Lessons in business from a barber
by Ndumiso Ndlela (@ndundlela) My barber and I celebrate our fifth ‘barberversary’ this year and our relationship has never been stronger. I hate to admit it but this is probably one of the longest relationships I’ve had with anyone I’m not related to. The sign at the entrance might read “Herman’s Salon & Styling” but his business is really building and maintaining client relationships.
The first time I walked into Herman’s hair salon, situated between a print and furniture shop not too far from the local taxi rank in Randburg, Johannesburg, the anxiety of having different hands touch my head in the previous couple of weeks had reached peak levels of frustration. Herman wore blue Levi 501s, a white shirt with thin blue stripes and a royal blue bow tie. He smiled and greeted me with a “How are your brother? How are we cutting it today?”. The smile and greeting have remained consistent ever since.
What I remember most about that first day is that, even before he picked up the hair clippers, I felt comfortable and my anxiety decreased dramatically. I’m not quite sure if it were the bow tie but I somewhat felt I could trust this soft-spoken gentleman with an accent I couldn’t quite place.
Five years later, when I reflect on why I kept going back to Herman, it’s more than just his exceptional barber skills or the mini fire display he does when sanitising the hair clippers using methylated spirit. The sign at the entrance might read “Herman’s Salon & Styling” but his business is really building and maintaining client relationships: from the moment you walk into his space until you walk out, Herman is applying some of the best practices in relationship-building and giving an experience that will make you come back again and again.
One of the best lessons I learnt from the Côte d’Ivoire-born, multilingual man whom I’ve seen every month for the last five years is that presentation matters and first impressions count. He’s always understood the need to dress to be memorable. In an area with so many barbers, being good at cutting hair isn’t good enough.
An advocate of ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, after every customer he sweeps the floor, wipes the counters and constantly checked that the tools of his trade are in perfect working condition. Motown and ’90s R&B creat the ambience at any given day of the week. Then, add a smile with perfectly aligned teeth and a dimple that crinkles. You already have the ingredients for an interesting business recipe.
Herman and I exchanged contact details the first day we met and that afternoon he sent a message about how great it was to meet me and he was more than willing to accommodate my working hours on week days if I let him know in advance when I require his services. Before I left for the end-of-year break last year, he sent a message asking how could I go home without a fresh fade.
Communication is a contact sport for Herman and he plays it to the best of his ability without being overly intrusive. He understands the importance of following up and checking on his customers, especially if he’s not heard from you in a while. And his effort to interact with you long after you’ve left his place of business is the reason that he remains top of mind when someone asks for a good barber referral.
“Never stop trying to improve” is one of his favourite lines. Whether it’s a beard trim or a ‘make me look like Will Smith in Men in Black’ request, Herman always wants feedback on his work. He’s also always wanted his customers to be involved in helping him create a better experience for everyone who walks into his place of business. And it’s through this constant feedback that he’s developed an unspoken code with many of his customers so that they can just walk in and sit on the barber’s chair and he does his magic. A built and established trust has been formed.
It might seem like an insignificant gesture to offer loyal customers free haircuts on their birthdays, considering how many times one goes to the barber in a year, but this small reward once a year builds loyalty. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate this gesture of appreciation from someone who needs every cent to keep his business operating. And the other barbers wonder why is tipping jar is always full? Rewarding his customers is an investment on his business.
Above all else, he loves what he does and has fun doing it. The energy and enthusiasm have made him excel in business and grow a loyal customer base. Maybe Mary Poppins was onto to something when she sang, “In every job that must be done/There is an element of fun/You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”
Ndumiso Ndlela (@ndundlela) is a storyteller at heart. As head of digital for DNA Brand Architects, his passion is to help brands navigate the digital landscape and creating ground-breaking, innovative and award-winning content.
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