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Saturday, 25 June 2011 18:57

Customer Service Performance

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If ever there was a difficult decision for the aesthetician or spa owner to make, it is in choosing professional and retail products for treatments and home care. Just look in any spa or skin care trade publication (even this one!) and the number of available lines in just one issue alone is daunting – and confusing! So many things to consider: price, packaging, training, profit, ease of use… oh, and efficacy! Every offering seems to have its own distinct claim about quality, performance, and degree of penetration, purity, and so forth. Most, if not all, tout cutting-edge technology, proprietary ingredients, and results, results, results!

You, however – the aesthetician and/or spa owner – have a fairly long list of unique criteria by which you must measure a product line's suitability for your particular practice or business situation. You've attended trade show presentations, sampled a zillion testers, and reviewed a thick stack of brochures. You've read testimonials, were awed by the towering trade exhibits, and been impressed by full-page magazine ads. Now you have a decision to make and you want to make it right… Where to begin?
First off, let me disclose that I am both a professional aesthetician and a pro-quality product manufacturer, so I have a bias. I produce what I feel is ideally suited for both treatment and retailing purposes, same as any of the countless others that compete for the same customers in the aesthetic skin care market. That said, I initially declined to write this article for fear of leaning too heavily in the direction of my own personal preferences. Then I got over it. Regardless of whatever type of product you ultimately select for your own use and retailing purposes, there are some very important and universal considerations you'll need to address and every manufacturer will need to satisfy as best they can. With that I would like to offer you some of my own insights into product selection that were firmly established long before I ventured into the world of manufacturing.

Product Efficacy
This is an interesting question often asked of product producers by those that are evaluating professional skin care products: do they work? I use the term "interesting" as a softer way to say puzzling. For the life of me, I cannot imagine any company attempting to pass off a poorly performing skin care line among well-trained and experienced professional aestheticians. It's difficult to imagine that anyone would invest tremendous time and financial resources in an attempt to dupe a savvy market of service providers and consumers. In fact, I simply cannot name a single professional product line that, in my obviously competitive opinion, doesn't "work." If products can't produce a satisfactory result for those that are using them that line will not survive for long, at least in the professional arena. The shelves of a Walgreens is another matter…
Producers know what their customers want and must come as close to meeting the standard as possible while also trying to find a way to seem distinctive in a crowded skin care market. And, since virtually all product lines more than a couple of years old obviously have found a loyal following of professionals then clearly all must "work" in some way against the other options available to professionals. And since by "work" we're referring to skin improvement or corrective results, it is equally interesting to understand how personal and arbitrary results evaluations can be.
At many a trade event, I've asked large audiences to raise their hand when I name the professional product line they use at their spa or in their practice. Then I name a dozen or so of the better-known companies commonly found in skin care establishments. Once we've identified our allegiances, I then ask the audience if they feel their product line delivers the results they expect. All hands go up. Then I ask them if their customers are happy with the products they use. All hands again. Finally, I ask whether or not they believe that their product line of choice is the best to be found on the market. Again, all are convinced that they made the better choice. That means that the conviction of the "Brand A" user would cancel out that of "Brand B" loyalist. And so the message is obvious: all of these product lines are delivering the results their users demand— all of them. The evaluation really comes down, it would seem, to one's own individual perception rather than a real measure of one company's ability to deliver on the efficacy promise. So, rather than worry a great deal about results it might be better to judge a product squarely on how it appeals to you. That favorable opinion will go a long way in producing confidence in you as an aesthetician and client satisfaction post-treatment and sale.

Packaging and Product Reputation
While it doesn't hurt to have slick bottles and jars surrounding a well-known product line, how crucial are these elements in terms of successful product sales? One must consider the selling environment in order to know for sure, and a bit of customer buying research is useful as well. Years ago our company conducted a survey of customers that buy skin care products in a spa or salon (we weren't concerned with the department or drug store shopper) to determine what their chief buying influences were in that setting. What we learned was this: that 85 percent of clients trusted the aesthetician's opinion over known product reputation. We also discovered that clients would switch from a favored brand upon the enthusiastic suggestion of their aesthetician. Also revealed was that the beauty of product packaging (other than functionality, size and quality) had little or no bearing on a client's buying decision when introduced and endorsed by a skin care professional. Witness the success of the homely Kiehl's at Barney's New York and Neiman Marcus, two of America's most prestigious retailers! Pretty packaging is most influential with customers when the selling is left up to packaging alone—hardly the case in a professional skin care business. Another interesting fact is that most spa and aesthetic clients hadn't heard of the major professional product lines before actually receiving a spa service. Why is that? Because professional product lines rarely, if ever, market themselves in consumer health and beauty publications, choosing to spend their marketing dollars in places where their true customer is reading: trade magazines. How is the average consumer going to learn about a product line when advertising is relegated to professional periodicals? Customers learn about these so-called "well known" products from you and me—the skin care experts that know them well!

Huge importance is placed upon the training support that aestheticians and their employers receive from the product companies with whom they do business. Product knowledge, treatment protocols, and sales tips are all found within the typical training programs of most professional product companies. In my years as both a spa business consultant and trainer, I have rarely seen the spa that developed and delivered a comprehensive in-house employee training program covering both product and service techniques. Most often this important task is left up to those that supply the products, therefore creating a dependency relationship with product vendors whose biases, sales philosophies, and availability can drastically impede a spa's income and service quality. In my review of scores of spa's personnel and training manuals, little (if any) emphasis is centered on technical and sales training — a serious weakness in any business with competitive and profitability aspirations.
And training/support services are very, very expensive for manufacturers to provide—this in an environment where customer demand for such services is on the rise. These costs are reflected in ever-increasing wholesale product prices while the retail markup is restricted by the brands themselves. Usually, the training required by the spa or aesthetician is of a very basic, rudimentary order—the sort of information that any competent skin care professional could understand and put into practice if only one were inclined toward self-study. Much of the product knowledge and technical training I've witnessed consists of little more than a representative (often with marginal knowledge on the products) simply reading the printed material to the team being "trained." I've done that dozens of times myself over the years, always astonished at the need to fly across the country to read a product manual out loud to those that would rather not read it for themselves. This is costly business, and unfeasible for a vendor to provide or client to receive as often as will be needed among an ever-changing spa team.
So, while a product company can provide this level of support, it is important for the individual aesthetician and spa owner to recognize the cost of depending on such services to substitute for a solid home-grown and delivered training program. And the longer it takes to get it, the more those costs will add up in lost sales, employee treatment error, and diminished company reputation.


Variety in Product Lines
Many a day spa is simply overstocked with an extensive array of products that far exceed the actual needs of their customer base or professional treatments. Lots of factors lead to this situation: employee boredom or owner enthusiasm, employees placed in charge of product selection who then change workplaces and abandon the line the next employee doesn't prefer, treatment equipment dependent upon special products in performing its function, and so forth. Product redundancy is not only expensive to maintain but confusing to both customers and employees alike. In many cases, spa owners are almost completely unaware of this creeping problem, as they either neglected to review inventory and sales reports or don't read them frequently enough. Having substantial dollars sitting in unneeded product rather than critical cash flow can seriously threaten a spa's solvency if permitted to persist.
A good solution would be to finally review the rate of product turn to see if some items in your inventory can be trimmed. Another good plan is to call a team meeting and survey each professional as to which products they feel can be eliminated from stock. You'll be surprised to learn how many products have been orphaned without your awareness! Next, be extra diligent against repeating the trend toward a silently growing inventory.

As hard as it may be to believe, we've witnessed the emergence of product claims that do not match the reality of their manufacture or origin. Perhaps the professional skin care market is too quick to bestow faith in marketing messages but a bit lax on double-checking the facts behind the stories. This is especially important with all of the new product companies suddenly appearing on the scene promoting natural, organic lines. One needs to ask: do their products actually come from the regions they say they do? Are the products manufactured according to the standards being promoted? Are their organic ingredients really organic? It's easy for a new and untested product company to promise fast delivery, free training, and exemplary customer service but can they deliver once the orders are written? And what's the support like? What is the reputation of the individuals who are now offering you miracles in product and service? Know anyone that has worked with them? Ask to visit their manufacturing facilities, to verify their background, to prove through prior customer experience that they can make good on the promises they proffer. Your business and future are too valuable to risk on those that will have such a critical role to play in it. Don't take a chance with it!
While no product company can please everyone, it should become very evident in the early going whether or not a vendor has the wherewithal and dedication required to handle its customers with care and responsibility. Don't accept excuses or winning personality. Get what you need or go where you can get it. What you see in the beginning will often magnify in the long haul unless possible glitches and problems are addressed with great concern and responsiveness by those involved. Buyer beware!
I hope this article has been useful for those of you in the process of making product buying decisions, brand changes, or inventory reductions. As a 20-year spa owner prior to becoming primarily a product manufacturer, my perspective and advice comes from real-world experience. And, as a producer we knew in advance what the challenges and expectations would be from the spa owner's end. Best of luck to you and your business' success!

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