How to Get Hired at ANY Salon With No Clientele (Even if You’re a Recent Graduate)

Quit Moaning–Finding a Job is Not Difficult!

It doesn’t matter if you are a recent graduate, a seasoned career professional who recently relocated, an old pro who has been out of the business for a while, or if you’re simply trying to move into a different environment–whatever your case is, these tips will help you land a job in any salon or spa you want.

As someone who has spent the majority of her career in management positions, I speak from experience when I say that dazzling a salon owner isn’t difficult if you show up prepared, dressed professionally, and have a great attitude. This article will tell you how to ensure you’ll leave a great impression on any potential employer (even the tremendously jaded ones like me) and have them drafting offer letters to you before you’ve even made it out of the salon’s parking lot.

Preparing to Apply

1.) Be sure your technical skills are where they need to be.
Are you on top of your game? A good employer will require you to do a test service on a model, which they will observe and analyze. A picky employer will select the model and the service themselves to test how you work under pressure, so if you think you’re going to walk into an interview with a model you’re familiar with and do a cut that you have down to a science, you may be in for a shock. (Be especially prepared for this if you’re applying at a high-end establishment.)

If you aren’t 100% confident, or feel you could benefit from a confidence boost, take a hands-on refresher class or a continuing education course.

Technical proficiency will always be more important to a salon owner than industry experience.

2.) Type up a clean, professional resume and include references. 
You may have heard me say this before, but I’m going to say it again here in case you haven’t: You are a licensed professional. You are an adult.

You are not a high school student looking for a part-time job at the mall.

Walking into any business and asking for an application is tacky and reeks of poor planning. Take a few hours to type up a nice resume, even if your job experience is limited.

Your resume should include:

  • Your first and last name. Duh.
  • Your contact information: include your home address (no PO boxes), your phone number, and a professional looking email address. ([email protected] is not an acceptable email address–neither is [email protected] or [email protected]. Use your real name or your first initial and last name. It’s easy to remember, professional, and doesn’t lead others to form opinions on the kind of person you are.)
  • Your education: Include the beauty academy you attended as well as any continuing education courses you may have taken.
  • Relevant experience: Employers don’t care if you’ve worked at the photo center at Walgreens for 6 years. Employers don’t care that you are a certified karate instructor. Employers are not interested in your side job as a promotional model or what middle school you went to. Employers want to know what cosmetology school you graduated from, what cosmetology-related certifications/awards you’ve received, what salons/spas you’ve worked at and for how long. Keep in mind that they will notice gaps in employment and they will be paying attention to the dates of employment. If you’ve had five jobs in five months, an employer is going to see you as a risky hire.

Be prepared to handle the questions they’ll ask regarding your erratic employment history.

  • A list of professional references and any letters of recommendation you may have: Your mom doesn’t count and neither do your friends. Do not list family or friends as references unless they know you on a professional level. List your prior employers, your beauty academy instructors, your coworkers and fellow students, and throw in a loyal client or two if you have some.

Include five professional references if you can.

Make sure you get permission from each person before you use them as a reference. List their full name, your relationship to them, their phone number, and their email address if you have it. Make them as easy as possible to contact.

  • Notable achievements: If you’ve won competitions or awards, run charity fundraisers, positively contributed to a workplace to change that workplace for the better, list those things!
  • Your current career objectives: This does not have to be an outline of your five or ten year plan. For most of you, the goal will be to gain employment in a stable establishment where you can focus on expanding your skill set and building your clientele.

If you want to eventually be a salon or spa owner, that’s great. That’s an excellent goal to have! It is not one that needs to be mentioned to your potential employer, who may or may not like the idea of training and supplying clientele to an employee who may become a future competitor…especially since the vast majority of you are highly unlikely to ever actually open your own salons.

I’m going to talk about honesty next, but remember: omission is not lying. So, keep your dreams of salon ownership to yourself.

  • The technical areas you feel you are strong in as well as the areas you feel you need to work on: Don’t just list your strong points; list your weak ones as well. If you have difficulty with sculpted nails, put it down. That question will come up in the interview, so beat them to it and address it on paper.


Employers see those lists on every resume they receive. We’re sure that you’re very reliable, responsible, respectful, prompt, polite, and professional, but we’re more interested in knowing what services you excel at. (Besides that, those traits you list are just words on paper. They mean nothing. If you are all of those things your references will mention it–or you can just prove it to us during the interview.) Remember that attitude and work ethic are of the utmost importance–everything else can be taught. Employers want to see professionalism, dedication, and–above all–honesty.

3.) Prepare for the interview from Hell.
You will want to prepare answers for every possible question you can think of. Be ready to meet with a complete bitch who has seen her fair share of lazy, unprofessional, entitled, trashy drama queens in search of employment.

Know right now that she can and will see right through you if you slip up…and she’ll say something about it.

You’re unlikely to come across an employer that brutal, but they exist.

4.) Put together an impressive portfolio.
It doesn’t have to be a huge portfolio and it won’t cost you a dime. Stylists, nail techs, and MUAs: join or a similar creative networking site and search for TF shoots going on in your area. Make sure a makeup artist is staffed (if you aren’t one yourself). Send out messages to photographers and ask if they would like to utilize your services for the shoot.

You will not get paid currency in a TF shoot, since you are all building a portfolio, but you will be given a disk of pictures. Some photographers will step it up and give you a few retouched prints as well.

Do between five and ten of these TF shoots.

Do not have the photos photoshopped to death.

  • No text (make sure your photographer is cool with not adding watermarks to your images, allow them to print or stamp their business information to the back instead).
  • No cartoon unicorns.
  • No tacky backgrounds.

Keep it simple. Choose 1-3 pictures from each model and put them on your portfolio site and/or Instagram.

These photos should make your work really shine.

If you want to get some more tips on freelancing, read these posts I wrote:
Everything You Need to Know About Working TF/TFP/TFCD
Online Portfolios: Make One. Now.
TFP Rant
Photoshoot Rates & Policies

5.) Bonus points if you have an outstanding website.
A website is not required of you or expected, but it does make you look extremely legitimate compared to other applicants. It shows dedication and superior initiative. It also lets your potential employer know that you are proactive about attracting your own clients.

Most portfolio websites are a simple two or three page site with a short bio for you, your portfolio images, and your contact information.

I advise against adding music, ads, tacky widgets, or distracting animations.

If you want to learn more about how to create an online portfolio, read this.

6.) Clean up your web presence.
It doesn’t matter if you do everything right, if your potential employer does a web search on you and finds anything unprofessional or less than flattering, you are screwed. This is not about learning to better utilize your privacy settings; this is about completely wiping everything questionable that’s related to you from the internet. Facebook in particular is notorious for changing their privacy policies and undergoing technical issues that compromise their user’s “protected” statuses and images, causing them to become publicly available without that user’s knowledge.

This is a great opportunity for you to start changing the way you behave in public as well.

Remember: your friends have cameras, social accounts, and the ability to tag you. The last thing you want is for your potential employers (or worse, clients) to stumble on that. So, before you submit your application and resume, delete those duckface selfies you took in your bathroom mirror with your exposed cleavage pushed up to your chin and those petty status updates about your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. (I mean, you’re totally right. He really is a human dumpsterfire and their baby will probably be just as ugly as she is, but that’s not something your potential employers are going to want to see.)

Reconfigure your privacy settings and be mindful of what you put out there.

Shop Around: Do Your Research

How much traffic does the salon really see?
A lot of salon owners make a bunch of claims about the amount of clients they handle. Remember: it costs them NOTHING to hire you and have you sit around waiting for clients if they’re not compliant with the prevailing wage laws. I can’t tell you how many spa owners have tried to lure me to work for them with the promise of “more clients than you can handle.” When I ask to view their scheduling books or ask their staff members about it, their claims are never true.

Don’t get lured into a dead business.

Ask the owner about where they advertise and how frequently. See if they have a website and active social media accounts. Look into their online reviews. This is your career–you’re interviewing them as well.

Is the salon clean and uncluttered?
If you walk into a salon and the owner is hoarding a pile of miscellaneous crap that reaches the ceiling tiles: get out. I’ve spent a good deal of my career in management consulting and I know one thing to be extremely true: clutter and filth point to an owner or manager who doesn’t have themselves together. They either can’t manage their own time properly or can’t delegate effectively. I have literally never encountered an exception to this. (I’m sure they exist, but I have yet to see it.)

Physical disorganization often indicates disorganized business operations.

What are the other staff members like?
Do they seem happy and friendly? Are they welcoming and kind? Employees who are welcoming and seem genuinely happy to have another team member on board either:
a.) are so busy that they’re confident that another staff member isn’t going to cut into their paychecks or
b.) trust their employer. This means the owner is doing something right.

How long have the employees been there? If you go into an establishment and the staff members have been there for 3+ years, you’ve found a great management team. Keep in mind, however, professionals in our business can be incredibly hard to keep happy, especially in competitive job markets. If you walk into a business and you see a few people that look less than thrilled at your presence, remember that this business can be competitive and some people are never satisfied.

Don’t let a few professionals with bad attitudes turn you against the management.

What kind of clients does the environment/location/staff attract?
The way a salon or spa looks and the way the professionals dress and behave dictates the kind of clientele that will frequent that establishment.

If the decor is casual, the stylists are wearing jeans and t-shirts, the clients all seem to know one another, they’re playing a country radio station on a boom box, and kids are running around the salon–you’ve walked into a mom and pop shop.

If the decor is fresh and funky, the stylists are wearing stylish clothes in all black, dance remixes of the current top 40 hits are playing on surround sound speakers, and everybody is too involved in their work to be speaking to one another–you’re in a trendy salon.

If the lighting is dim, candles are lit, the clients are changing into robes in dressing rooms when they arrive, and everyone leaves looking half-asleep and $200 poorer than when they’ve arrived–you’ve found a high-end spa.

Choose an environment that suits you and attracts the clientele you prefer.

If loud, cozy, casual environments, reasonable prices, and clients that seem more like family attract you, aim for the mom and pop shop. If you want to trim blue mohawks and work with other professionals that take their art seriously, consider the trendy salons. If you’re like me and you prefer the calm, quiet, intimate atmosphere of a high-end spa (and the impressive paychecks), find one.

Seek and Apply

Once you’ve done your shopping, create a list of places you want to apply at. It doesn’t matter if they’re not currently hiring. Call them anyways. When you call, ask to speak with a manager or the owner. If they aren’t available, leave a message with the receptionist with your name and phone number.

Do not tell the receptionist what you are calling in regards to unless she asks.

Try to keep it vague if she does (“I have a few questions.”)

Why so secretive, you ask? Receptionists often make friends with the professionals. We’re a commission-based industry. If the receptionist thinks you are going to compete with his/her friends, they may choose to not give the message to the owner.

If you do not receive a call back within a day or two, call back. If you still can’t reach the owner or the manager, put your resume, cover letter, and any letters of recommendation (unfolded) into a manila clasp envelope, seal it, tape it shut, and mail it to the business, addressed to the owner.

You could drop it off in person, but at high-end spas in particular, it can be considered rude and presumptuous to make an appearance during a work day expecting an audience with the owner or manager without an appointment. However, if you are going to drop it off, do so looking ready to interview. You might get lucky and be seen right away.

Interview Day

On the day of your interview:

Arrive 10 minutes early.
Not 15 minutes early, not 12 minutes early, not 5 minutes early–10 minutes early.

Be dressed professionally.
Dress as well as or better than the owner. Freshly ironed black dress pants, a nice blouse, well-fitted blazer, and clean, black, closed-toed shoes are excellent. Keep the accessorizing unobtrusive and to a minimum.

Have your hair, makeup, and nails done.
You’re representing your industry. Don’t show up with raggedy nails, messy hair, and loud cosmetics. Your makeup should look natural, your nails well maintained, and your hair styled nicely. Trendy salons tend to encourage more outrageous hairstyles and colors but if you’re looking for a job, it’s generally better to keep your hair a natural color.

Blank slates tend to be more hireable than loud personalities.

Most employers in our business accept and sometimes encourage professionals to be creative with their look, but if you’re looking to find a job ASAP without a clientele, aim for neutrality to appeal to a wider variety of salon owners.

Have your paperwork ready.
Make sure you have your resume, letters of recommendation, portfolio, a copy of your professional license, and anything else you may need handy.

Remember this: You are a valuable professional.
You are looking for a job, but you are not so desperate that you’ll take anything they throw at you. It may be an employer’s job market, but you have standards and expectations as well. Your goal is to find a place that suits you and respects you as a human being.

You’re not a servant. You’re interviewing the salon owner as well.

The Interview From Hell

Be prepared to have an interviewer who is sick of dealing with an endless stream of professionals that don’t have themselves together professionally. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself facing someone who seems less-than enthused to be dealing with yet another potential employee. For a lot of employers in this job market, interviewing has become a tedious, frustrating chore.

Your mission is to convince this cynical beast-person that you are exactly who they’ve been waiting for.

To help you prepare for the worst, here is a list of questions I ask every potential new hire:

“What can you tell me about our salon? Why did you choose to apply here?”
This is a good time to mention that you’ve done your homework. You’ve noticed that the place is busy, the atmosphere suits you, and it seems well managed based on whatever factors you’ve determined indicate that it is so. If you came in and had a service done, that’s a bonus because it shows that you really want to see the spa from the perspective of a client. Mention that you are looking for long-term employment in a business that will ensure your continued success in the industry, and you’ve got yourself a slam dunk.

“Tell me about your current/previous boss. Did you have any problems with your previous places of employment?”

This question is a trap. Be honest here, but not too honest.

If you’ve listed a place of employment where you were terminated due to bad blood between you and the owner, step lightly. You never know if the person you’re interviewing with is friends with your ex-boss. If you parted in a way that was messy, keep it short and simple and don’t go into it, no matter how much the interviewer pries.

“The environment didn’t suit me.” Translation: My boss was a lazy slob.
“Our professional values were too dissimilar.” Translation: My boss was unprofessional and difficult to handle.
“I chose to move in another direction.” Translation: I simply was not happy there.

Those are all excellent and a good interviewer will be able to read between the lines.

Do not get nasty about your ex-employer.

If the interviewer pushes you to reveal more, just say, “I’d prefer not to talk badly about them. I appreciated the opportunity they gave me but it just didn’t work out. If you’d like to call them to inquire about me, please feel free. They might not have nice things to say about me but I don’t believe in gossiping about or badmouthing other professionals.”

Even if I call this ex-boss of yours and she talks my ear off for an hour about what a terrible person you are, you’re going to come out on top for the way you handled it.

“You seem to move from business to business a lot, is there any reason for that?”
The best way to answer this one is to give a general reason, not a list of reasons why you left each job.

“I’ve been having a hard time finding the right place for me. I believe a lot of this had to with me not asking enough questions during the interviewing process and impulsively choosing jobs. I’ve since realized that my prior method was not a great strategy for promoting professional longevity and have committed myself to being more inquisitive and more selective. I’ve also discovered that finding the right fit in this industry is a bit of a trial and error process.”

We’ve all been there. If the employer has ever worked as a professional in this industry, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

“Why is there a gap in your employment?”
If there’s a gap, be prepared to explain it. If you’ve been out of the business for a while but you’ve worked in other fields, offer to provide the details to the unrelated jobs you’ve had in-between. Just explain that you felt the experience wasn’t relevant to the position you were applying for. If you spent a long time looking for employment, state that.

Be honest, but don’t go into detail if you aren’t asked to.

“Tell me about the technical areas you feel you need improvement on.”
Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth here.

Notice how I’m telling you to talk about the areas you need improvement on rather than asking you if there are areas you need improvement on? Do not say you’re “great at everything.” That’s crap. Everyone has something they struggle with.

When answering, add that you have been working on your weak points in your spare time, but that you feel you would really benefit from hands-on training from someone with the patience to work with you.

Instead of saying, “I can’t do it,” say “I’m excited to learn how to do it better.”

“What qualities do you think you can bring to our salon?”
This is my nice way of asking, “Why should I hire you?” and your opportunity to talk about how you’re an aggressive self-promoter who makes an active effort to build your clientele.

Mention other traits that you feel are beneficial to the business and be ready to back up your claims if you’re asked:

  • you have a lot of great marketing ideas (have some examples prepared),
  • you love to network (mention what networking groups you’re involved in and what events you attend), and
  • you are dedicated to furthering your professional education (if you have completed certificate programs and are planning on attending any in the future, be ready to mention them as well).

Anyone can walk into an interview and sell themselves, but a good interviewer will challenge you to put your money where your mouth is.

Avoid saying generic things that are obvious to the interviewer, like, “I’m friendly,” “I like to meet new people,” “I am trustworthy,” “I’m professional.” Those are all things that are either apparent or need to be proven over time. Stick with what you can back up with proof.

“We do require a full drug screening as part of our interviewing process. That isn’t going to be a problem for you, is it? Would you be able to stop at the testing center today?”
Yes, I do ask this question. Drugs should never be a problem for you. You should be able to happily agree to an immediate drug test. As an employer, I’ve had issues with employees who used cocaine, meth, and pills.

That said, I don’t personally know anyone in our business (even in Florida where it isn’t yet legal) who gives one single crap about recreational marijuana use outside of work. If you’re a recreational user of hard drugs or an addict, I highly recommend you handle that before you step into any interviews.

“What is your idea of a strong work ethic?”
This question is also a trap. You want your interviewer to know that you’re a hard worker during your scheduled hours, but that you are not a workaholic.

Don’t just tell them what you think they want to hear if you don’t plan on delivering.

“I believe I possess a strong work ethic. I am dedicated to building and retaining a clientele. I perform all services to the best of my ability and really focus on making sure every guest has a great experience. I strive to be as accommodating and hospitable as possible. When I set a schedule, I stick to it. I also help around the salon, doing laundry and light cleaning when necessary. However, I do believe in moderation. I do not work outside of my schedule and when I’m off for the day, I’m off. I will require a daily lunch break and I do spend time with my family on my off-days. I find that this keeps me from getting burnt out and contributes to my professional happiness overall.”

That is a winning statement from my point of view as an employer and it makes it clear that you have boundaries.

Employees who burn themselves out get sick more frequently and tend to be unhappy at their place of employment. Nobody wants that.

If an employer isn’t satisfied with that answer, you’re interviewing at the wrong business.

“What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned at work?”
This is my favorite one because it tells me the most about an applicant. Don’t tell the interviewer about how you learned to do cornrows one summer. Tell them about something you learned from a client, a coworker, instructor, or a boss that changed your personal philosophy in a significant way. This is one that is different for everyone, but make sure it’s something important to you. All of us have one life lesson we learned from work, and those of us that have been doing this for a long time have quite a few. Keep it positive.

Turn the Tables: Don’t be Afraid to Negotiate

After the interview, do not be afraid to inquire further about policies or conditions that seem unfair or questionable to you. You want to know what you’re getting into and a good employer will understand.

How are you going to be classified? Are they going to classify you as an employee, independent contractor, or booth renter? If you don’t know the difference yourself, read my post: Know Your Rights.

What do they expect from you?

  • Employees: What products do they use? What hours are they looking for? What other duties or responsibilities would you be expected to perform? What is their dress code? How many sick days/vacation days are you allotted? Are there any benefits offered?
  • Renters: Do they offer laundry service? Does their contract seem fair and thorough to you? (READ THAT CONTRACT CAREFULLY.) Are you expected to carry your own professional insurance policy or does the establishment’s policy cover you as well?
  • Independent Contractors: Do they realize what an independent contractor is?

Will you be required to sign a non-compete? How are your existing clients or referral clients going to be handled?

If you are bringing a following with you, no matter how small, you need a contract to protect the business you built, especially if you built that business yourself through networking or advertising. The contract should have the last names and first initials of every client you are bringing to the business. It should state that you have obtained the clients yourself prior to your employment at that particular business and if you choose to leave, you will have the right to market yourself to those clients and invite them to follow you, regardless of any non-compete or non-disclosure the owner may have you sign. This document will need to be signed by the owner and a witness. Request that a copy of it be stapled to any other contract the owner may have had you sign. (Maybe read this post series about contracts.)

In this industry, your following is everything. Don’t put yourself in a position where an owner could take your clientele from you.

Think ahead and always consider the worst-case scenario.

Take a look at their price range and the amount they pay employees. Do some calculations to determine whether or not you can afford to work there.

If you don’t like it, negotiate it. If it can’t be negotiated, the place is not for you. Let’s say the owner offers you 20% commission on services, no hourly pay, and wants you to walk her dog off-the-clock, and that arrangement doesn’t appeal to you. Do not be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, I feel that my services and my experience are worth more than you’re offering. I would like hourly base pay, commission bonuses, and I won’t be walking your dog.”

Don’t settle. This is important. It is crucial that you shop around.

Don’t jump at the first offer you get and never take an offer immediately when it’s presented to you.

If an employer asks “So, when can you start?” reply with, “I’m really interested in working here, however, I do have a few more interviews this week. When I’ve wrapped them up, I’ll let you know.” Set a date to follow up with them before you leave.

Give yourself at least a day or two to consider your options.

Make sure you’re 100% certain before you take a job. This is the best way to eliminate “job hopping.” It lets your potential employer know that you aren’t desperate and that you’re looking for a long-term position. Decisions like this require thought and shouldn’t be made impulsively.

Stay Positive!

A lot of owners treat salon and spa professionals like they’re a dime a dozen. Prove to them that you’re different. Just remember that your long-term professional satisfaction matters and be sure to protect yourself against shady, opportunistic business owners.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment!

This post is a condensed version of a much larger chapter in my first book, The Beauty Industry Survival Guide. If you’re a current or aspiring salon professional who works as an employee, you may want to check out my Salon Employee Suitcase downloadable. If you’re venturing into self-employment as a microsalon owner, you’ll definitely benefit from the Microsalon Owner’s Complete Business Toolkit.

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Tina Alberino
Tina Alberino
Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and Salon Ownership and Management: A Definitive Guide to the Professional Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.

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  1. As an independent contractor, I am now in search of a new place to expand my knowledge, education and clientele. In addition to being interviewed by owners, what do you feel are the most important questions for me, as the stylist, to ask an owner? Thank you!

    • If you’re an “independent contractor,” you won’t be sitting through job interviews. It sounds to me like you don’t understand what it means to be self-employed, which is extremely common in this industry. Independent contractors are freelancers. They are contracted to do a one-time job. I recommend you read this post. Then, read this one.

      Your number one question to ask is: How will I be classified for tax purposes?

      If the answer is anything other than, “W-2,” you need to leave.


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