How to achieve exceptional customer service

We all need to focus on exceptional customer service to win and retain business this year, but what does that look like and how can you make sure it’s authentic?, asks Hellen Ward.

So here we are in 2017. I do hope it’s going to be a good one for business in the UK after the weirdness of last year. 2016 was a “nine” year (I’m a numerology freak and the number nine is all about endings). 2017 is a “one” year, the number for new beginnings, so I’m hopeful.

I never believed we were fully out of recession before last year’s events compounded to make things worse for most of us. One thing’s for sure, the impact of Brexit and the resulting uncertainty and inevitable price hikes from manufacturers will hit us hard this year. I’m sure some of the more unscrupulous suppliers are using the supposed increased cost of their goods as an excuse to whack up their prices.

However, the reality is that to hold our sales levels we’ll have to up our game – “as if we haven’t already upped it enough”, I hear you cry – but we know that as salon owners we can never take our foot off the gas. Upping our game means making sure our salons are beautifully presented, well stocked, fabulously appointed, fantastically merchandised and expertly staffed if we have any hope of growing or even retaining our customer base. But most of all, to me, it means making sure our service offering is spot on – and that’s the difficult bit.

The US model
In December I travelled to the US on business, covering both coasts, looking at two very different companies to flesh out an exciting opportunity for our brand. I have a love/hate relationship with America. They get so much right but I find it frustrating to do business with them.

They have a reputation for truly understanding service, but the reality doesn’t always match up. The East and West Coast mentalities are very different. In Beverley Hills, as you might expect, I experienced perfect, but I can’t say always heartfelt, service from some of the best and most famous hotels and restaurants in the world. Meanwhile, New York makes the buzz of London feel almost sedate. Here the gloves are off; unless a gratuity is involved, service certainly does not come with an automatic smile.

Meanwhile, our (largely) lovely London cabbies, all facing the challenges of Uber, are still mainly giving great service in uncertain times. And that’s not necessarily because a tip is involved, but because that’s what they do – it’s in their DNA. On the whole, they like meeting people and talking to them. Comedian George Burns once joked, “It’s too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair”, and that still resonates.

It’s no wonder he mentions hairdressers, because in the salon sector it’s the same. Unless you’re a personable type of person who loves being with clients, the hair and beauty industry isn’t for you. For most of us, looking after our customer is not about getting extra cash as a result, it’s just what we like doing most – being able to talk to anyone we meet, with confidence.

Keep it real
In the US it’s different. They might have the service formula down pat, but very often it’s contrived, formulaic and certainly not from the heart. As a cynical Brit, I can’t stand it when yet another person asks me how I am without waiting to hear the answer. I went into a handbag store on Rodeo Drive and was practically hounded while still at the entrance. “Hi! How are you? Are you looking for anything in particular? Can I show you our new collection? Where are you from? What’s your name?”. My prickly British reserve radar was well and truly up.

When service is forced or scripted it shows, and that’s why we need to be careful when we train our staff on what it takes to deliver that high level of customer service we tell them is essential. To me, the US model is not what good service looks like. It’s far more subtle: giving me space, letting me look, helping me when required then remembering what I like – and remembering it for next time, too.

Perhaps now is the time to hone our team’s underlying British sensibility and talent for looking after people and to make sure we maximise on that for the challenging times ahead.

Hellen Ward is managing director of Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa in London’s Sloane Square and co-chair of Trailblazers for the hair and beauty industry sector.