Why you shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes in business

Business mistakes

Every business mistake should become a lesson. Hellen Ward shares her experience of “failing better” each time, in order to eventually succeed. 

I've written about this before and got a huge response. I did a presentation at the most recent Professional Beauty expo on Becoming Brandtastic, and when conducting my research, it struck me that most people who get it right actually get it very wrong, many, many times, before they finally nail it.

What I realised is that it’s this process of getting it wrong, learning, then “failing better” that actually spurs us on to eventual success. Investor Richard Branson famously embraces his mistakes in order to learn from them. He refuses to be embarrassed by them. He acknowledges that they are a crucial part of his learning process and essential to eventually getting it right.

Same with inventor James Dyson; 5,026 prototype failures at an amazing vacuum cleaner but 5,027 was the winner. Imagine if he’d given up? He didn’t; he saw every failure as a step towards success.

My mistake

We made a dreadful mistake a few years ago with the beauty side of our business. Like most serious mistakes, it wasn’t just one factor, but a complex blend of unfortunate circumstances that led to a slow but sharp decline in turnover. By the time we realised what had happened, we had to act fast to sort it out, and like all bleeding obvious things, it was only obvious in hindsight.

We’d had two manicurists who looked after all our clients while they were having their hair done. Tew and Malee (both Thai) and had been with us since we opened. Sadly, Tew died and Malee moved back to Thailand. Although we looked and looked for replacements, the people we found just didn’t work out, mainly through no fault of their own, but circumstantial stuff (family, illness, etc).

In the meantime, our therapists were, therefore, forced to leave their rooms to fit in the manicure business, at a great cost to their treatment room turnover and client base.

All the while, we were happily putting up the prices in line with our core hair business in percentage terms before we realised, a few years down the line, that beauty prices weren’t in growth but had peaked in 2008 before the economic downturn, and we had to re-adjust.

How I won back customers

Clients were still coming for their hair but other salons were undercutting us on nails – many weren’t paying tax, NI or VAT, as we know, so it was impossible to compete against their price point. The advent of the cheap nail bar had killed our manicure business.

We had to get in line to win back our customers, with the eventual aim of offering a better standard, service and experience. But how do you decrease prices without discounting? Luckily the realisation coincided with our 20th anniversary, so we “celebrated” by using the excuse to put our prices back to 1992 rates for a limited time. However, we never actually put them back up again, at least not until we got our ducks in a row with the right team and client experience.

It’s been a long journey back to profitability, especially as we chose the complicated, long-term route of building a team of real experts. That’s never easy to find but wow, have we got them now! Our Metrospa squad is a crack team of pros, and as such can command a higher, premium price point for their expertise. It hasn’t been easy but I wouldn’t change a thing; the lesson I learned has been critical.

Why you should always listen to your clients

It’s easy to take your eye off the ball, especially with a smaller part of your business. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting it right, there’s always one ultra-reliable source that will guide you: your clients. As Omar Hajeri, managing director of L’Oreal Professionnel, says, “My staff are my eyes, my clients are my ears.” Good advice in my book.

I tell this story in the hope of inspiring you, not plunging you into gloom. Sharing our cock-ups as well as our glories is hugely motivating. So, if you’re having a wobble, fear not. Learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and decide to turn it into a positive experience that will no doubt prove itself to be invaluable.

And the best part? You’ll never make that mistake again.

Hellen WardHellen Ward is managing director of Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa in London’s Sloane Square and chair of Trailblazers for the hairdressing sector.