This is the fourth in a series about what software developers can learn from other disciplines that we often perceive as unrelated to our field.
- What software developers can learn about onboarding from the crochet community
- What software developers can learn about client engagement from preschools
- What software developers can learn about estimating from road construction
- What software developers can learn about consulting from hair salons
Being a hair stylist is like being a personal consultant for each client that sits in your chair. People’s identities are wrapped up in their appearance, and many people seek out stylists when they want to mark life events. My mom owns a successful hair salon in my hometown. I practically grew up in the salon spending every day after school there.
A lot of what I know about being a good consultant comes from watching my mom and the other stylists.
Understand the request and identify goals
When a client sits in your chair asking for something new, they almost always have an inspiration.
I want that super trendy silver hair.
A good stylist will ask for photos or start Googling if the client didn’t bring any in.
And you’ll want to get their hair history too. Have they colored it in the last 2 years? Professionally or with box color? Any other chemical treatments? What kind of product do they use in their hair? What is their hair texture? The key is to have as much to reference as possible to understand what they’re asking for.
As a tech consultant, we hear our clients start with their inspiration all the time.
We want to be the Uber for X [insert any service here].
If you’ve never heard of their inspiration, do your research to understand the user workflow and problem being solved.
Just like a hairstylist asking about hair history, a tech consultant should ask about their client’s past project history. Have you tried to build this before? How did that go? What was the last project you shipped? Who built that for you? What went well with that process? What are you looking to improve or change in this process?
Once you understand where your client is starting from, you can start to ask further questions to identify their goals. For the person who wants to have silver hair, did that idea come because she wants to go lighter? Or does she want something trendier? Does she want to keep her length or is she trying to grow her hair out? Understanding the motivations behind the request as well as the goals will help you later when you need to discuss process, maintenance, and budget.
The same is true in tech. If somebody is pitching a product to be the “Uber for X,” you might ask where the idea came from. What problem are they trying to solve? What is the desired business model?
Help your client understand the process
In a lot of cases, a client’s inspiration is a larger, more complex undertaking than they realize. If it requires multiple steps to achieve or if what they’re asking for requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance, now is the time to explain that.
For someone with dark hair (or red hair--red is a very difficult color to lift) who is wanting to go silver, it's important to let them know that this is something that will require 5 hours or more and might need to be spread over multiple appointments. Lifting your client's color enough to achieve the light, silvery color will require a lot of processing time. Going too fast can cause a lot more damage to the hair follicle. This is especially important for clients who want to keep their length or who are growing their hair out to understand. Lightening hair a lot often results in breakage and inches need to be cut off (much more than your typical trim). Depending on where your client is starting from, it may be in their best interest for a slow transition. And intense color requires a lot of maintenance: washing your hair in cold water with color-safe (sulfate free) shampoo and being gentle with heat treatments (think blow drying or straightening).
Multistep projects are common in the tech world too. It doesn’t often happen that we can just “flip the switch,” shut a legacy system off, and turn a new system on. There’s often data migration, user adoption, and other business considerations that prevent a clean cutover. It's important to walk your client through this process so they understand why the multiple steps are required. For data migration concerns, explain that you need to keep the legacy data in place so you can copy it to its new location and test to make sure the migration was successful. If it’s not successful, you can rollback and haven’t lost anything. If it is successful, then the next step is to remove the legacy data. Or maybe you want to push a new version of your app but you’re dependent on users downloading the new version before you can sunset the infrastructure supporting the old version. Outline to your client typical user adoption timelines and have a conversation about how many users need to be transitioned to the new version before you stop supporting the old version.
Don’t be afraid to talk budget
When you’re entering into a consulting relationship with your client, talk about budget up front. Now that you understand what they want, why they want it, and what they’re trying to achieve, you are in a position to talk about money and have the best possible outcome. Having this conversation as soon as possible makes your client feel respected and can build trust.
Ask them what their budget is. If what they’re asking for is within budget, you’re golden. If what they’re asking for is beyond their budget, explain why that’s the case. As a stylist, does it require multiple appointments? Expensive color?
As a tech consultant, explain where the cost is highest and why that’s the case. Maybe its the requirement that everything happens in real time resulting in high infrastructure costs or they’re asking for very platform specific apps which means very little code reuse.
Next, provide your client with examples of alternatives that achieve their goals but within their budget. For the client with dark hair who wanted to go silver, an alternative to achieve a trendier style that’s within budget may be to go a deep purple that requires much less work to lighten the hair. And for the tech client who wants real-time processing, an alternative may be background processing that will return results within 10 minutes to keep infrastructure costs low.
Now that your client understands where the money goes, they may decide to increase their budget or they may opt for one of your alternatives. This is their choice, and it's important as a consultant to make sure they have all the information they need to make their choice. By explaining why their initial request was so pricey and providing them in-budget alternatives, you increase your chances of working together instead of having your client feel distrustful of your pricing and walk away frustrated.
Choices as a feedback tool
Once you have a consulting relationship with your client, it can be hard to get candid, useful feedback. Often people are afraid to say something they think could hurt feelings or they are unable to articulate specific examples. Choices are a great tool to use to get specific, helpful feedback. In a hair salon, I’ve seen this used often.
We went more blonde last time, how did that work? Do you want to keep that? Go brighter? Go darker?
As a tech consultant, describing what we’ve changed and outlining possible optimizations or changes for the client can be a great way to check in during a design or implementation iteration to gauge the client’s feelings and help give them the vocabulary to talk about what they like or what they want to be changed.
Ultimately, consulting comes down to communication and building relationships with your clients. Hair stylists excel at both of these things and we, as software developers, can learn a lot from their work.