I recently had the fabulous opportunity of spending time interviewing Bob Steele, CEO of Bob Steele Hairdressers, located at 4403 Northside Parkway, Suite 160, in Atlanta, Georgia (404-262-9499). Bob graciously shared a good chunk of his valuable time to talk to me about many things related to the hair industry. During our time together I discovered that Bob is a savvy businessman, hair industry pioneer and the brilliance behind the wildly successful award-winning 5,800 square foot salon that he grew from one employee in 1979 to over 50 employees in 2001. (Photo of Bob Steele Hairdressers copyright Bob Steele)
I asked Bob the secret to his phenomenal success for all these years. Bob stated that it was actually the simple fact that "people want to feel good". Bob referenced TV's popular show Cheers, and Norm who loved to visit the bar "where everyone knew his name". As Bob pointed out, Norm felt good every time he visited the little corner bar and so he made it a point to visit as often as possible.
Bob told me that there is a "lot more to working on clients than just rearranging their hair".
He believes that people come to his salon "to feel good". When clients feel good they come back repeatedly to recapture that wonderful feeling. Not only do they come back but they bring their friends, loved ones and anyone they think will benefit from a "feel good" experience.
Although the salon is one of the largest and busiest hair salons in the United States, Bob wants all of his clients to feel welcome and at home. In keeping with the goal of hospitality the salon offers all the nice extras like a refreshment center stocked with a coffee bar and those famous Georgian peach teas. Even more importantly, the staff at Bob Steele Hairdressers works hard at getting to know all of their clients. And yes, they get to know your name.
Bob Steele's Journey In The World Of Hair
Bob Steele is the classic Southern gentleman, born and raised in Savannah, Georgia. For all of his life Bob was very artistic and enjoyed working with his hands and building things. After four years in the Navy, where he toiled in construction, Bob returned home to Georgia. (Photo of Bob Steele at Bob Steele Hairdresser's Spring Fling - copyright Bob Steele).
A party ultimately shaped Bob's destiny in the hair world. While still employed in the civilian construction trades, Bob attended a gathering, where he met a guy who was having a fabulous time with his career as a stylist. Even better, the stylist was making very good money. Bob realized that the construction trades would not meet his long-term career or financial aspirations. Taking inspiration from the stylist he met, Bob enrolled in a hair academy utilizing the GI Bill to fund his schooling.
In 1973 the newly licensed Bob joined a big salon where he worked for 6 years learning the hair business. In 1979 Bob decided to take the plunge and open Bob Steele Hairdressers with just one employee.
Over the past 22 years Bob Steele has grown a fabulously successful, award winning, salon. Has it been easy? Bob told me that although it has been physically and mentally challenging, it has been immensely rewarding and fulfilling. He also told me that he has learned some great lessons along the way. With every mistake that Bob made, he experienced new opportunities to do things better the next time. He told me that things are not always how they look and sometimes you just have to learn the hard way. This was a valuable lesson to learn.
As the salon has mushroomed in size Bob has slowly stepped away from full time "behind the chair" duty. He has moved more into the demanding circle of running a successful salon. This includes being there to cheer on his staff, making sure all the customers have a wonderful Bob Steele experience and expand the business appropriately. At the current time Bob does hair two days a week and only books approximately12 clients.
Besides continuing to grow his business Bob also works hard to recruit and hire caring people to nurture the salon's clients. Bob explained that if a client knows that the salon genuinely cares about them, they would be willing to work with the stylist when mistakes, problems or difficulties arise. This is not the case with clients who feel the salon or stylist just doesn't care about them.
Bob explained that one of his favorite quotes was "you can get everything you want if you help enough other people get what they want". Bob utilizes this Zig Zigler quote as one way he drives his business. As Bob told me, if you help people to feel good you will make them happy. Helping people is so important and Bob is always striving to find ways to achieve this impressive goal.
Great Customer Service & Care
Helping the customer is what Bob Steele and his salon are all about. Every time a client comes into the Bob Steele salon they receive an extensive no charge consultation. Why? Because Bob and his team want to make sure that their customers are happy. They sincerely listen to their clients and put their needs first.
Bob explained that after many years of working with hair he has learned that there are approximately 3 or 4 basic questions that you can ask a client to determine if they are happy with their hair.
( Photo of Bob Steele Hairdressers copyright Bob Steele)
Some of the typical questions a Bob Steele client is asked would include:
Bob explained that the key to having happy clients is to probe them for things that they don't like about their hair.
Does all this customer care account for the success of the salon? Absolutely. Bob explained that a large percentage of their new business comes from what Bob calls "warm referrals". Basically this is a referral of a new client from an existing client. Bob explained that they usually retain approximately 65% of warm referrals after the first visit. This compares to 35% of "cold referrals" that result from media and other forms of advertising.
Bob has learned that it is important to never be swayed to advertise in any medium "because everyone else is doing it". Bob understands the importance of referrals and recommendations from satisfied clients.
Celebrity Safety Zone
I asked Bob if his salon attracted visits from famous movie stars or celebrities. He explained that "big names" did visit Bob Steele Hairdressers on a regular basis. However, in keeping with his policy of providing great customer care, Bob provides the ultimate "safe hair haven" for his celebrity visitors. As a result, Bob and his staff never reveal the names of any of the celebrity clients that visit the salon. Bob and his staff also go out of their way to provide privacy from prying eyes. Although celebrities visit the salon, they are given special appointments that guarantee their comfort, security and absolute privacy.
Bob was willing to share a tiny celebrity hair tidbit. It seems that in the late 70s the Atlanta Falcons football team used to visit the salon for annual perms. It seems that the Falcons felt that perms would allow them to have a much easier hair care experience during the football season. Bob said that it was quite a sight to watch big burly football players getting perms. In fact, they had to double up on the caps to cover the massive shoulders and chests of the players while the perm solution was being applied.
Times have changed and so have the styles fancied by the Atlanta Falcon players. They no longer descend en masse for perms every season. However, it is a great piece of salon history that Bob graciously shared.
A Well Defined Niche
One of the many things that impressed me about Bob is that he has a very clear understanding of his market and his clients. The Bob Steele Hairdresser's Salon caters to a clearly defined niche market. They understand that they attract a very specific type of clientele and they play to the needs of their market very successfully. (Photo copyright Bob Steele).
The folks at Bob Steele take a conservative middle of the road approach to designing hair. You can liken Bob's philosophy to a string of exquisite pearls that grow in desirability and value over time. Class and long-term beauty are the hair styling rule at the salon. Nothing too extreme or wild is concocted. You definitely won't see obnoxiously bright hair hues or styles that are way over the edge.
Part of the reason that the salon caters to the middle of the road hair niche is because of their location. The salon is located in a classy, new money area, of Atlanta. The complex that houses the salon also hosts approximately 800 business and professional people. The mix includes lawyers, bankers and young executives. The average salon client ranges in age from 25 to 45 years of age. They tend to be extremely busy with more money than time. They also want the very best in the line of chic, classy, elegant hairstyles that work with business attire or can be dressed up for evening soirees. They definitely avoid going too far over the edge with their styles.
Another reason for the salon's well-defined niche is Bob's belief in creating long-term value for his clients. When Bob works on designing styles for either his clients or for the salon's photo shoots, he works hard to find classy but pretty styles that work equally well for business or more formal events.
How does Bob know when to avoid styles that are too far over the edge? Bob uses his wife as his "eeekkk" meter. When she looks at a new style and emits a verbal "eeekkk" he knows that things are not quite right with the style in question. He always discards it and goes for a style that his wife finds more appealing. Over the years his wife has been an excellent judge of great styles and helped Bob avoid outrageous styles that the majority of his clientele would discard.
Yes there is definitely a market for "over the edge" styles but that is not his defined market.
This is definitely not the type of niche that his salon is designed to handle. Bob keeps the salon focused on the type of hair and services that they have become known for providing.
A Spa In The Future?
Although Bob explained that he has a great idea of the niche his salon appeals to, I asked Bob if he planned to expand the niche to include a Spa. After all, a very hot thing in the salon industry is to add a Spa. Bob laughed and said, "I know and understand the hair business but I don't know or understand the spa business". Bob is going to stick to what he is great at, which is running his Bob Steele Hairdressers.
At some point in the future he indicated that he may partner with an independently owned spa so that his salon clients can take advantage of spa services in the same building or general vicinity. Savvy businessman that he is, Bob told me that he is going to stay away from things that he doesn't know. He is going to stick with his proven successful formula. Like he always does.
As an example of his philosophy, Bob told me that he was one of the first to ever have an e-commerce solution for selling hair care products on the Net. Unfortunately he did not get enough traffic to create the sales to make it financially worthwhile. When he realized that the model was not working to his satisfaction Bob immediately closed up the site and moved on to more lucrative ventures.
Specials Styles For Proms & Weddings
While we were exploring the typical Bob Steele client I asked if his salon experienced a big demand for Prom and Wedding styles. While Bob agreed that the salon does have some clients that visit for these two big events, the salon does not heavily advertise for Prom or Wedding hair business. Its not that the salon doesn't necessarily want the business, it's just a very specialized type of service that the salon isn't designed to cater to extensively.
As Bob explained proms and wedding styles tend to attract a different type of hair customer. Often times the members of the wedding party are from out of town which causes some challenges.
Bob also pointed out that Prom and Wedding looks are some of the hardest styles to create. Why? Many people specifically want an updo for their Prom or Wedding. In many cases it may be the first time the client has ever worn an updo in their entire life. Most people just don't wear updos on a regular basis. Therefore the clients are not sure how they will look in an updo and they have no idea what will look good on them.
Once an updo is finished they may not like the look but don't know why they don't like it. This makes it very hard to fix and even to figure out what to do to make the person happy. Since the Bob Steele stylists are highly motivated to make their clients happy, Prom and Wedding styles can be quite difficult.
While discussing the challenges that clients face with updos I asked Bob's opinion why many of the hair and beauty magazines don't seem to feature a lot of updos in their pages. Bob pointed out that many of the hair publications probably minimize updo styles because they specifically limited to special occasions. Since hair publications want to sell magazines they focus on styles that have the highest popularity.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
I asked Bob to talk about the fabulous photo shoots that are staged at his salon on a regular basis. I asked him how the shoots came about and their ultimate purpose for the salon. Bob pointed out a "picture speaks a 1000 words". As a stylist evolves in their craft they learn simply by looking at a client how the client's hair can be styled to be the most flattering. They can pull together all the style variables in a matter of seconds by looking at the face shape, hair texture and overall coloring. (Photo courtesy of Bob Steele).
Unfortunately many clients can't quite visualize the ultimate look without a picture or image to look at. Until the client can actually see what a stylist is trying to show them, they will never understand. Bob wants the clients to see and to share the visions of the stylists at the salon. That is how and why the photo shoots started. The fabulous photo portfolios that are created help the stylist and client communicate.
Bob understands the value of commissioning regular photos shoots at the salon with renowned professional hair and beauty photographers like Tom Carson. He wants to provide a constant source of great hair photos for clients to see the vision of what their hair can become. He also doesn't want them to set their expectations to unreachable heights. Photos help clients adjust their reality of what is possible. (See Bob Steele's gallery of styles here at HairBoutique.com courtesy of Bob Steele).
When planning the types of styles that will be presented during a shoot Bob asks himself the question - how will this style look 10 years from now? Bob has the opinion that a style that looks good should look good for a long time. He believes that those are the types of classic and stunning styles that should be captured during the photo sessions.
The salon believes in using a selection of photos from the shoots to create a regular newsletter that allows current and prospective customers to see the different type of hairstyles that are possible. As a result Bob reported that many new clients often arrive at the salon with one of more clippings of one of the styles taken out of a magazine or the salon's newsletter. The photo shoots prove to be great advertising for the type of work that a client can expect from the salon.
Bob also finds the publicity generated by his photos helpful in attracting new stylists to the salon. He is always looking for new talent to join Bob Steeled Hairdressers and when photos appear in hair publications many stylists do take notice and may contemplate contacting Bob about career opportunities with the salon.
His fabulous photos have won the Bob Steele Salon attention in both consumer and professional oriented hair publications. Pick up any of the popular consumer hair magazines on the newsstands and you are likely to see some stunning styles from Bob Steele and his stylists displayed on the pages. The salons and the photos have been featured in major hair industry publications like Modern Salon and Strategies. (Photo of 101 Styles Magazine courtesy of Alicia Marie Rivers).
The Bob Steele team is widely respected in the industry for their cutting and coloring expertise. As a result Bob and his staff have won many awards. Sophisticate's 101 Styles Hair Magazine for May/June 2001 named Bob Steele Hairdressers as "Best for Creative Haircuts & Haircolor".
I asked Bob that since he believed so strongly using photos as a communications tool if he believed in the salon based photo imaging systems. I should not have been surprised to hear that Bob was one of the pioneers in the imaging world. He told me that he was one of the very first to have one in his salon when they first became available.
Does Bob believe they offer value to the client? As he explained, it depends on a wide range of variables. Yes, an imaging system can be a wonderful tool to show a client how their overall look can be improved. However, the imaging system has to be done correctly to get the best results and this is not always and easy process.
Just recently Bob stopped using his own salon's imaging system because he found that it was just too difficult. Not only do the imaging systems take a lot of time they have to be done by someone who really understands what they are doing with the system.
Bob believes that while an imaging system can be a good thing, he believes that his salon can offer great results to the clients from the photos and the in-house consultation that every client is provided during their visit.
The Bob Steele stylists are very considerate of the wishes of their clients. Unlike like some salons and stylists that have their ego tied into the ultimate style that they create, the stylists on the Bob Steele team sincerely care about making the client happy.
A Hair Industry Pioneer
When it comes to running his business, Bob is a major pioneer. Although on-line appointment booking is currently the hottest option that salons are offering to their customers, Bob had a sophisticated "real time" virtual on-line booking system in place long before other salons even knew about the concept. Bob worked with an Atlanta software company to craft an on-line booking system over a three month period.
Bob offers his regular customers on-line appointment booking for a variety of reasons, which include convenience factors for the clients. With their harried schedules, Bob's clients appreciate the convenience of being able to book right from their computers 24 hours a day.
Tied right into Bob's Internet booking option is the salon's Beauty On A Budget (BOB) program. This ingenious appointment option is yet another of Bob's industry trend setting approaches. It is a great way to offer the salon's faithful customers the opportunity to take advantage of some special last minute appointment deals. Fashioned after the airline industry's last minute unsold seats at a discount, BOB allows long term customers the option to snag appointments in unsold stylist's chairs for a bargain.
Bob explained that the system works to allow newer stylists at the salon to fill up unbooked slots over the Internet in a very creative way. Long time customers can get family, friends or even their visiting college kids into a last minute available appointment for a rate that is generally about 25% less than a regular visit with a more seasoned stylist.
Just like the airline program, there are restrictions and other safeguarding clauses that keep the program successful and a win/win for both the salon and the clients.
As a rule Bob does not offer discounts in the salon. If you are shopping for the lowest prices in town than scratch Bob Steele's salon off your list. However, The Beauty On A Budget plan is a special program that allows Bob to fill in empty booking spots, help newer stylists get customers and assist long term customers who want to take advantage of a last minute opportunity for their friends and family at a budget price.
Giving Back To The Community
Bob is a strong advocate of giving back to the community. He doesn't believe in just throwing money at a cause. He believes in jumping in, rolling up his shirtsleeves, and participating. Bob is a very staunch supporter of Habitat For Humanity that helps underprivileged families work towards owning their own home. Bob believes that this cause is so worthy because it provides training for people in need.
Bob lives the motto of "give a man a fish, they eat for a day, teach a man to fish, they eat for a lifetime". He believes that if you can teach people to build and value their own house they will learn the true value of owning their home. As Bob pointed out, people can take money away from you, but no one can ever take learning or training away from you. Once you learn something, it is yours for a lifetime. To support his cause, the salon had a Prom Fashion Show and raised a significant sum for Habitat for Humanity.
Future Hair Trends
I asked Bob to look into his crystal ball and share some thoughts on where he thinks that hairstyles are moving for the current season. He told me that he personally believes that the hottest styles are moving towards a curlier look. Bob has noticed that curly hair seems to be a lot hotter lately. He believes that a new generation of hair consumers are starting to get tired of the flat and straight looks that have recently been so popular. As a result of consumer hair boredom Bob is predicting that perms will be one of the hottest salon treatments over the next 2 years.
Bob also believes that there is a new interest level from men regarding their hair. Not only are men showing a marked interest in having perms, they are also asking for color, highlights and treatments to cover gray hair.
He believes that men are becoming a lot more sophisticated in their hair care requirements and interests. There has been a definite shift in the types of styles and services men are requesting at the salon. Bob noted that stylists that don't market to male consumers are definitely missing a major segment of the hair care population.
Bob Steele is a business force to be reckoned with. Bob wowed me with his knowledge of building and maintaining a successful business. I was immensely impressed with his strong sense of ethics, honesty and sincerity as well as his strong belief in treating people with kindness and respect.
I asked Bob to write a book on building a successful business and I promised him that I would be first in line to buy it. Bob laughed at my book request. However, he did tell me that he has given some serious thought to his next career. Bob has made some plans to do some consulting work in the near future and offer classes to stylists and salon owners. Bob hopes to give back to other salon owners by helping to guide them away from the potholes that he personally experienced in his business past.
One thing is certain. Wherever he is, whatever he is doing, Bob will be that special pioneer who is not afraid of blazing fabulous new trails. He will also care about helping others and giving back. Bob Steele is a man whose name you should always remember.
Note: For more information on Bob Steele Hairdressers in Atlanta call 404-262-9499.
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