Early in my career, I learned to keep my personal life personal, even when the nosiest clients would do their best to pry into my business. After writing an article about why clients aren’t friends, a ton of professionals commented and emailed asking how to courteously redirect clients who get a little too familiar, and what to do if they’ve already given clients the impression that they’re entitled to their most intimate personal details. In this article, I’ll share how I keep my relationships with my clients professional without sacrificing the cordiality customers come to expect from the experts they entrust with their beauty services.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a difference between being personable and getting personal. Contrary to popular belief, you can be a popular, friendly professional without becoming overly familiar with clients. Relationships with clients should form naturally, but many professionals are taught (often in beauty school) to manipulate clients into a manufactured “connection” for the purpose of gaining their loyalty and earning higher tips. Those who promote this strategy encourage professionals to ask clients personal questions and to share their own. They’re told to document personal client information (like their children’s birthdays) so they can recall this information later to make it seem as if they’ve been thoughtful enough to remember it.
This manipulative tactic is amateurish, outdated, ineffective, and can be outright creepy.
Additionally, inviting clients to dump their drama on you has the potential to set a precedent that will result in you becoming the sounding board for every grievance every one of your clients has ever had. Can you imagine how miserable your workday could become? I’ve personally seen this happen to coworkers whose clients treated them like a substitute therapist.
Connect with your clients through education and accommodation.
Ideally, you’ll establish yourself as a true professional from the client’s first visit. How?
- Greet them by name with a handshake—not with hugs.
- Do not use pet names like “honey,” “sweetheart,” or “dear.” (They’re infantilizing and gross.)
- Consult thoroughly, keeping the conversation focused on the service as much as possible.
- Be kind, courteous, and friendly, but respond to probing behavior with redirections and clear dismissals.
Most professionals don’t have a hard time avoiding inappropriate physical contact or pet names. Many tend to get tripped up on redirections and dismissals.
It can be difficult to navigate those interactions in an industry that often confuses the acceptance of abusive behavior with “great customer service.”
To clarify—I am not saying that clients who ask innocuous personal questions are abusive. I am saying that as professionals, we’re often expected to allow clients to boundary-stomp in a variety of ways (disrespecting our time, sexualizing us, and bullying us when it benefits them). That expectation creates a culture where professionals stop asserting themselves in situations where they absolutely must, even in low-stakes situations like those where a nosy, gossip-hungry client simply needs to be redirected.
Innocuous small talk or gossip-mining?
“So, are you married or do you have a boyfriend? I’m sorry, I assumed you were straight. Are you not?”
“Do you have kids? How old are they? What school do they go to?”
“What does your partner do for a living?”
Clients have asked me these questions, or some version of them, more times than I could possibly count—and they still do. You’re probably sitting there thinking, “What’s the big deal? They’re harmless questions! Small talk is a normal part of socializing!” (And to you I say, “Have you met me?! Hello. I’m Tina Alberino, overthinker and overanalyzer extraordinaire.”)
Are these questions really harmless? What motivation could a client have for asking them? Is it necessary for them to know my marital status or sexual orientation? Do my kids have anything to do with their service? How is my partner’s career relevant to anything?
I’m sure plenty of people ask these questions politely to feign interest and attempt to ease the awkwardness that can accompany being within such close proximity to someone relatively unfamiliar for such long periods of time, but—if you’ve been in this industry for longer than a minute—you know that’s not always the case.
A segment of your clientele will be made up of judgmental ass Judys.
Judgmental Judys live for salon gossip and to spit their opinions all over you while you serve as their captive audience for the duration of their appointment. They get their foot in the door with one of those seemingly harmless questions that most people never think twice about, but instead of nodding politely and muttering, “That’s nice,” before returning her gaze to her phone or magazine, she’ll follow up with a more invasive question, or start in on you with the advice.
“You’re recently divorced? What happened there?”
“You don’t have kids? Why not? Don’t you want children? You aren’t going to be young forever, you know.”
“Your wife is an artist? So, you must be the breadwinner of the household then.”
See how that happens? Just like that, Judy has got you defending and explaining yourself. No matter how much money you make, you aren’t getting paid enough to tolerate that.
Let’s agree right now that you’re entitled to a private life—and a workday free of judgment and unsolicited advice from your coworkers and the random people patronizing your workplace.
(Let’s also agree that your coworkers are entitled to a work environment where they aren’t forced to listen to you tell the same personal story twenty times a day for weeks on end.)
I’ve always felt that my personal life has no place at work. The majority of people who ask don’t care and are only inquiring because they feel socially obligated to, and a good deal of the others are merely seeking entertainment. Their motivations for asking are entirely irrelevant though, because their appointment time isn’t about us—it’s about them and ensuring their service experience and service outcome are exactly what they expected.
So, with that in mind, how do we keep the appointment focused on the client?
How do I respond when clients ask me a personal question I’m not comfortable answering?
Step 1: Deflect
Keep it simple. Wave off the question then slide into Step 2 the way your ex nonchalantly tries to slide into your DMs.
“Thanks for asking, but I don’t want to talk about me. This is your time to unwind, relax, and enjoy your treatment.”
Step 2: Redirect
From here, redirect in the way that best fits the situation.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Is the water temperature okay?”
“Is there anything you want me to know about your hair/skin/nails before we get started?”
“This product/technique I’m about to use is…”
How do I respond to a client who continues prying into my personal life?
Step 3: Reject
Attempt to deflect and redirect again, this time a little more insistently. If that fails, you need to make it clear that you’re rejecting the intrusion.
“Thanks for asking, but as a rule, I don’t talk about my personal life at work.”
The only clients who require Step 3 are the most judgy-est of Judys. Shut it down with a smile.
How do I establish boundaries with clients after I allowed them access to my personal life?
Fortunately, establishing boundaries with existing clients who have become accustomed to hearing all about your business isn’t as difficult as putting toothpaste back into the tube.
Step 1: Apologize.
You screwed up. You really, really did. Say so.
“I’ve been assessing myself lately and have realized that I made some regrettable mistakes. It was unprofessional and inappropriate to share so much of my personal life with you the way that I have.”
Step 2: Promise.
“In the future, I’m going to be more respectful of your appointment time, focusing on you and the quality of your salon experience.”
Step 3: Reclaim.
Undoubtably, a handful of clients you have this talk with will be those you’ve established rapport with who might feel as if the apology and change in your behavior isn’t at all necessary. (A decent chunk of those will be objecting because they feel obligated to.)
Should a client insist that you’ve done nothing wrong and/or don’t need to change on their behalf, reply with a reclamation of your privacy wrapped in a reiteration of the apology.
“It’s nice to know you care, but it can be easy for people in my profession to forget that our clients are not our friends or therapists—no matter how much we like them personally. At times, we can over-share, distracting the client from the service they’re paying for, robbing them of their relaxation time, and inviting them into our personal lives without necessarily intending to. Now that I recognize that I made these mistakes, I won’t be making them in the future.”
While it’s easy to establish your boundaries from the first visit, it can often be easier to communicate with existing clients. In general, people are far more understanding than we tend to assume they’ll be.