Hollywood loves concepts that can be pitched in a few words. So it's ideal terrain for Drybar, a Los Angeles start-up that sells $35 shampoo and blow-drys—blowouts, in the trade—and not much else. Unfortunately, simple concepts are also copy-catnip. With the breath of imitators warm on their necks, co-founders Michael Landau and Allison Webb are determined to make Drybar a national brand. Landau and Webb, who are siblings, plan to make their mark with exceptional service. They know that although a beguiling product lures people in, service brings them back.
But how to ensure great customer service when your company is growing at a breakneck pace? Drybar, which broke even on sales of $1 million in its first 10 months, derives about 70 percent of its business from repeat customers, says Landau. But given their plans to open 12 to 15 Drybars a year for the next three years, the founders say they lack time to gradually refine practices. The year-old company, which has 142 employees, four outlets in California, and a franchise in Dallas, needs to make sure that far-flung stores deliver a uniformly flawless experience. The challenge: to codify fabulousness.
So Inc. invited two customer service experts to help. Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon are co-authors of Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization. Inghilleri is a veteran of that pinnacle of politesse, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, at which he created the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center and Learning Institute. He is executive vice president at Atlanta-based West Paces Consulting. Solomon is a popular speaker on customer service who draws on the practices he engineered at Oasis Disc Manufacturing, the entertainment-technology company he founded in Delair, New Jersey. The two sat down recently with Landau and Webb to discuss Drybar's strengths and areas in which it can improve.
The experts immediately appreciated that customer focus is bred in the bone for these entrepreneurs: Their father modeled a service philosophy every day at his clothing store in South Florida. "My dad would bend over backward for every customer, acquiesce to their every demand," said Landau, 39. Landau and Webb, 35, tried to emulate that approach when they opened two Nicole Miller boutiques in the late '90s. "I'd go in disguise to see how employees were treating customers, and I was disgusted by how they talked to people," recalled Landau. "When women left the shop upset, I literally chased them down to apologize."
Landau moved west to help Seth Godin launch the Internet marketing firm Yoyodyne; later, he became an early employee at Yahoo before starting his own marketing company. Webb, meanwhile, worked as a hairstylist and in public relations in New York City. She moved to California in 2005 and four years later started doing blowouts in women's homes to break up long days of caring for her two young children. When that business grew beyond soloist scale, Landau invested $200,000 and raised another $1.5 million from friends and family. The first Drybar opened in Brentwood in February 2010.
With their business taking off, Webb and Landau were eager for some pointers on polishing their service to a fare-thee-well. Here are lessons from their meeting with our experts.
1. Have them at hello
First impressions carry outsize importance because of how memory works. "If I read you a long list of spices—cinnamon, marjoram, turmeric, etc.—you would remember the ones at the beginning and at the end," said Solomon, after Webb outlined Drybar's greeting procedures. "The ones in the middle would be a blur. That's how people remember customer service."
A visit to Drybar lasts half an hour to 45 minutes. The first point of contact is the receptionist, called a bartender in the brand's cocktail-themed vernacular. She greets the customer, checks her in, and offers her coffee, tea, or Drybar's signature citrus water. "We urge them not to start with, 'Do you have an appointment?' said Webb. "It's more like, 'Hi. Welcome to Drybar. Have you been with us before? Can I get you something to drink? I love your earrings.' I always tell them to make conversation." But when a reporter pretending to be a customer approached the desk, the bartender opened with: "Welcome to Drybar. Do you have an appointment?" The experts praised Webb's model greeting but suggested she create a written script to ensure employees remember to use it.
Drybar strives to prevent lines by turning seats efficiently, without making patrons feel rushed. The company ditched a walk-ins-are-welcome policy when the stores had to turn away business, which angered customers. Inghilleri urged that if a store does become unusually crowded, the bartender still acknowledge every customer the moment she enters. "It can be a simple eye contact and a smile," he said. "If you are on the phone, use sign language: 'I see you. I will be with you soon.' " He added that repeat customers should be flagged in the company's appointment system, so bartenders can recognize them with a warm "Welcome back." The experts suggested that Drybar put at employees' fingertips everything known about its customers, including mistakes made in previous transactions, product preferences, and comments from satisfaction surveys.
Landau and Webb have already made modifications to enhance the customer's experience. At their first store, the single desk for check-in and checkout created bottlenecks, so at subsequent stores, they set up separate stations. They also removed most phones, because the constant ringing—in concert with roaring blow dryers—was not conducive to relaxation. (Off-site reservation agents now handle calls.) The experts suggested the founders consider turning down the music. Webb agreed, but her brother argued that music boosts sales and customers love it. The music will remain loud.
2. Hire sweethearts
Drybar's stylists aren't just customer facing; they are customer touching. Landau and Webb have high standards for those who embody the brand. So, even in a lousy job market, they have trouble staffing the business. "The people with the attributes of good customer service may not necessarily be the best stylists," said Landau. "You can't hire them as a stylist if they are not good at hair, even if they have the best personality in the world." On the flip side, some doyennes of the dryer have turned out to be what Landau calls divas. "Some stylists are so arrogant and so good that they don't care what the client wants," said Landau.
Inghilleri suggested Drybar start evaluating stylists' customer service skills before their blow-drying skills. Hiring managers are sometimes so impressed after seeing someone with excellent technique that they are ready to dismiss deficiencies, such as a poor personality, he explained. He also wanted Drybar to use questions designed by a talent-profiling company to assess applicants' service orientation. Before posing those questions in interviews, the founders should ask them of a few star employees and record the answers, then do the same with middle-of-the-roaders. Both sets of responses should be weighed against applicants' answers to indicate which group they are more likely to emulate.
Solomon questioned the company's pursuit of outgoing, bubbly personalities. "I think what you are really looking for is people who can adjust themselves to the personality of the guest," he said. "Everyone should be able to deal with someone who is depressed or with the no-nonsense businesswoman."
3. Be great on the phone
About 60 percent of Drybar's clients book over the phone; the rest use the Web. Twelve operators work part time from their homes. But during peak times, Tuesday through Saturday, the company fields as many as 300 calls an hour. Customers may wait four or five rings for an answer, then get put on hold. "As soon as the telephone rings three times, you are beginning to build distrust in your callers," said Inghilleri. "If you don't answer the phone promptly, I don't know what you can do well. Your hold time—no more than 30 seconds. Abandoned calls—the moment you hit 10 percent, you are losing business." Inghilleri suggested Drybar consider outsourcing to a call center.
Landau, who has talked to four such outfits, pushed back: "Doing it ourselves, we have a high degree of control. The girls who work for us love the brand. To try to convey that message to a bunch of people who don't work here, it's a little scary." He hopes that the proliferation of franchises will soon justify Drybar's having its own call center. "It should be a Zappos environment—camaraderie and everyone working together," he said.
Inghilleri and Solomon had additional criticisms after listening in on a caller making an appointment. The operator, although knowledgeable and helpful, rambled in her responses and once or twice spoke over the caller. As with the bartenders, the experts recommended the use of a script.
They also suggested making lists of phrases deemed acceptable and—more important—unacceptable. (Cool: I'd be happy to. Not cool: Sure.) After a brief tussle over the use of the term no problem (as in, "Yes, I can do that for you"), which Webb defended as L.A. friendly, Inghilleri acknowledged that every business must adopt its own "style of service." "At the Ritz, we were ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," he said. Landau described Drybar's style as "a combination of whimsy and sophistication. We don't want it to be stuffy and fancy." At Drybar, no problem will remain no problem.
The experts spent less time studying Drybar's online booking. But Solomon loved the invitation to cancel appointments. "I think it's brilliant," he said. "You don't want anyone feeling guilty about not showing up."
4. Keep them pumped
The co-founders understand that consistent service is, by definition, repetitious. Do the right thing. Then do it again, ad infinitum. "For our employees, it's like being onstage," said Landau. "If you're in a Broadway show twice a day, five or six times a week, you still have to make every member of the audience feel like it's the first time you've done it."
To buoy enthusiasm, the experts recommended morning pep talks. During those five-minute gatherings, managers should alert staff to appointments by frequent dryers who deserve a little extra care, as well as customers prepping for big events. "That reminds staff that what they are doing is important to people's lives, which is great for morale," said Solomon. Inghilleri suggested breaking the talks into principles—such as the importance of a warm greeting, timeliness, or escorting customers. "Every day, you give people something a little different to focus on," he said.
Most important, the experts said, is to give employees permission to wax creative. Inghilleri once worked at the Walt Disney Company. "We always told the housekeepers, 'You are not here to clean rooms. You are here to create a memorable experience for your customers,' " he said. "We had housekeepers who would take little Mickey Mouse plush dolls and put them in children's beds with a note, 'I was waiting for you.' If your employees understand the mission and have the freedom to do great things, then they will do great things."
5. Quantify their love
Webb and Landau get to chat with plenty of customers and employees. But Landau said there has been no time to track and analyze customer feedback. Make time, Inghilleri told him.
Drybar's only formal feedback mechanism is a demure notepad at checkout printed with the chatty solicitation "please tell." The experts wanted more. Because customers have the option of receiving their receipts via e-mail, Inghilleri and Solomon suggested appending short surveys to those receipts. To help improve the response rate, Solomon recommended using his company's strategy of making a small donation to a charity for every survey completed. "A high percentage fill them out, because it's an inexpensive way to make a donation," he said.
Customer surveys should start with an overall rating, followed by a drill-down into specific aspects of the visit, the experts explained. "You want to start out with the two questions that really matter: Will you come back? and Will you refer your friends?" said Solomon. A rating is also a defense against attacks on sites like Yelp. The ability to assert, "On a scale of 1 to 5, 97 percent of customers gave us a 5" is powerful ammunition against an isolated blast of disgruntlement.
6. Make it right
From his Nicole Miller days of sprinting after angry clients, Landau learned "the power of turning customers around." Drybar's co-founders and the experts agreed that resolving customer complaints is among the best ways to earn loyalty. In their book, Inghilleri and Solomon recommend lengthy apologies to give customers the chance to connect emotionally.
Drybar wants stylists to practice reading client reactions to their work and to act forcefully if they sense dissatisfaction. "Last week, I had a customer, and her hair wasn't exactly what she wanted," said Webb. "She said, 'No, no; you don't have to fix it.' I said, 'I want you to have it exactly the way you want.' So I fixed it for her. I talked to the stylist later, and she said, 'I told her I would like to fix it. But the customer said, "No, no, no." ' She tried to push it. But she didn't push it enough."
If a customer is unhappy with her blowout, the stylist will offer to do it again. If it's still not right, Drybar will comp the visit and, if the client is especially unhappy, the next one as well. (Out of 2,500 blowouts per week, the company comps four to eight.) Inghilleri observed that money is not always the best remedy. Particularly for customers who are not buying on price, he said, companies should consider a thoughtful present or service. He approved of Drybar's restitution for an unusually long wait—which happens occasionally when the previous client turns up late or has vast quantities of hair. In that case, the client may receive a free scalp massage to help pass the time.
7. Have them at goodbye
After the stylist escorts the client to the front, a bartender inquires once more into her happiness before checking her out. Inghilleri urged that receptionists indulge in another moment or two of conversation after the credit card has been returned. "Make sure the last moment they are with you is not the signing of a bill," he said. "What you want them to remember is people thanking them for coming and saying, 'We look forward to seeing you again.' "
The experts weren't crazy about Landau's plan to let customers check out and pay from their seats using an iPad app. (The iPads will be positioned at every station and will also be loaded with magazines.) "If you eliminate the face-to-face checkout, that's one less opportunity to pick up on problems," said Solomon. "Maybe you are gaining some convenience. But you are losing an opportunity for human touch."
The experts' advice Landau and Webb seemed least likely to take was to slow down. Drybar is hot: In just a year, the company has accumulated a database of more than 25,000 clients and received more than 1,000 inquiries about opening franchises. "They say, 'I was in your store in Los Angeles. Now I'm back in Tennessee, and Memphis needs one so bad,' " said Landau. "The pressure to grow is coming from everywhere."
But Inghilleri and Solomon advised the founders to resist that pressure for three months. They wanted Landau and Webb to use that time to perfect a single store: map processes, aggressively train staff, and lay an unshakable foundation for a service culture. Inghilleri told a story from his early days at the Ritz, when, despite accolades from the industry and the press, management doubled down to obliterate imperfections it knew were lurking. "At that time, one customer out of four was experiencing defects," Inghilleri said. "So we went back and worked on processes and took out defects. We tracked those mistakes and analyzed the data until it was one out of 10 customers experiencing defects, and then one out of 100. With service, you have to be obsessive. You know, excellence is a pain."