Sharon Buckley doesn’t see herself as a businesswoman……..
but having run a busy, profitable operation for the past 15 years, with a large satisfied customer base and a commitment to training and development of her staff, how else could you define a successful businesswoman?
In this section of the3rdi.co.uk we aim to cover the full spectrum of experience of real businesswomen doing real jobs. What could be more typical of women into business than the independent hairdresser? We probably all have a hairdresser; we all visit a salon so we think we know what’s involved. But unless you work in the industry you can’t really understand the scope of the salon AS A BUSINESS.
For this issue, then, I visited a small independent hairstyling salon in a market town in Cheshire, to find out how the business is run from the owners perspective.
Sharon Buckley has been running the salon for over 15 years, and the article covers the ups and downs of her journey to date, and will hopefully provide tips and inspiration for other budding entrepreneurs.
Sharon has been a professional hairstylist for over 20 years.
Originally, her dream was to be a medical secretary but, like many of us, her O-level results did not support this dream. Faced with this far from unusual problem, and with the support of family and friends, Sharon retook her ‘O’ levels, took on various Saturday jobs and enrolled on a hair and beauty course at a local college.
During the course, it became clear to Sharon that her interest specifically lay in the hair styling element of the course and at this point she decided that this was the area she wished to focus on.
I asked Sharon how she reached this decision;
“It was the creative side that attracted me. It gave me more opportunity to express my own ideas and personality, and also allowed me to communicate far more openly and freely with the client.”
The options open to her at that time were very much the same as they are today: namely, to take her skills in the theory of styling in a controlled environment into the competitive world of hair and beauty.
The employment choices too were similar; self-employment, a role with the local salon or, her preferred option, to seek employment with one of the big chain stylist groups. Her view at the time was that not only would she encounter more demanding and complex styling needs but also that her attachment to a larger agency would allow her to gain some personal credibility and kudos. She managed to secure for myself a position as trainee/junior stylist with a “brand” salon, and her commitment to learning and personal development soon enabled her to a “rent at chair”, a common practice in salons where stylists “own” a chair within a salon and develop a manage their own list of clients. While developing this client base Sharon consciously and deliberately took part in any training that the agency could offer, both theoretical and practical. Not all of this training was funded by the salon and Sharon continued to invest in her own skills and abilities over the next seven years.
During 1995, Sharon decided to take the plunge and open her own and found a salon in the local town that had recently closed down. Taking a loan to pay for the refurbishment, she approached the boutique owner and agreed to rent the premises. She opened her own salon, Plaitts, towards the end of 1995 with no clients, no salary, and no junior staff. In fact, the only staff available to her was her mother, who agreed to take on the role of junior assistant!
At this point, the conversation drifted slightly. I was rather taken aback, and indeed more than a little surprised, to hear that Sharon did not regard herself as an entrepreneur, nor even as a businesswoman. To her, entrepreneurs were highflying power dressed women in the city and businesswomen ran multi-million pound businesses and had been trained formally in commerce and business management. When I pressed the issue a little further and suggested that anyone starting a business in the mid-90s and who has continued to trade successfully for almost 15 years was, to me at least, a businesswoman she was surprised and typically humble.
In order to prove my point I asked her some more detailed questions;
How many businesses do you know of that have been trading continually for 15 years?
Well, now you mention it, not many! I know lots of friends within the town that used to work the companies that no longer exist. Nowadays, working for someone else does not have the job security that it used to.
How many salons have opened and closed during the same period?
When I first opened the salon there were only three or four of salons in the town. Now, there are well over a dozen and I know of at least 30 mobile hairdressers, operating in the area.
How much external funding have you required during the term of this business?
I have to say that my particular bank manager has always been supportive, but I always try to keep a positive bank balance! This is becoming increasingly difficult as our operating costs keep rising – electricity and the like – and competition from other salons is making prices tighter so like most businesses we have to consider flexible overdrafts and loans during the quieter periods.
What is the retention rate from your clients?
We do quite well with our clients. I would say that well over 90% of my customers always come back.
How is the current credit crunch affecting your business?
We are quite lucky in this industry, because we tend to get paid immediately. This makes it easier to manage the cash because our bookings list provides a pretty accurate prediction of money coming in during the forthcoming few weeks. Like most small businesses, we are always conscious of keeping costs down and we are finding that clients may delay their regular appointment or may even select a less expensive style, but generally, we concentrate on providing the best styles and atmosphere for all our customers, and I guess this is the reason why they keep coming back.
What are your business criteria for success?
I have never really looked at my job as just a business. I like to make the experience pleasant, for all my customers. At the end of the day I think we are selling happiness. We want people to feel comfortable while they are here and happier when they leave. We engage every customer in conversation about whatever they wish to talk about, and this interaction is all part of the experience. They come to us, because they want to look better and, hopefully, they leave looking and feeling better than before they arrived.
How many staff, do you employ?
I currently have four senior and one junior stylists working for me so a mix of nvq3 and nvq2 qualified.
How many staff have you had to lay off?
Actually, I have managed to keep all but two stylists that I have employed over the period. Unfortunately, one girl did not feel that she could not continue with the prospect of running her own client list and a junior male stylist decided to leave us to pursue a career on X-factor!
How do you train your junior staff?
All the junior stylists take a hair and beauty course at the local college. They are away studying one day per week and we provide general styling training in the salon on an ongoing basis. When they achieve their mvq2 level, I employ them on a full-time basis.
How do you target/reward your employees?
I use the same system that I think most salons use. When I think they are confident enough and when they have completed a sufficient part of their formal training, I allow them to build their own client list. I always keep a close eye on them in the first place and provide any support and tips that they need during their early months. At the end of the day I have to be more concerned to secure a happy client than in rushing the training of a new recruit. Once they have their own list of satisfied clients, they can manage their own client bookings and listings. When I am happy that they can operate relatively independently I set them targets on expanding both the number and value of their client list and pay them an additional bonus/ commission against these revenues over and above their basic wage.
What is the biggest single problem you currently face?
Well, apart from the obvious cash issues with clients, I am becoming increasingly pressured by the large styling product companies. One particular supplier is fantastic; they understand how to deal with and treat smaller salons and are also very supportive and passionate about training commercial stylists but the sales techniques and approach of some suppliers have become increasingly aggressive and demanding. In fact, one company actually told me that I was doing an injustice to my customers by not offering them his latest products! I hate this kind of selling. I treat my customers the in the best way that can, and after all, I am their customer. The product companies could do well to realise this.
How do you train your staff?
After their initial formal training at college, I try to ensure that all the stylists are always learning new techniques about the latest products, tools and styles. It would not be cost-effective or realistic to send all the stylists on every course that is available. I have to select those courses that are most relevant to our customers. Every product manufacturer has their own training programs but these generally are more for the benefit of the product manufacturer themselves than they are for the stylist. You get trained in the use of their latest products and not necessarily trained in what your customer actually needs.
What does this cost?
When I feel that there is something that would be a definite improvement to the service we provide, me and/or one of the senior stylists attends the training course and then we pass this on as internal training to all the junior staff. This way, not only can I make sure that the training courses are relevant to my salon and my customers, but I can train the stylist at a pace that they are comfortable with. This also means that my costs of training are minimized in pounds-value, but maximized into actual hands-on training.
What would be your three secret tips for running a business for so long?
The first and most important is to keep the customer happy. No customers mean no money. We try at all times to give the customer what they come in for; this means that they are far more likely to come back to us.
Secondly, you always have to be aware about the competition and what they are doing but this does not mean that you lie awake worrying about them. It just means that each day you have to be on top of your game and not only give customers the style they need but also to provide a service and environment in which they are happy and relaxed.
Thirdly, I think it is important to have happy staff. We work closely together for a long time each week, and ensuring that they are challenged, rewarded and happy to be there, is vital to the whole ambience of the salon, as well as being very important to each and every stylist. When I first entered this industry, there was a very strong pecking order that existed in every salon I visited. The juniors were treated like a third class citizens. I don’t do this. From the first day that they start I treat them as adults. As soon as they are ready I encourage independence, and some responsibility. I would have preferred to have been treated this way, and I know that all my stylists appreciate this when they come to work.
I must admit, there were several things that struck me immediately in Sharon’s responses and which apply to all businesses; whether you deal with customers, manage staff, operate as a sole trader or have ideas of growing your business into an SME and beyond, the principles remain the same:
* Invest in yourself. Investment is typically these days considered only in terms of money but this need not be the case. Investment in your own training, skills, personal development, communication techniques, time management, etc etc are all relevant to be coming be better worker. Whether self-employed, working in a small business, working for a large company or the public sector, if you have any ideals of growing and developing, then invest in yourself. If you don’t, why should anyone else?
# Deliver what the customer requires. We all know the phrase “the customer is always right” but let’s be honest, when we are not the actual customer referred to in the phrase, how often do we actually remember and deliver this? We may or may not have absolute control over what we sell, make, deliver or produce, but unless we actually provide the right product at the right price, at the right time, then, whoever the customer may be, internal or external, if they do not simply complain they will certainly look elsewhere.
# Make your customer experience a pleasant one. There are many statistics regarding the acquisition of new clients. During my time in the world of corporate telecoms we invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in the training and development of salespeople, marketing information and product development with the direct intention of acquiring new customers. Additionally, we would periodically address the existing client base in the hope that we could sell more to the same. Whether in fact, it is more cost-effective to acquire new clients than it is to sell additional products and services to new clients is a moot point; if your customer is not happy with your service, then you are providing them the bullets to shoot you with.
# Manage and measure your staff. If you are responsible for the development of any staff, then treat them as you wish to be treated and not necessarily conform to the industry’s accepted practice. If you wish to get the best from someone, whether that be in work or in life, then treat them in a way that you yourself would wish to be treated.
As I complete the draft of this article there is a discussion on the radio regarding the latest Government vocational training diploma proposals. They include a course on hair and beauty. A senior representative from a major High Street style company actually uses the phrase “back to the future” as he explains that what they really need are stylists that can work in the salon environment, communicate with clients and understand something of business and not just stylists that possess technical hair styling skills. A kind of new “apprenticeship” scheme he calls it. He continues to extol the virtues of their own academies, TV channel and magazine. I cannot help but think that his support for the new proposals is meritorious and enthusiastic but is exactly what Sharon has been delivering for over 15 years !!!; technical skills training AND hands on customer interaction with no small element of business awareness and staff development !!!
While Sharon and the stylist at Plaitt’s would not consider themselves at the cutting edge of commerce, she and they are shining examples of doing what you enjoy to the best of your ability to the point where you may be able, should you wish to, to establish your own business and create your own life.