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."

Therefore, she said, a stylists' feelings aren't likely to be hurt in the way a client fears. Still, some women will go to the same stylist for years, even if they're not happy with the person's work, just because they don't want to make the stylist feel bad.

What makes that client, who may be the most demanding customer in other service settings, so timid at the salon? It's not just the relationship with the stylist, said Ira Ludwick, owner of Progressions Salon in Rockville, it's the vulnerability of the setting. Sitting there with your hair wet, talking to the stylist through the mirror and possibly wearing no shirt under an ill-fitting plasticized gown, he said, can make it hard to display one's normal confidence.

While good salon owners look for ways to make clients feel a bit less attached so they'll be comfortable enough to express their concerns, traditional retailers wish they could get customers to care more about where they shop. The retail industry is struggling with an endemic lack of loyalty among shoppers, who easily flit from one store to another if even the slightest problem irritates or inconveniences them.

Retailers have pegged the solution to this problem as something called Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, which basically means finding ways to forge personal relationships with customers so they will choose retailers for reasons beyond mere convenience or price. To get there, retailers can learn a thing or two from hairdressers.

"There's far too much emphasis in retail on great products and great pricing and store mix . . . and not nearly as much attention paid to the quality of the people we put in front of our customers and the way we train them and the way they treat customers," said James G. Barnes, a professor of marketing at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Barnes studies the hairdresser relationship thoroughly in his book "Secrets of Customer Relationship Management: It's All About How You Make Them Feel." What the salon setting gives customers is two-way communication -- conversation during the haircut and individual attention -- which makes clients feel understood and valued. But two-way communication is sorely lacking in traditional retail settings.

"You have to have customer insight, and that doesn't come from databases, it comes from knowing the customer really, really well," he said. "One of the problems getting in the way is, at the end of the day, most retailers' concerns focus on moving inventory and keeping costs down. Those two emphases get in the way of building any kind of relationship with the customer."

In the mass market, bonding with customers may simply mean having easy, accessible customer service and a hassle-free shopping experience, both of which make consumers feel valued as individuals. The Holy Grail of retail relationships, though, is what coffee bars like Starbucks and Caribou aim for: employees who remember the preferred drinks of regular customers, just as a good hairdresser remembers that a longtime client just came back from Jamaica.

Marketing expert Rogers uses the example of a sofa retailer with 1,000 choices, where shoppers are anonymous, losing business to a much smaller store whose salesperson remembers a customer's name, lifestyle and preferences.

"I not only never go back to the store with 1,000 sofas again, they never even know I didn't show up," Rogers said. "The hairdresser knows that she's losing someone, whereas most retailers don't even know if they've lost a customer -- they just know they're not selling as many sofas."

It's understanding why the customer left that really matters: It's as important to retailers as it is to hairdressers.

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