Thursday, March 26, 2009

March Madness: a grassroots marketing story

I love being a spa marketer, and cooking up wonderful new ways to promote spas. But more and more, I love other people's ideas (OPI.)

This idea comes from Preston Wynne, but more precisely, from a Preston Wynne employee, one of our newest.

We had a team retreat in February and created "three commitments" for the first half of the year. One of these commitments was, "Do something you've NEVER done to market the spa in a new way."

Where do the best new ideas come from? Your new people.

Our newest esthetician came to me and asked me if she could have permission to send out her own "March Madness Special." She wanted to send an invitation to any client who had not yet rescheduled with her to come in and enjoy another facial treatment, and, as her gift, she would lavish them additional thirty minutes of upgrades.

She didn't want or expect to be paid for this time. It was her gift to them.

Employees often forget that spas are making a contribution too, when a service is given away using time that could otherwise be sold. But Jennifer "got" that. She knew this was an equal contribution. Our mutual unsold time could be invested, at no cash expense, to bring her customers back in. She thought that was a pretty good deal. She was more interested in generating activity than in being compensated for every minute of her time. She knew that she was sowing the seeds to grow her clientele. And she was delighted that we were willing to go along with her plan.

Fussy marketing maven that I am, I had to control my impulse to refine Jennifer's offer. "March Madness" isn't a phrase you'll find in my copywriting. Was it too shrill? Was it incongruent with our brand? But I controlled my impulse to control, because I didn't want to squelch her radiant enthusiasm. This was a fantastic idea, and it was totally aligned with our team Commitment. These are moments that managers dream about.

Jennifer told a few of her co workers about her idea. Two others joined the "March Madness" promotion. Others pooh-poohed the idea of "working for free." The Madwomen busily prepared their personal offers, and put them in the mail. Jennifer herself mailed out 70 cards. Their energy was contagious. Even the skeptics were curious about what was going on.

We ended up crafting an offer for the estheticians and for the body therapists, so we'd have a SKU in the system for each of the unpaid "Madness" treatments. Other than that, this was grassroots marketing all the way. Into the mail their cards went, and we waited for the response.

It was swift and enthusiastic. Jennifer's book began to fill. So did Elena's, the first massage therapist to get on board. Word traveled quickly, and the "Madness" spread.

In fact, this offer has garnered the best response of any we've done this year. Why?

1. It's personal. It came from their service provider, not from the "business."
2. It's timely. It touched them at the moment they were ready for another treatment, and leveraged the fresh memory of their great spa experience.
2. It was sent via snail mail. Say what you will, but internet marketing fatigue has set in. A hand addressed card is a real attention grabber these days. If you're finding that your e mail blasts are generating fewer returns than they used to, mix it up!
3. It's a great value. Full stop.

This offer is also one of the best business builders we've done. Why?

1. It is focused on creating the behavior that we need most from our clients: repeat visits. It cements the relationship.
2. It showcases us at our best, in a longer-format treatment that will deliver more benefits to the client. It's not our "base sticker price" treatment. It introduces clients to irresistible upgrades they might not otherwise have sampled, and they'll be back for more.
3. It shows our staff that they have influence over their clients, and builds their confidence. Think the "Madwomen" will be shy about inviting these clients back? Probably not.

Have a great grassroots marketing story? Share it with me!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Gift Horse Rides Again...

Time to dust off your gift card refund policy and make sure your team knows how to handle the influx of requests that will be coming your way.

Thanks to holiday promotions that we run, clients often buy gift cards for their own use. Sadly, with layoffs on the increase, they're hoping to put the money from this purchase back in their pocket. My operations director Nandita reported to me today that she's fielded three calls in the last few days from guests requesting refunds.

Our policy is to provide cash refunds only within the first two weeks after a purchase.

A client making this request is probably abashed, if not mortified. Make sure your team knows to handle them with kid gloves--and the right amount of empathy. Have them explain your policy gently, if in fact you don't offer refunds.

If you do give cash refunds to gift purchasers, brace yourself!

With cash flow slowing, and operating capital in short supply, gift sales are one of the few ways that spas can raise money. That cash is essential to your health. Hang onto it for dear life!

Of course, you can make a case-by-case call, just as you would for any customer service situation. If you make the business rules, you can break them too. It's always worth weighing the cost of being a stickler.

As my dear friend Holly Stiel tells us, "Being Right is the Booby Prize!"

Monday, March 2, 2009

Coming Soon to a Spa Near You: Unions!

I'm a small business owner who voted for President Obama, with one big reservation: his support for the controversial "Employee Free Choice Act," which fundamentally changes the process by which employees can be organized by a labor union.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business, under the new card-check system mandated by the Employee Free Choice Act, "a union gathers authorization cards signed by workers that express their desire to unionize. The unions would be able to collect these cards from your employees and independent contractors for as long as it takes to get 50 percent plus one," says author Lena Anthony, who penned an article on the topic for the current issue of NFIB's My Business magazine. (

Under current law, the "card check" system is a voluntary option for companies. However, the preferred method for most employers is a secret ballot, which is supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

"The NFIB believes a secret ballot election administered and supervised by the NLRB is the only way to protect the integrity of a worker's right to vote because it is a more accurate indicator than authorizing cards of whether employees actually wish to be recognized by a union. Each employee's choice is made in the privacy of a voting booth, with neither employer or union knowing how the individual voted," explains Anthony.
Enabling employees to vote privately on whether to unionize seems to be the best way to prevent manipulation and intimidation by either the employer or union organizers. The bill, named the "Employee Free Choice Act" (remember the "Clear Skies Act"? Sounds like the same folks named this one) there is an implication that employees currently don't have a free choice. Hello? Secret ballot? Reminds me of how we elect...a President!

Call me an idealist, but my belief is that if all businesses were run well and run ethically, we wouldn't have a demand for labor unions. Alas, we know that there are plenty of badly run businesses out there, and employees that are badly treated, and in a bad economy, things will likely get worse.

I think it's a testimonial to the core values of the spa industry that there are few unionized operations. However, unions would take a dim view of my perspective because like all other institutions, they now exist, in part, to perpetuate themselves as institutions. They need and want more money, like institutions do.

Yet union coffers have been dwindling since the 1980's. Perhaps the decline in labor union dues is a sign that the "price value" equation offered by unions has lost some of its appeal--after all, union representation is a service that employees pay for.

However, the conclusion that's been drawn in Washington by politicians that rely on union support is that this decline is due to the fact that it's too hard to organize. Hmmmm. I realize the President owes a debt of gratitude to organized labor for his victory, but I would like to finally see a President who pays more than lip service to the idea that this nation is sustained, built and ultimately healed by small business. And I've yet to meet a small business owner that thinks things run better after their company was unionized.

As hard as it is to make a go of it now, if the Employee Free Choice Act becomes reality, your path to profitability will be that much steeper. Don't think you're safe because you're small; it's actually easier to unionize small businesses. Under the card-check system, you won't even know you've been organized until you receive the notification that your spa is, voila, a union shop, says NFIB Executive Vice President Dan Danner. "Then the clock starts ticking for you to agree on a contract. If you can't agree on a contract within 120 working days, the Employee Free Choice Act mandates compulsory, binding arbitration on the employer and the employees as part of the collective bargaining process."

If they're forced into a collective bargaining situation, I know plenty of spa owners who will throw in the towel. We all know that there are easier ways to make a living than by employing people, even without having to navigate the delicate protocols of operating a union shop. Many an esthetician-turned-spa owner will likely just turn esthetician again, and slip off into the peace and quiet of a more profitable private practice. (And heaven forfend, we'll have yet another batch of spa consultants flooding the market!)

Personal service businesses are old school, old economy, and often labors of love. When labor doesn't love us back...beleagered small business owners will find other ways to express our entrepreneurial urges. And I guarantee you they will involve fewer, if any, employees.

Unfortunately, we small business owners are a squirmy bunch. We're independent, we don't play well with others and we're politically all over the map. (Instead of lobbying, we'd rather do something productive--like generate two-thirds of the jobs in this nation.)

If our new government is serious about job creation, the first order of business is to ensure that it's easier, not harder, for companies to succeed, and to keep employing the workers we currently have. I desperately hope that one of President Obama's first "shovel ready projects" isn't digging a grave for small business.

Please contact your US Senator, forward or excerpt this blog wantonly, and learn more about the Employee Free Choice Act.