Managing Success

Good management skills are essential for cultivating an efficient, effective and loyal staff in the grooming salon.

Employees can make or break a business. To the public, they are the face of the salon, and they ultimately determine profitability with their productivity, skills and work ethic. So, it makes sense that every grooming business owner—whether they employ one person or dozens—should strive to be as effective as possible in managing their staff.

But how can a salon owner ensure that their employees are the best they can be? 

It isn’t easy, says Julie Rust, owner of The Fluffy Ruff Dog Spa on Bainbridge Island, Wash., noting that it is a challenge that can also be quite rewarding. “Managing staff has probably given me more gray hair than any other aspect of grooming ... and yet the good days make me feel so great to be working with people who share a passion for pets and continuing learning,” she says.

Of course, the first step in building the best possible staff for a grooming salon is to select the right employees. However, that is much easier said than done. Finding and keeping great employees is an ongoing issue for most grooming businesses, including GroomTown Pet Boutique and Spa in North Andover, Maine. According to owner/groomer Lisa Medeiros-Grieco, it can be difficult to find employees who are willing to work as hard as the grooming industry requires. “You can hire someone, and they just don’t realize how hard dog grooming is,” she says. “Finding the right person to deal with the stress—the noise, physical demands and customer service requirements—is difficult.”

With this in mind, it is essential to have a carefully written and complete job description. This should include everything that the job entails, from the ability to lift 50 pounds to hand scissoring skills. If answering the phone, booking appointments and providing customer service are part of the job, they should be listed as well. The goal here is to leave no room for someone to say, “I didn’t sign on to do that.”

Once a potential employee has been identified, it’s time to use a well-designed interview process to weed out candidates who simply are not a good fit. For Medeiros-Grieco, this is a process that is meant to ensure not only that new hires are hardworking and qualified, but also that their personalities will be a good match with the rest of her team. 

“I have people work for a half day, which tells me a lot about their skill, work ethic, and whether they are prone to create drama or not,” she says. “We work in a small shop with a lot going on. There are up to eight girls in a 1,400-square-foot shop—that’s a lot of people in a small space. If they don’t mix well with all of the other employees, it’s a huge issue.”

Sarah “Sally” Hawks, owner of Dog Words by Sarah in Landenberg, Pa., also tests the mettle of prospective employees by putting them into action at the salon. “I usually ask them to donate a day to see if they are even interested in doing the work,” she says. “People sometimes think that it’s an easy job, and it’s not. That weeds them out pretty quick.”

A 30-plus-year veteran in the industry, Hawks says it’s important to be clear on expectations during that interview day. She makes sure new hires understand that being on time, keeping their area clean and being kind but firm with the dogs without being mean are expectations for the job. 

To limit the chances of making a bad hire, many experts suggest that business owners take their time in deciding on a candidate, and even hire on probation, if possible. The term of the probation can be as long as needed—some experts says that the “honeymoon” period during which new hires will be on their best behavior can last as long as three months. The key here is in not being reluctant to let an employee go during this time if they aren’t a good fit. In most states, deciding not to confirm a hiring is a much simpler prospect than firing someone. 

In the interview and during the probation period, look for basic competency at required skills and the ability to work independently. Good communication skills are a must in an industry dealing with live animals. From telling a co-worker that a dog is testy today to informing the receptionist about irregularities in ears or skin, a good level of interaction ensures animals’ and other employees’ safety. Other red flags are being late arriving or returning from breaks, making the same mistakes after being coached on them, violating company policies, or just having a non-committal, careless attitude. Some skills can be learned, but an unreliable worker isn’t likely to change.

One of the biggest challenges every business owner faces when it comes to managing staff is attendance. Employees often do not have a real idea how their attendance impacts the business and the rest of the staff. A salon with clients who book their next appointment as they pick up their pet, or even book several appointments ahead, will have a full schedule for weeks in advance. Just one employee with attendance issues can throw a wrench into the smooth running of that business. As a result, not only will customers become unhappy about their dogs taking longer or perhaps not even being done at all, other employees will become stressed and head toward burnout because they are picking up the slack. 

While most employers will try to work around health issues or family gatherings when possible, it doesn’t always work out. Life happens to everyone, and most bosses—especially in smaller businesses—like to accommodate as much as possible. However, the employee who must take time off for the third funeral for a grandmother in six months may just be taking advantage of that accommodation. 

With that said, it is important to make sure the entire team understands what the salon’s attendance policies are and how important it is to adhere to them. Create an employee handbook that includes those attendance expectations. This is a good idea for any business, no matter what size. Knowing what the expectations are allows employees a better chance to create good habits.

Retaining Quality Employees
Once a salon owner has found that stellar employee who has great skills, work ethic and personality, it is important to hold onto that staff member as long as possible—but how?

The answer is deceptively simple: to keep good staff, you have to keep them happy. That means engaging your employees to find out what they want, and giving it to them, if possible. 

Often, the thing that employees want most is a voice. Ask for opinions and suggestions on how to accomplish goals or run certain segments of the business. Make a suggestion box, check it regularly and take the ideas seriously. 

It is also important to praise employees when they do something well. This may sound ridiculously obvious, but in a busy workday, it can be easy to miss opportunities to tell someone that they are doing a good job. If you do any dog training using operant conditioning, you know that reinforcing behavior frequently causes it to become habit. It works equally well with people. 

“We all like to know we’re doing a good job,” says Veronica Boutelle, founder of Dog*tec, a Sixes, Ore.-based pet-business consulting firm. “Build opportunities into your schedule to see your employees in action. When you catch one making a good decision with a dog, let them know. When you see them land a new client or soothe an angry one, thank them. Employees feel a great investment in the business when they know their efforts contribute to its success. 

“Be specific when you reinforce—just like when coaching a training client, tell employees exactly what they did well and why you like it. ‘Great job!’ is always nice to hear, but ‘I love how you noticed that Spot was getting nervous and cheerfully called him away from the other dogs to get him out of the situation. That was great proactive thinking!’ is much more informative and likely to impact future action.” 

Probably the most important aspect of managing good employees so that they are happy in their job is defining expectations of both the manager and employee. Conduct performance reviews on a regular basis, and make sure they are honest. If you don’t like confrontation (and who does?) don’t let it color your reviews by avoiding areas in which an employee needs improvement. A worker who is not meeting expectations cannot improve if they are not told exactly where they are falling short.

Phrasing is everything, though. For example, managers may want to consider putting their criticism in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘praise sandwich.’ It would go something like this: “I’m very happy with your scissor skills, and the customers are too. You do need to work on your speed more. I’d like to see you doing one more dog a day by this time next month, and if you can keep up the finish quality the way you are now, that will be great.” 

It is important to note that, when delivering criticism, a manager should be specific about their expectations. Just telling a groomer to “work faster” does not give them any goals to aim for; instead, be specific about how much faster, and by when.

Managers should be as specific as possible on every expectation that they have. Grooming is not a career in which there is only one way to do things, so it is important to make sure from the beginning that the staff knows exactly how things are to be done. 

When it comes to being a good manager, it is essential that business owners understand what they can and cannot do as employers. There are laws that vary across the country on time off, paid sick leave, and more. For example, because she knows the local legal requirements—and cares about her employees and their health—Medeiros-Grieco insists that her staff takes the appropriate number of breaks during the day. If staff becomes frustrated, she sends them out for an extra break or a short walk to keep them in good spirits. It’s all part of being a good boss.

Given that the tenure of her grooming employees ranges from four to 16 years, Joanne McDevitt, owner of Dogs R Us in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., clearly knows a thing or two about keeping good staff. She says that the secret to her low turnover lies in remembering the things that impressed her most about her bosses when she began to groom and emulating those qualities—for example, keeping a level head during a crisis, or staying aware of any tension between employees and being willing to intercede. 

Being supportive of professional aspirations is another way to retain employees, says McDevitt. “I encourage my staff to do as much continuing education, including attending SuperZoo, Atlanta Pet Fair and the NDGA Fun in the Sun,” she explains.

Rust agrees that continuing education can be key in staff retention. “The best thing an employer ever did for me was take me to trade shows with her when she competed,” she says. “She encouraged me to become certified, and to continue [my education] when I was discouraged. She even paid for my first competition entry.”  

Taking this type of approach to creating a great working environment for the salon’s staff is sure to have a positive impact on the quality of care provided to clients—and ultimately, the health of the business, says Rust. “I want employees to make enough money to live happily,” she explains. “I want everyone committed to excellence and passionate about the welfare of the dogs in our care. And I want to make enough money to pay my bills, supply my business with safe working tools, and continue the education of everyone on my staff to keep us up to date.”


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