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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking the (gentleman’s) hairdresser experience

Seen with the eyes of a mere male, the hairdressing trade seems to be heading for a hiccup by ignoring the customer, right when s/he is balancing amid intensely personal issues of vanity and self-confidence

Haircut hell

A certain level of grooming is necessary in the business world, so yesterday morning I went to the “hairdresser” (weird name, really …). Getting my hair cut – well, the experience associated with it – always bugs me somehow, and this time I decided to try to work out why.

Firstly there’s the issue of availability. As a businessman, I completely understand that a salon can’t have empty “capacity” just waiting around on the off chance that I might feel the need to make use of it. But being self-employed means it’s pretty difficult to predict my primping needs or job-free opportunities in advance. When you gotta go, you gotta get trimmed.

But all my accumulated stocks of “customer loyalty” evaporate as soon as I can’t get an appointment when I need a haircut, and then have to schlepp around with my sartorial begging bowl trying to find some local hairdresser with a vacancy I can get to. This usually ends up with a frustrating half hour ringing round to find someone available to swing the scissors, while being met with one rejection after another.

I naively imagine this could be solved with an app that could link the booking systems of the myriad of small hairdressers. They’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain, because at the moment I end up with an appointment in which I pretty much feel they’re doing me a favour, rather than this rare moment of male preening and self-indulgence weighing in on the positive side of the personal vanity scales.

Second-best is rarely a good experience, so the negativity rubs off on the whole hairdressing profession, and by the end of the process I’m pretty much amenable to any humane alternative. If the local vet would cut my hair, I’d probably say yes and convince myself I’m helping support local business.

The entire Danish hairdressing community would probably get a much-needed infusion of goodwill if some little app could show me alternative nearby hairdressers with an available time slot. If the popular, over-booked salons didn’t feel they’d benefit, perhaps there could be a small referral fee. Then the good hairdressers could earn extra money instead of surfing an undercurrent of frustration and resentment (at the moment the only satisfied customers can be those that actually make it through the eye of the booking needle into the stylist’s chair). While the less popular salons would benefit all round.

Male vanity – a delicate flower denied

How often do men spend a concentrated period of time in which the sole focus is their own appearance, in a round of sparring with their own self-perceptions and how they would like others to see them?

Male vanity is a delicate flower. I readily admit to its existence but indulge it all too rarely. When I get my hair cut, these sensitive issues are percolating perilously beneath the surface – whether I like it or not.

So the young lady gets me appropriately pacified, and then asks me what I want “done”. My whole appearance and sense of self-esteem are at stake and I’m risking becoming a laughing stock among my colleagues  – and perhaps even missing out on bedazzling and bewitching my as-yet-unmet future wife – and I’m confronted with a fundamentally unanswerable question. Along with a realisation that we don’t even have a “shared language” with which to communicate about dealing with my innermost vanities.

How could I answer?  I don’t have a vocabulary to describe hair length, nor cuts, styles and layering, and anything more advanced is cloud-cuckoo land. Regrettably, the range of hair styles normally considered suitable for a man of my age is depressingly limited and I don’t have the imagination to conceive of anything much different. Without external inputs, I’m locked into a spiral of inherently conservative, unimaginative repetition.

Apologies to the young lady in question, but with her pink-dyed hair, tattoos and piercings (to get an appointment within the next three weeks I’d had to settle for a trainee) a soberly aging gentleman like my good self didn’t really feel like going with any of the styling suggestions she might serve up. There were no images, style references or visual aids – just fairly primeval cutting equipment and jars of brightly coloured chemicals. Neither inspiring or reassuring, really.

Technology from the Middle Ages

Somehow this lack of visuals really brought it home to me how much of a “lost opportunity” there seemed to be here in the hairdresser’s chair, swathed in a shroud of weird synthetic material to keep off my shorn locks. Apart from the hairdryers and the computer at the cash desk, there is hardly anything in a typical Danish provincial hairdressing salon that represents any technological progress from the Middle Ages – apart from the ubiquitous plastic, which is probably only a marginal benefit.

Simple photos of my previous cuts,  or perhaps even some big screens, style databases and a quick cut-and-paste with my face would perhaps work wonders for making the hairdressing experience “different”, and a platform for style discussion. It’d completely change my perceptions of the customer experience and the rules of engagement, as well as probably also make hairdressing less monotonous and a more attractive career path and booking option for potential clippers.

And the technology is all easily available and off-the-shelf, so the investment probably wouldn’t be in the big league. I’m fully aware that the short-back-and-sides brigade wouldn’t necessarily be queuing at the door, but I’d guess that the profit margins on my kind of customer would probably be substantially sweeter as well as longer-term.

Money matters demotivate

I know it’s easy to write that the investment is only limited – such words ring hollow in an industry with wafer-thin profit margins, while any new computer/AV equipment in the shop will inevitably bump up insurance premiums, burglar-proofing burdens and various other hassle factors.

But traditional mainstream hairdressing (I’m not talking about the ûber-cool style emporiums or the labyrinthine complexities of women’s hairdressing, neither of which I know anything about!) seems almost to have painted itself into a proverbial corner with its lowest-common-denominator business model. If the sole mainstream criterion is price, the business model only has one direction for the future – downwards. Sometimes I almost feel embarrassed at how cheap my haircut is, when I consider the overheads and all the incidentals seemingly essential for even a minimum experience. I’m intensely aware of my ignorance about the details – but I listen carefully while I’m being shorn (and fleeced …) and I know there are lots of models involving individual hairdressers hiring  “space” in salons.

I’d willingly pay substantially more to undergo a better/premium experience – but I’ve never even been given the opportunity. Unfortunately, my haircut isn’t what I want to buy – it’s what the salon chooses to sell me. I have no clear mechanism of choice, I don’t get presented with any alternatives to choose between and there is no clear/obvious way for me to assess quality or professionalism – or to reward it with my future custom. In principle, entry into each salon is a roll of the dice and every haircut is a session at the roulette wheel.

I’d argue that one of the big problems with the conventional business model for hairdressing lies in the lack of transparency about what’s available and what’s possible, and the lack of focus on the customer in such an intensely personal matter. The salon is not conceived around the customer’s perceptions, but is a visible reflection of assembly line churn. I’m sure they’re very reliant on the habit-driven customers and repeat business from senior citizens, but for trim-fodder salon-flitters like me it seems turnover comes before customer satisfaction.  My coming haircut – one of the key determinants of how those around me will perceive my personal style attributes in the months to come – lies only in the visibly distracted hairdresser’s head, and I only get to see it right at the end, when I put my glasses on – as a complete surprise.

That’s the kind of surprise I can do without. When being a customer feels like a necessary evil and an uphill battle against the odds rather than a positive preening experience, the warning lamps should start flashing. Here is a business model ripe for a rethink, methinks.