From Paperwork to Training
by Jamison Stoike

Onboarding is more than paperwork, a presentation and perfunctory training: it’s the total experience that a new hire receives from the moment she or he walks in the door to the day that their training is truly done—days, weeks or even months later. It’s also the secret to building a more effective workforce and retaining them for the long haul.

Pulse recently spoke with three ISPA member spas whose recently refreshed onboarding programs have paid dividends for their spas by boosting revenue, strengthening retention and establishing a strong workforce culture. With the right strategies, onboarding can become your spa’s secret weapon in a competitive labor market.

Welcome Them Like a Guest

The goal of effective customer service is often to make the guest’s experience as frictionless as possible. Kim Green, owner of Altitude Spa, views onboarding in much the same way. “When our new hires walk through that door, they are our guests that day,” says Green. Knowing that most new hires are nervous, uncomfortable or slightly intimidated on the first day of any job, Green puts the new hire at ease by “gifting them and welcoming them,” in addition to minimizing any dull paperwork.

At this spa located in rural Alberta, Canada, the onboarding process starts before a new hire’s first day. An official offer of employment and any necessary HR paperwork is sent via email and completed ahead of the first day; this removes any rote formality from the first-day experience and makes for a more organic entry into the spa. Every new hire also receives a welcome video that features each one of Altitude’s 23 employees. In the video, each employee provides a quick introduction about who they are, what they do and what a few of their interests are—for example, one might mention they’re a football fan, while another discusses their love of baking. This engenders instant connection between new hires and current employees who might share similar interests, in addition to “putting a face to a name even before a new hire walks in the door,” according to Green.

Once the new hire arrives for their first day, a current team member greets them in the spa’s lobby with their preferred beverage from Tim Horton’s—the new hire is asked about their preference ahead of time—and shown to their locker. Inside the locker is a gift bag with Altitude Spa swag, such as a branded metal water bottle. The overall effect of the warm welcome, says Green, is the best quality of Altitude Spa’s onboarding process.

Next, Green will show the new hire around the spa, after which they receive the spa’s “pride book,” a handbook with information on the spa’s protocols and products. Depending on their position, the new hire will then move directly into shadowing. Green prefers to move quickly, especially with massage therapists: “they pretty much start right away, because each massage therapist has their own style.” After orientation, that new therapist is booked with clients almost immediately. For other positions, though, it’s typical for any new hires to spend significant time shadowing existing service providers first. Before they’re given free rein to work on clients, the new hire has to perform a service on another spa employee to their team leader’s satisfaction. According to Green, this typically takes “a week or two.”

Of course, onboarding doesn’t truly stop once an employee is booked with clients: consistent training and continued monitoring is part and parcel of integrating new employees into the spa. With an effective initial onboarding program in place, Altitude Spa is now turning towards crafting a more consistent training schedule for employees after their first few weeks. “It’s easy to get people trained and think, ‘Alright, they’re perfect at their job,’” says Green, “but then a couple years later a client will mention that they didn’t get a hot towel under their neck like I mentioned they would.” Following-up their first phase of onboarding with an extended second phase of training, then, is Altitude’s next big project.

A Purposeful Training Program

Milk + honey spa, the day-spa side of product-maker milk + honey, recently completed such a project. With six locations across Texas, however, doing so meant hiring a dedicated Education and Training Manager to spearhead the spa’s onboarding and ongoing training efforts.

Employee surveys determined that milk + honey spa’s ongoing training could stand improvement, says Regional Director of Operations Teresa Sokolow. “We attempted to find solutions, but we weren’t really hitting the nail on the head,” notes Sokolow. “We wanted somebody to focus on this area and make it a better experience.” Milk + honey hired from within, elevating one of their veteran stylists, Kate Allen, to the position.

Allen’s first task was revamping the spa’s salon apprentice program. Says Sokolow, “we’d had an apprentice program for several years, but it wasn’t as effective as we hoped.” Allen overhauled the program, reducing its duration from nine months to six, and enforced stricter requirements for the program’s educators. According to Sokolow, the service sales alone from the new program’s first six graduates in June 2019 was nearly $60,000.

In addition to tweaking their apprentice program—a combination of both traditional onboarding and ongoing education—Allen and Sokolow reworked how the company educates its employees about the spa’s “service cycle” and revamped each department’s training manuals. Every manual features the story of milk + honey, the company’s mission and its expectations for employees. Each version of the manual then features the specific department’s unique training list for new employees. “The new hire can see exactly what their two to three days of training is going to look like,” says Sokolow.

Before receiving the departmental manual, each new hire goes to milk + honey spa’s Austin, Texas, headquarters for an onboarding session, which includes a presentation on the company and the completion of any necessary paperwork. Much like Altitude Spa, each employee receives a welcome gift: milk + honey products. Since milk + honey products are both used in the spa’s services and offered in retail, familiarizing new hires with the products is essential. Sokolow also notes that extensive sales training is a keystone of their onboarding process. Milk + honey’s trainers are themselves trained on sales, which enables them to offer high-level sales education to new hires.

The changes milk + honey spa has made to its onboarding and training programs have paid dividends. In addition to the $60,000 in new revenue, Sokolow credits the revamp with boosting customer retention: “we’re giving them the skillset to retain clients, versus just hoping they do.” Milk + honey understands the importance of standardizing the onboarding process across its multiple locations, which gives them “a process for day one, day two, day three, etc.” And with numerous employees and a clear-cut onboarding schedule, Sokolow is afforded the ability to “give new hires all the education and training that they need” and extend the duration of a new hire’s onboarding if necessary.

Take Time to Train

A desire for more training time led Susan Hunnell, spa director of St. Julien Hotel & Spa, to rebuild her spa’s onboarding process from the ground up. As a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star property, St. Julien has high expectations of its employees, but Hunnell realized that the spa was simply expecting too much, too soon: they were onboarding too quickly.

Now, a new hire will receive—depending on their department—about 5 full days dedicated to onboarding and initial training. Just like Altitude Spa, St. Julien will typically progress massage therapists faster than aestheticians, nail technicians or hair stylists. The centerpiece of Hunnell’s changes is the addition of a structured “mock shift” day for each and every onboarding employee. The new employee’s mock shift is typically on their second or third day; during the day, a veteran spa employee acts as a “client.” The new hire will pickup the “client” from the relaxation lounge and provide the service as they would to a guest; the new hire will do this twice more that day to other team members. “I think it’s beneficial to have multiple sources evaluating their skills, because one person may catch something that the other person didn’t,” Hunnell says. The St. Julien team also pays particular attention to whether the new hire uses language consistent with Forbes’ standards.

Hunnell has the mock shift day come before any shadowing or more thorough training; in effect, this makes the mock shift day a starting evaluation that clues Hunnell’s team into what a new hire’s true strengths and weaknesses are. Then, says Hunnell, the next few days are spent improving what needs to be worked on. Apart from serving as an effective evaluation tool, the mock shift day also “is a great way to provide self-care to our therapists,” says Hunnell, “and the new hire gets to know their peers.”

The next few days are spent shadowing each department’s leads, then performing more services on staff. Training, however, doesn’t stop once the initial onboarding phase ends. St. Julien holds daily pre-shift meetings where the team will review standards they learned during onboarding. “We focus on a differentstandard each week,” says Hunnell. “We break it down by department and roleplay what it looks like and what it shouldn’t look like.”

Down the road, Hunnell hopes to extend the onboarding process by adding a purposeful mentorship program. Although informal mentor-mentee relationships already tend to form among veterans and new hires, a more structured program would “give new hires someone they know they can go to,” according to Hunnell.

Playing the Long Game

The experience that a new hire has in their first few days or weeks is critical to their long-term success and, therefore, the success of your spa. The spas featured here all understand that proper onboarding is more than just doing paperwork: you have to make the new hire feel like a guest, evaluate them, train them, familiarize them with you team, and then periodically refresh their knowledge. And once you commit the time, personnel and funds to make that happen, the effect of proper onboarding can lift your spa’s workforce to new heights.