The Barbershop Test: Why Customers Will Pay for Value

barbershopOK, I promise this week I’ll spare you the drama of my dating life. (Even though dating and sales have more in common than you might imagine.) What’s on my mind today is my new barber … and my first couple haircut experiences at his shop. To set the scene, I sold my house earlier this year and moved into an apartment in a different neighborhood. As a result, I eventually found myself walking in to a barbershop next door to my new residence one day.

Immediately a middle-aged man in a chair snaps to attention, greets me and puts down his newspaper. By the end of our initial encounter, he asks for permission to take a straight razor to my neck. “Let’s do this!” I’m thinking. He thanks me kindly; my trust had seldom been so easily gained before. Then he spent another 10 minutes after the razor treatment meticulously cleaning up my head’s random imperfections with scissors. I had never felt so fresh and clean from the neck up before.

Contrast this experience with a prior level of haircut service I had come to expect that, to put it kindly, varied wildly. At a former (chain) hair salon, some people would give me a decent haircut, and some would … well, I don’t know how you mess up a standard buzz with the “2” setting on top and “1” on the side, but certain stylists seemed to find a way. Some would deliver (unprompted) extra service, like trimming stray eyebrow hairs and paying special attention to my neckline; some didn’t bother. Some would helpfully explain detailed options for how to approach said neckline, some would just say, “It’s up to you,” when I had no idea what the possibilities were. Some appeared not to even notice my neckline (or anything else about my appearance, for that matter). Sure, they were nice people, and they seemed to mean well, but I left many a chair after 10 minutes scratching my head in wonderment.

I never knew exactly what I was going to get, despite asking for the same haircut every time and always getting called up in their computer system beforehand, which you think they would use to actually take notes to record and share the secrets to making me a satisfied customer … not guess and leave me guessing.

A tale of 2 haircuts
Naturally, cost factors into these separate experiences. At the chain hair salon, the going rate is $14. The result and experience is average.  At the barber shop, the going rate for the same cut is $18 (a 28% increase).* The result and experience are superior. Am I willing to pay 28% more for a superior experience, tips excluded? I didn’t need to think twice about it. Say nothing of the fact that this barber happens to be next door to my apartment; even if I had to drive 5 miles for the same experience, the service would still justify the extra time/effort/gas required to obtain it.

Another point on the price difference: I live downtown, an area generally more expensive than other parts of the city. The fact this same haircut (in name) goes for $4 more only makes the extra service look even more impressive, because the higher sticker price could be justified by location alone, yet is not simply a cost-of-doing business increase. I’m getting hot towels, shaving cream slathered all over my neck, meticulous attention and the smoothest lines you’ll ever see. This doesn’t happen at the old chain hair salon. Plus, barbershops—and barbers—are just cool. There’s something to be said for unspoken codes of masculinity and safe spaces for male bonding. That’s also worth the 28% premium. And I get more compliments on my haircut afterwards, too. (Women have certainly seemed to take notice!)

The barbershop test

Call it the barbershop test. Do you go to the chain salon for a substandard experience, or do you pay a little more to go to the master and get exactly what you want/need? Do you choose mediocrity or inferiority, or do you choose an excellent experience? These are the fundamental questions about buyer preferences. We know marketers need to understand the mindsets of their buyers. We know that understanding their economic calculations, conscious or otherwise, allows us to better cater the experiences to suit their tastes … and business needs.

The key is when a business gives you what you want, you are willing to pay for it. Furthermore, when you get more than you expected, you are often happily willing to pay more, especially if the competition is lacking. And when you get what you didn’t even realize you wanted (hot towels!), then the question of cost never enters your mind. At this point, your wallet is wide open, and you’re not counting pennies. You’re exchanging like for like. You only think in terms of the value you’re getting (including the superiority over the previous experiences), and therefore happily invest in that value. Investment also signifies a longer time horizon, i.e., you’re coming back for more business because you know and prefer that experience to the others. You’re invested.

In my case, I don’t think I knew what a good haircut was before I went to my new barber. At any rate, I don’t recall having that sort of treatment for a long time, if ever. But now I know for sure what my new standard is.

Apply the barbershop test to your own business:

  • Is your service exceptional?
  • Do you understand your buyers personally?
  • Do you ask permission before performing the equivalent of taking a blade to their necks (like sending email communications)?
  • Do customers and clients happily want to engage with you?
  • Are they willing to pay a premium for that engagement (assuming you’re not trying to compete on cost)?

Think about it. Reach for your standard.

*This price does include the neck shaving with a straight razor and other personal touches not typically received in my salon visits.


Photo courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr.

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