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Hiring, Training & Developing Your Perfect Salon Assistant

Most hairstylists long for the day when they can bring on an assistant and dread the day they have to go through the process of bringing one in.  Kind of an oxymoron, right?  

There is no experience more rewarding as a hairstylist than hiring an assistant or even just an up-and-coming stylist and training them to a place of success.  The problem is that hiring a great assistant can be really hard and getting them trained can be even harder.  It can be scary to even imagine bringing in somebody else to train and manage.  Plus, there is no way they can care for your clients as well as you do, right?  Wrong.  Having an assistant not only makes your life easier, it makes you appear to be more successful, a better business person and allows you the time you need to truly grow your business.

I get questions every single week about hiring, training and developing assistants.  The reality is that our industry has changed drastically and gone are the days where every new cosmetology school grad is signing up to be your shampoo-slave for the next year.  No thanks! If you haven't ready my article on Millenials in the hair salon, stop and read it because it will really give a great sense as to where our industry is headed.  Assistants now want structure, guaranteed success and to be appreciated by their stylist, so if you want to hire a kick-ass assistant, you better have a kick-ass program in place.

To hire a great assistant for you we actually need to work backwards.  We need to start at the beginning and get all of our ducks in a row before we can even think about finding somebody to fill the role.

  1. What kind of education are you going to provide? This is the question on the forefront of every great assistants mind so it better be the first thing you figure out.  My suggestion is to sit down today and write out at least 30 topics that you could teach an assistant.  For example, one-length haircuts, understanding angles in haircutting, layers and bangs, A-lines, short womens cuts, mens clipper cuts, mens shears cuts, the list can go on and on.  Do the same thing for hair color and I promise that if you do it right by the end you'll have at least 30 topics if not more.  Now you have a focus point for each week of training.   I would suggest discussing the topic on the first workday of each week, assigning some doll head assignments and working through projects together.  For formulation classes, use clients that come in during the day as an example!  Say "let's pretend Colleen wants to go from her level 9 blonde to a level 5 brunette.  Formulate and then let's talk about it".  You'll be surprised where you find little teaching moments if you just try.  If you are reading this and thinking "I'm a more organic educator and I think my assistants actually do better with less structure", good luck to you.  You may be able to find an assistant today, but I promise you that this next generation of beauty school graduates isn't looking for that and you won't be attracting the best and brightest. 
  2. How are you going to educate? I always say that to be fair to your assistant you need to provide at least 8 hours per month of structured class time outside of the workday.  That can be one full Monday per month, two 4-hour blocks of time before the start of your workday or even 1-hour blocks of time after the work day 2 days per week.  You can slice it anyway you want, but that one-on-one time is critical.  This structure goes for booth renters and commissioned teams alike.  Very few educators truly educate throughout the workday effectively (I'm thinking of two right now) but the vast majority are too caught up in customer service and managing their busy schedule to actually teach as they work.  Many stylists also hesitate to let their assistant really get in and watch a haircut up close because they think the client will think it's weird.  If you make it weird the client will too, but if you explain that this is an educational experience and you're training a new stylist, you can look like a super successful educator which is really appealing to clients.  The choice there is yours.
  3. Support advanced education- I have always said that I believe stylists should give the equivalent of 1% of their annual earnings towards education for their assistant.  If you produce $60,000 per year behind the chair, I want you to allow your assistant a $600 education spend to see any artist or show that they want.  This is above and beyond any education that is already coming in to your salon.  Can you imagine if you were an assistant and a stylist offered you that!?!? Jackpot.  Now we are talking and you can really start attracting some talent.  Plus, imagine how inspired your assistant is going to be coming back from this incredible opportunity.  They will work harder for you than ever before and that energy is what we are trying to capture.
  4. Allow them to do more than you are comfortable with-I want your assistant to do all of your shampoos, color applications, toners, assist with retail sales and checking guests out and blowdries and foiling or hair painting too.  One of my favorite stylists (she knows who she is) calls her assistant her "left hand" and she allows her to really get in there and do everything.  Her clients love the efficiency and they know that their stylist would never trust an undereducated person to work on their hair so the process is seamless.  This is all about the culture you create and the training you provide.  Don't want your assistant to mix color because you're scared she'll be wasteful or don't want her to apply color because she may miss a spot?  That is poor training on your part and you need to step back and rethink why you are working with an assistant and the kind of education you want to provide her.  Assistants today become very bored just sweeping and shampooing so if you aren't willing to truly let an assistant get their hands dirty an do all of your services, it may not be time to hire an assistant and grow your business.
  5. Provide amazing training-Your assistants success is all dependent on the experience you provide.  The best talent in the world will shrivel away in a bad environment and even a newly licensed hairstylist can become more skilled than their educator in a matter of a few short months if she is mentored correctly.   The first few weeks working with an assistant are crucial and set the foundation for the rest of the experience.  If you are a booth renter, I want you to dedicate two consecutive Mondays to training your assistant on applying color on doll heads, shampoo techniques and mixing effectively.  Can't afford to give up two Mondays?  Then you aren't really committed to hiring a good assistant.  Training takes time and dedication and that responsibility lies in your hands. If you are in a commission based salon, have one of your newly styilsts be the point person for education and have her show the new assistant the ropes for the first few days in the salon before you throw her in the deep end.  Your clients experience will be much better with somebody who has been nurtured than with somebody who is trying to keep their head above water and our goal is to always provide exceptional levels of service to our clients.
  6. Create a stopping point- Begin with the end in mind here.  What does your assistant need to achieve before you decide she's ready to move on.  Is there a test she should take or maybe you just work through the 30 or so weeks of education (could be more depending on how many topics you decide to tackle) and then offer a few additional weeks to cover any last minute topics before she moves on.  The bottom line here is that no matter how much you love your assistant or how much she loves assisting you, you've got to push that baby bird out of the nest and let her fly.  This is truly the beauty in the process and nothing will make you more proud than celebrating her future successes.  All that being said, very few assistants will be content for more than 18 months and generally they start to get antsy about a year in to the process.  
  7. Now, let's hire our assisant- Now we can do it you guys!  We've figured out what tasks she'll be doing, what her training will look like, how she'll be educated, the advanced education support we'll provide and how long the program will be.  Does that sound like an assisting program or what?!? We can create an actual job description around that which is what we need to attract the right kind of assistant.  There is no better way to find your perfect assistant than to attract them through industry reputation.  This can be built overtime and I suggest you make every effort to do so by networking effectively.  Nothing is better than having a stack of great resumes and saying "I wish I could hire you all but I don't have the space right now".  With the right reputation, you can have that problem.  If that isn't your current status, I suggest running a Craigslist ad, asking to do a job posting at the local cosmetology school or even posting to Facebook or through email marketing.  You'll be surprised that sometimes your current client happens to have a niece who just graduated cosmetology school and she "didn't even think" to see if you might want to hire her.  Happens all the time.  If you are going to run an ad, it should be long and detailed and include an overview of your salon, your training program, your retail lines, color lines, benefits, schedule, education and anything else that you can think of that might attract your perfect assistant.  Put a little personality into it!  Remember, we are trying to build an emotional connection from the start.
  8. The Interview- I am going to write an upcoming blog post all about interviews because I feel like I've got a few tricks up my sleeve to share, but for now I'll just suggest that you make the candidate as comfortable as possible.  I think we all know how to BS our way through an interview at this point, I don't want to hear those type of answers.  I want somebody to sit across from me and show me who they really are so that I can have the best shot as seeing their true colors before I walk them through those doors.  You'll also want to be honest about your expectations of them and your promise to them as their teacher as well.  A good interview should feel like a good first date that will lead to a marriage.  If you walk out thinking "that was awkward but she looked the part" or "she had no personality, but she has great experience" or "that was awful but I really need somebody" all of those relationships are about to end in an ugly divorce.  If your assistant candidate doesn't sweep you off your feet, keep dating because she's out there, you've just got to find her.  Bottom line: hire for personality, train for skill.
  9. Make it legal-Be sure that you have her sign all of the paperwork necessary to make her a true and honest employee.  She should be paid most likely hourly which is honestly the cleanest, safest way to go.  If you pay her under the table or by 1099, she can turn around and file a lawsuit if for any reason she turns sour (I've heard of two stories about this so far in 2016 so watch out!).  If you choose to pay by piece rate (ie. one shampoo is worth $3, one color application is worth $6) be sure you are logging everything and having your employee clock in and out still.  If you aren't paying that piece rate employee at least minimum wage, regardless of how much work is being done, you could also have a lawsuit on your hands.
  10. Enjoy the ride-When you hire an assistant or new stylist that you plan to educate, congratulations because you just became a mini-mom or mini-dad.  That stylist is now your responsibility and her fate in this industry lies in your hands.  Now, you can't save them all and from time to time you'll hire a dud, but don't be too quick to judge a book by it's cover.  Some of the most successful hairstylists today started as quiet, under-confident but determined cosmetologists just waiting for the right educator to come along and really break them out of their shell.  Really commit to giving that person your all.  They will either look back on you as the person who shaped their future or a thorn in their side.  You get to decide right now who you want to be.

XOXO