier says. “In past years, I’ve taken them to get their nails done at a luxury nail bar and this past year, we hired a private chef to come to my home and cook us a five-course dinner.”
Baudier organizes an annual team retreat, which is a recharge at the beginning of the year. She has brought in a meditation therapist, a life coach, financial advisors and a holistic health coach.
Another way Baudier challenges her team is by expecting each of them to seek out a role within the company that is outside of their service role. “It is our goal to grow them all as leaders and we want our people to be smarter than we are.”
New roles in 2020 are those overseeing Social Media, Philanthropy, Events, Beauty School Recruitment and Team Wellness.
Jackson says this approach—both showing appreciation and looking for involvement—is the way to go, because stylists don’t want to just be marking time, they want to be making their mark.
“High engagement and keeping team members super active in your business and giving them responsibility in their own growth and yours is what keeps them motivated and contributes to well-being,” she explains.
Both Baudier and Jackson have been particularly creative about developing retention programs that celebrate their team’s longevity and accomplishments.
Bella Style has two Service Clubs—one for employees who’ve hit $100K in service sales and one for those who’ve hit $200K. Baudier also created a $20K and a $30K Retail Clubs. “Our team members get recognition within our company, and each year they hit the mark they get an award and a charm for their charm bracelet,” she says.
At Canvas, Jackson rewards longevity in creative ways. “Our commission scale has no top out, and we reduce our back-bar charge to stylists at year three, and eliminate it at year five. At year seven, stylists are eligible for a sabbatical with one week paid off and a $1,200 bonus to take a trip,” Jackson says.
Looking outside of the salon industry for examples of best practices around retaining employees, Jackson says owners can take a page out of the Google playbook.
“Large companies are hiring and training individuals to act as ‘corporate concierges’ for the staff to improve the experience of working with them,” Jackson says. “They have learned that it doesn’t matter how many amenities you offer in your environment if the experience at work is poor. We can do this too, training our leadership teams to act as experience leaders, to hold all standards.”
Jackson cites a study of 1,000 cosmetologists who were asked how quickly they thought they should be hired after that initial direct message—the answer: within three days.
“Our response time has to change; when we get an email or a social message, we have to react,” she says. If that three-day turn around isn’t possible, then Jackson says your salon needs to at least be interacting with them. “They will wait longer if you have points of engagement, but you don’t want to just disappear.”
Lisa Cochran, owner of The Studio Aveda Salon and Studio R3 in Hattiesburg and Laurel, Misssissippi, repectively, established a six-series interview and every stop along that journey helps her, her team, and potential new hires ensure that they’re making the right decision.
Cochran puts herself in that series only once, trusting the other interviews to her team. “As a leader, I am looking for the potential, and my team, they tend to look at what the person has right now,” she says. “When my team became part of the hiring process our staff retention grew significantly. It’s one thing for someone we’re interviewing to hear about the benefits of working at your salon from an owner, but it’s another to hear it from a team member who has been with you for 10 or 15 years.”
Stylists have two sit-down interviews and the other four are out in the salon. They are asked to show up in the morning and also at a closing shift to see if they will be on time.
“We ask them about their experience in school, why they chose this industry, what they are looking for in an employer and we ask them to tell us about their best and worst customer service experiences because we want to know what their standard looks like,” Cochran explains. “We are looking at behaviors, too. We may do a small thing like drop our papers on the floor and see if they help to pick them up because that shows how they might be willing to help a teammate who dropped her foils or a guest who spilled her coffee.”
Surprisingly, Cochran says they do not conduct technical interviews or auditions of skills. “We are behavior focused and driven. We are firm believers that soft skills are the most important to have and that we can train and teach you color application and cutting.”
It’s that third interview, Cochran says, that is often the most telling. “By this point, we are looking to see if they are still dressing appropriately and are they punctual. Sometimes, they can start to slack off and not be as buttoned up at this point,” she explains. “If not, it offers us a chance to ask, ‘Is this going to be a pattern?’ and it helps us see if it’s something we can coach through or if it will be a habit. Most candidates don’t make it past the third interview.”
The core values at Cochran’s salons are family, integrity, trust, education and fun. When someone joins her team, they do join a family, and so she involves family in the interview process, too.
“If someone we are interviewing is younger than 21 and single, we even ask for their parents to come in,” Cochran says. “Some people might think that is crazy, but we want the parents to know about the benefits we offer as a company because so many wonder. And they get to know us and learn that we are going to take care of their children. We care deeply about who we hire, and I want them to know it’s not just about doing hair; we want very strong relationships with our team.”
With an intentional approach to the “recruit, hire, retain” triumvirate, that perfect storm of problems can blow and blow but your house won’t fall down. Just start building or reinforcing your foundation, now.
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