Learning about teamwork on an outback shearing station, Jamie Carroll knows it’s the key to running a successful business. And the clientele obviously agree with Carroll’s approach to teamwork and customer service, because they keep coming back to Jamie Carroll Hair and Beauty.
Jamie Carroll was a sheep shearer in outback New South Wales before deciding at 17 to become a hairdresser and ply his trade on two-legged clients. Despite the obvious differences, shearing taught Carroll more than just how to hold down a difficult woolly customer, with the organisation and teamwork involved having a huge impact on his award-winning business.
“Shearing in Australia is probably one of the oldest systemised businesses,” he explains. “In a shearing shed, everyone has their job and they all get in and do it together.”
His approach to the work environment at Jamie Carroll Hair and Beauty in Sydney’s Sylvania, especially his focus on customer service, was rewarded with the Client Philosophy award at the 2004 Global Salon Entrepreneur Awards in London and the 2005 Australia Post NSW/ACT Small Business Award last October. “Winning the category proves our customer service philosophy. To be number one you have to train like you’re number two,” he said upon receiving the Australia Post award.
According to Carroll, continual training and customer service go hand in hand. Once a week the salon is closed for an hour for staff education and he runs focus groups with customers and employees to discover what areas need further attention. “It’s not just training, training, training, and going back in a circle and training again in the same things,” he says. “It’s finding the areas where people need support and making them feel supported.”
Recognising the importance of making the customer experience memorable and special, Carroll places huge emphasis on the first point of contact for clients entering the salon: the front desk staff, or ‘salon co-ordinator’ as he calls them. “The focus, the reason our business grows, is because of what we do on our front desk.” Carroll believes a lot of businesses make the mistake of employing the wrong kind of person in this role, so he makes sure these staff are efficient in organisation, multi-tasking and working under pressure. If you’re an ex-chef, you’re in. Surprisingly, if you’re from the industry, you probably won’t make the cut. “What happens is the hairdresser or beauty therapist thinks like a hairdresser or beauty therapist,” Carroll explains. “You want someone who actually thinks like the customer and looks from another point of view.”
Customers are also very responsive to appearances. He partly attributes early growth in clients to simply having a computer installed at the front desk. “Someone very wise told me that if you look like you’re moving, you look like you’re innovative, and you’re consistent in what you deliver, then customers won’t leave you.”
He also pays close attention to systems. “We were computerised, systemised, 10 years ago,” says Carroll, who believes his salon was one of the first in Australia to incorporate technology into the front desk. Collecting customer data and using it wisely has helped make the service more efficient. “We focused on our re-booking rate, which reflects the retention rate. The success is measured by our re-confirmations, our recalls and our waiting list.”
In the hair and beauty industry, Carroll says, good word of mouth, spurred on by quality customer service, is vital. The location of his salon—strategically set on a highway rather than a shopping precinct—makes this even more important, as it has very little passing trade. “We’re a destination salon. We rely on our customer service.” And with a 90 percent customer retention rate, he’s obviously doing something right.
When talking to Carroll about customer service, you would expect the normal responses about valuing the customer and making them feel special. For him it’s such a given he doesn’t spend much time on it. Instead, it’s the systems and strategies involved to accommodate the needs of customers and ensure continued patronage that get him excited. “The biggest thing I think people need to know in customer service is to spend time on strategy, thinking about how the customer would think.”
Although common practices of offering a cup of coffee and having nice background music still have their place, more is needed. Having an all-encompassing strategy regarding all aspects of the business is crucial for Carroll. All customers are classified in categories which help the salon know how best to deal with their particular needs. “It’s about understanding the different types of customers you have,” he explains. “Putting them in different categories, so you can actually give them better service.”
There’s a small call centre attached to the salon, where staff on duty confirm appointments, make follow up calls, and coordinate a waiting list. Separate training programs are in place for the front desk, call centre, and salon. The salon website makes it possible for clients to make appointments online, in a manner similar to booking an airfare.
A lot of these systems have been created in-house and have even become a spin-off to the business, with Carroll and his wife Viktoria in the process of licensing them for other businesses. “Our future is in licensing and sharing this with the industry,” says Carroll. He already has a separate company called Envision Academy, which distributes training and educational DVDs and CD ROMs locally and internationally.
When dealing with the marketing of strategies and concepts, Carroll has learned the hard way that it involves the murky world of intellectual property. When a large overseas beauty company tried to infringe on his trademark, Carroll successfully took them to court. Although the ensuing legal process took 12 months and cost him US$20,000 he says it was worth it to retain control of his trademark and intellectual property.
By their very size, Carroll believes small businesses, especially beauty and hair businesses like his, are forced to be innovative and have the potential to create marketable systems and improvements for the industry. “We don’t have big budgets to do things, so we have to become smart, not work harder,” he says. “What we’ve got to realise is that intellectual property is the most important thing for our business.”
With all this focus on systems, processes, and IP, does the individual wanting to look great for that special occasion get lost in the process? “The purpose of having systems is to enable a team of people to achieve more in a shorter space of time,” Carroll argues. Instead, mechanisms working behind the scenes—training, education, and systems—help his staff work better and enrich the experience for the customer. “It actually helps you have a better personal touch.”
Empowering staff also helps. Rather than offering bonuses, Carroll has a profit-share program based on client retention. When four key staff left at a crucial time, he says their client numbers actually grew. “The people who stayed didn’t want to let the customers down. They understood the business was challenged and they really liked the customers and wanted to do the best they could for the team.”
And he still spends some 30 hours on the salon floor himself. “If you employ the right people and put the right systems in place, you can go and play golf or you can keep cutting hair. I don’t want to play golf yet, I’m enjoying it too much,” he quips. “It’s like being on stage, you go in to perform. We’ve created a business, a culture, where people can perform at a high level.”