So Close at the Hairdresser's
Stylists Could Teach Retailers About Customer Relations
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page F05
I recently complimented a friend on her new haircut, but her response was not the usual "thank you." Instead, she lowered her voice, looked around furtively and admitted that her new 'do, which she liked very much, was the result of cheating on her hairdresser. She had said nothing to the man who had managed her mane for years about her growing displeasure with his haircuts. She simply went to someone else to get something new. And she felt mighty guilty about it -- not just that she'd left him, but the way she left.
It made me wonder why so many people -- mostly women, I'd say -- have such a hard time leaving a hairdresser. Why do we do it so badly and feel so anxious about it?
This behavior strikes me as especially interesting because it is totally at odds with the way today's consumers act in just about every other retail or service setting. If the pages aren't straight at Kinko's, we make them redo the copies. If the clerk at the supermarket is rude, we talk to the manager. If there's no help at the department store, we shop somewhere else. Most of the time, we feel not a twinge of ambivalence about demanding something better or simply walking out.
In fact, marketing and consumer behavior experts study the hairdresser relationship because it has so many of the attributes that retailers and other service businesses strive for.
"Good hairdressers are very much about one-to-one relationships," said Martha Rogers, author of "Managing Customer Relationships" and a partner at Pepper and Rogers Group, a Norwalk, Conn., marketing company. "That's the part that I think all retailers, all businesses, can learn from."
As bad as people may feel about suddenly abandoning a longtime hairdresser, the change is also a big cause of dismay among stylists. But not because their feelings are hurt.
What frustrates salons about clients who simply stop showing up is that the stylist never knows what the problem was.
"That makes them crazy," said Mary Atherton, editor in chief of Modern Salon Magazine. Even on industry Web sites and chat rooms, you'll see postings from stylists wondering, "Where did she go? I wish I knew," Atherton said.
It may sound like bad poetry, but it's a fair complaint. Stylists view their relationships with clients as much less intimate than the clients do, and they need to know for professional reasons what went wrong. The woman in the chair sees the relationship as much more personal -- after all, this is someone with license to touch her and the control to change her looks.
"You feel that intimacy, but on the professional side, on the hairdressers' side, they're touching 15 people a day," Atherton said. "They may have a fondness for you, but they don't have the same bond that you do."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company