Is a Good Manicurist Hard to Find? Changes in the Nail Salon Business

A reader emailed me in response to the article I was interviewed in for Nailpro Magazine: A Field Guide to Nail Clients. She wrote:

Is a Good Manicurist Hard to Find?Hi Jaya:

I read your article on nail clients. I am wondering what the prevailing thought is about people who do nails? Specifically, manicurists who are habitually late and who answer the phone while they are doing your nails? I had an experience the other day with the woman I go to: Our appointment was for 10:30. She called and asked if I would change it to 11:00. I said O.K. I got there and she was not anywhere near done with a client at 11:00. I waited until 11:25 and realized she still had more to do with that client. I got up and told her I couldn’t wait any longer.

She also wears a headset while she is doing nails and if the phone rings (and it does quite a lot) she answers it.

The thing is, she is not alone. I have been to at least three different people here in my town–all of whom are like this.

It was such an interesting topic (and all-too-common story) that I decided to write another article in response to it:

Is a Good Manicurist Hard to Find? Changes in the Nail Salon Business

Some of the answers to the question about “good manicurists”–ones that provide excellent customer service, in addition to doing a good job on your nails–are found in cultural differences. I’m not just speaking of ethnic cultures (which sometimes have differing etiquette) but vocational and work cultures. The attitudes, beliefs, and values of people working in certain industries and organizations combine to create an overall business culture and standard of behavior. Then of course, each service provider has her/his own level of customer service that is acceptable (or not) to the business owner and most importantly–to you, the customer.

The nail industry has changed quite a bit since I first started managing salons in the 1980’s. Back then, nail services were most often done in full-service beauty salons. Demand for acrylic and then-new gel nails was high. The required follow-up appointments for fills made customers fiercely loyal to their manicurists. It was a booming industry and good manicurists (and their steady, loyal clientele) were valuable assets to a business owner. For example, I remember paying one of the manicurists that worked for me a whopping 80% commission on services. With tips, she was taking home over $80,0000 a year. Paying her as much as we did, the salon didn’t make any profits from her actual services, yet she was so adept at getting her customers to become hair and esthetic clients, we still benefited financially from her employment. Offering nail services as a loss-leader to increase clientele for other services was pretty typical back then.

In the late 80’s to early 90’s, we began seeing a different trend. Vietnamese immigrants began opening up family-run nail salons in the states. However the popularity of Vietnamese nail salons began in Europe. Post-war, the Vietnamese culture integrated with the French and Vietnamese women created successful manicurist careers for themselves in the European beauty industry. (Anyone else remember when French Manicures were “new” in the US? Europe has set our beauty treatment standards for ages.) Changes in US immigration laws sheltered waves of Vietnamese refugees, yet most were unable to find jobs in corporate America. Instead, Vietnamese families pursued the “American dream” by entering the small business sector, working together in low-overhead nail salons, where they could get by if just one or two workers could speak English and translate for the others.

By providing inexpensive services, along with good results, they were able to woo full-service salon clients, as well as make regular nail services accessible to a market of women that could previously not afford them. Cautious at first, American women put language and cultural differences aside and started embracing their new service providers. As Asian nail salons started booming, many (but not all) full-service salons started reporting losses in the manicuring department. Customers started choosing the lower-cost option. Manicurists who were previously earning high numbers, didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) to take a pay-cut to stay competitive. Other than members of family-owned nail salons, fewer people have been choosing manicuring as a career, which also makes good employees hard to find. Rare is a family member going to abandon their roots and seek outside employment. Many Asian family-owned nail salons have worked hard and succeeded. Meanwhile, many full-service salons & spas have conceded defeat and pulled the manicuring department out altogether. (As a consultant, I’ve often been the one to recommend pulling the plug.)

The lower service prices in many nail salons has also affected service levels to some extent. Needing to squeeze as many appointments in as possible, along with a motivation to capture walk-in customers (and prevent them from going to another close-by nail salon) many nail salons habitually over-book and run late. While they want to serve clients that prefer to book appointments (steady, repeat business) they’ll often take a last-minute client, even if it’s a few minutes before your appointment time. Nail salons also experience what restaurants do–many people call to make reservations, but then don’t show up. Nail salon customers tend to not plan ahead, unless it’s hard to get in. Switching from one nail salon to another is more common now, too. Customers know they can get an appointment on a moment’s notice (and service providers are fast to pick up the phone to say ‘yes’–whether they are already booked or not.) There seems to be more of a divide in nail salon operations these days: some nail salons thrive by doing non-stop services without appointment, while others thrive by exploiting that difference and offering a higher level of customer service (and can charge a premium for that distinction!)

Although there are many reasons behind the changes in business culture and customer service levels, it still comes down to balancing the needs of the business with the needs of the customer. The disappointing part is that many business owners don’t really take a stand for customer care. One high-end day spa experience I had illustrates the point. After working hard as a presenter at a spa business expo in Las Vegas, I had some pampering time scheduled upon my return. My massage therapist was fantastic. My esthetician was brusque and impersonal–she never even told me her name. My all-over pampering experience was sinking and my manicurist was the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. She “greeted” me in the quiet room with a half-eaten candy bar in her hand–the other half was in her mouth while she spoke, “You get nail?” Then she waved her half-eaten snack in gesture for me to walk towards the manicuring room. She continued to finish eating and also took a call on her cell phone while doing my pedicure. After she hung up the phone, she blurted, “That my other business. You should come there next time,” and proceeded to fish some dirty business cards out of her handbag. Curious about her reaction, I replied, “But I’m a customer here.” She explained how the spa I was at was inconvenient for her to drive to and that the other place was better for her. I thought about leaving mid-pedi, but instead picked up a magazine and actively ignored her as best I could. When I checked out, I told the assistant manager about her manners and also that she’d asked me to become a customer at the other place she worked. She replied, “I know, but we NEED her.” Case closed. She’d heard it before and didn’t care. Imagining that the spa director might want to know (I know my clients would!) I took the time to call the next day and got a similar response. Somehow, they thought they were still benefiting from having here there, even though they lost me as a customer (and my potential referrals) because of it. This puts a whole other spin on the term “loss leader” when it comes to the manicure department!

As a customer, you get to vote with your dollars and referrals. I understand the frustration my reader experienced from having tried 3 different manicurists and getting the same poor treatment by all of them. The bottom-line advice I have for her or anyone is to walk your pretty pedicured toes out the door and try another nail salon. Price isn’t always an indicator of quality (I paid $80 for a mani/pedi at the spa I mentioned above) although sometimes paying a little more at a business with good management is really worth it. The best indicator of quality is usually word-of-mouth. Referrals from friends are great, but the internet is your best friend now, too. Yelp and CitySearch are rich with tell-it-like-it-is customer reviews. People that are motivated to write online reviews are usually either very satisfied or very dissatisfied. The overall range of experiences is what you want. The internet is a great place to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly about your local beauty businesses. Good (and great) manicurists are out there. The work in different types of nail salons. They speak different languages. Yet what they have in common is more than an operator’s license; they truly care about their customers–and for some professionals, that will never change.

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About the Author

Jaya Savannah - Chief Inspiration Officer. Strategy Coach for Holistic Businesses. Trainer, speaker, and writer. Spiritually aware, yet street smart. Elephant lover.