If you’ve got a knack for securing every strand in place, along with dollops of patience, a genuine interest in people, and using a razor is as natural as gliding a butter knife, then maybe taking up position behind a barber’s chair is exactly where you’d find ultimate job satisfaction. But before you ditch the corporate slog for a pair of scissors in one hand a blow-dryer in the other, consider the accurate insight gained into the typical 9-5 work day of a professional barber. We chatted to skilled Cape-Town-based senior barber, Ken Biddle about his serendipitous journey into the cut-throat world of male grooming services at the Barnet Fair barber shop.
What inspired you to become a barber? Tell us about your career path.
I’ve always been intrigued by the hair industry and loved the experience of visiting new barber shops. On one of my visits to Barnet Fair, I mentioned how I had always wanted to be a barber. Fortunately for me, I spoke to the right person and before I left we had exchanged numbers and I was offered a learner-ship for a minimal fee (compared to what education costs nowadays), as well as a part-time weekend job to help me pay it off. It was a great deal as I managed to keep my regular job. Needless to say, I paid off the course quite promptly and still have the handwritten receipt to frame in my own shop one day.
Where did you train and what qualifications do you have?
I trained at Barnet Fair. I worked with highly-skilled stylists, and as long as I was willing to learn, they were willing to teach. I then did a short cutting course through Carlton Hair Academy. I don’t have a recognised qualification as there was not much available at the time, and even today, I am skeptical of most of these barber courses available.
Experience is the best teacher. What has on-the-job experience taught you?
On-the-job experience has been both the best and the worst teacher. It has taught me many great lessons but also many bad habits. Barbering will always be a method of trial and error to accomplish the most effective and efficient technique. All stylists will have a set of skills they know they can rely on but it’s the artist in each of us that pushes us to be better than those skills.
What’s a typical day like in the life of a barber?
I can only speak for myself and my fellow peers here. On a typical day, we arrive at the shop early enough to clean, set up and mentally prepare ourselves for the day ahead. Once the shop opens, we will just get to it; cut after cut, shave after shave. We will continuously (either consciously or sub-consciously) do the best work we can do. The day is filled with banter, laughter and lots of talking (when permitted), and in between all of this we keep our section tidy and the floor swept clean. If it’s a great day, we generally don’t have time to stop and eat or sit…. On the flip side, if it’s not a great day, we only seem to sit and eat! At the end of the day after the last client has left, we’ll have a beer, clean the shop and cash up.
What challenges and difficulties do you face from day to day? Tell us what things make you want to pull your hair out!
I’m bald! Hahahaha! I face many challenges each day. Be it dealing with clients or staff, there is a new problem every day. It’s all a part of running a business and ensuring our standards are kept high. For me, my barbers are my main priority and I constantly work on how I can improve their employment while maintaining a professional and profitable business.
What gives you the greatest on-the-job satisfaction? What’s the best part of your job?
Personally, the best part for me is the relationships I create with certain clients. While cutting their hair is such a pleasure, they have the utmost trust in everything I do. They know I am a professional and genuinely just enjoy their time in my chair. It’s a great connection to have with someone.
Why do you believe customers continually return to your shop?
Customers will continually return because of the professionalism of the barbers in the shop. The only reason a client will ever return is because he had a good experience and enjoyed a service that left him feeling more confident.
What character traits must you display to make it through each customer-facing day and be successful at what you do?
Patience is key. Then you genuinely need to be service-oriented and have a professional manner.
What advice would you give to aspiring barbers?
Never stop educating yourself. Do your homework on the courses available before you commit, as some are very expensive and leave you with little in return. Above everything else, just have fun!
Share one of your most memorable experiences.
My first shave left me wanting to slit his throat! Hahahaha! So… it was my first day in the shop and a guy came in for a hot towel shave, but he was in a hurry for a meeting so I needed to be quick! Shortly after the hot towel came off, he got very edgy saying that lying down was hurting his back so I tried to adjust his position but I was reminded that he was in a hurry so to just “get on with it”, then at one point he told me to just shave and leave the lather (he was in construction and can take it but I needed to hurry). Before we were halfway through, he was complaining about his back hurting again and “what am I doing!? Is this meant to be a dry shave!?” Eventually one of the other more experienced barbers stepped in and took over. Then he was fine, his back no longer ached, he wasn’t in a hurry anymore and had a pleasant shave. I felt terrible and after he left, the other barbers said they couldn’t understand why he had given me such a hard time as I had done nothing wrong. I just put it down to perhaps he wasn’t comfortable with me from the start and didn’t enjoy my company.
Have barber shops evolved to attract a younger market? How?
Yes, definitely. Barber shops are a lot more attractive nowadays. We all just want a cool place to hang out. Each shop is unique and catered to the modern man.
In your opinion, do you think that the younger generation is becoming more or less style-conscious? Why?
Certainly more style-conscious. Guys in general are more fussed over their hair. With the increased popularity in male grooming, I can only see the younger generation being more conscious about how they look.
How has social media transformed your business?
It has helped with the growth of the industry and business. We are more in touch with our clients and target market. I would say the greatest advantage of social media has been to capture an international audience and arrange education from amazing stylists who we would have never even known about.
How do you decide which products to stock, use in treatments, and affiliate your business with?
We’re constantly presented with new products on the market so we only stick to salon-quality products. As part of our selection process, we trial and test samples and decide very quickly if we want to stock the product based on its ease of application, end results and ability to sell. The London Grooming Company products passed our tests so we use it in our treatments and sell it on site. I’m a huge fan of The London Grooming Company aftershave balm and skin moisturiser, as well as The London Grooming argan oil beard conditioner which softens the hair.
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