A stylist’s dilemma: To talk or keep quiet?

“I never chat with the hairdresser and I always pray she isn't gonna start a conversation with me because I know how forced and awkward it will be.” Comment on social anxiety support website

“Finally someone else mentioning the hairdresser & small talk fear!” Response on same website

Hair stylists provide a very personal service, one that depends on a clear understanding of the client’s wishes. Few things upset a person more than a haircut gone awry.

But pity the poor stylist faced with a relatively mute customer. As intuitive as good stylists are, few can read minds—despite this comment on the Social Anxiety Support website: “My stylist would just focus on his work and I could trust him with my eyes closed…he knew exactly what I meant without me uttering a word!”

No matter how great, there aren’t many stylists willing to work under that kind of pressure! A haircut shouldn’t cause either the stylist or the customer this kind of angst. And it won’t, when stylists concentrate on conversation that is focused on giving the customer the right cut. The key is asking professional—as opposed to personal—questions.

Great Clips stylists aim for customers to feel welcome and comfortable, and to walk out the door with a cut that makes them feel good. Of course, that entails greeting clients and settling them into the chair with a friendly smile. It’s followed by a consultation with the client—perhaps the most critical step in delivering great customer service so that both the stylist and the customer know exactly what the other is thinking.

From there, the best conversations will be give-and-take about the style and the products that make it work. Even customers who prefer quiet, or at least most of them, are willing to speak up about their preferences. But there can be a fine line between chatting with a customer and annoying them.

The chatty hairstylist—part friend, part therapist, part purveyor of community gossip—is a well-worn stereotype in the United States. It’s a hangover from the 1950s and 1960s when many women went to their hair salon weekly. They did develop close relationships with their stylists that might warrant personal conversations.

But this is a different era. For one thing, people are feeling overloaded with “noise.” Not necessarily literal noise, but overloaded with information—especially marketing and advertising. They crave moments of quiet, according to a spate of articles in major business magazines in the past year with some variation of the headline “Quiet is the new luxury.”

“The only thing worse than struggling for conversation topics at an awkward cocktail party, some have suggested, is having to do it while staring at your own desperate, trembling face in a mirror,” writes Christina Cauterucci in a slate.com article touting salons in Wales now offering customers the option of a “quiet chair.”

“We wanted to take the embarrassment away, and for customers to know we won’t be offended if they don’t want to do the small talk often associated with visiting the hair salon,” the owner said.

Clients aren’t the only ones seeking the occasional silent passage of time—some stylists ask their clients to pipe down so they can focus on the haircut without fear of becoming victims of TMI—Too Much Information. In fact, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham calls the hairdresser-client relationship a “mutually captive” encounter.

The professor, Mike McCarthy, surveyed hair-dresser/client conversations and found that less than 10% were relevant to the haircut. But he said some chitchat is “indispensable” because it contributes to the “mutual assurance that service is being delivered appropriately.”

When the client does feel welcome and comfortable, he or she is more likely to speak up if the haircut starts going bad, McCarthy told a British publication. And the hairdresser who engages professionally is more likely to suggest a more flattering cut.

Our philosophy at Great Clips is to provide great haircuts. We’ve found over and over again that success—high customer return rates, good tips for stylists, among other measures—is achieved by understanding what the customer needs, and helping them meet those needs. Great service speaks volumes!

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