When you first approach Dee Nails Enhancements its simple exterior (a single doorway and two signs — one for the salon’s name and another advertising the special of the month) does not even hint at the experience waiting for you inside.

“Many of us have been to a restaurant that looks like nothing special from the outside only to be surprised by the delightful atmosphere and the best meal we have ever eaten in our lives. That is how I want my salon to be thought of,” says Diep “Dee” Nguyen (pictured at left with husband Minh Nguyen), whose plain-front nail oasis offers a rich menu of services ranging from the simplest manicure, to nail enhancements, to a deluxe spa pedicure delivered by one of four talented nail technicians.

As a Vietnamese salon owner in Canoga Park, Calif., Nguyen constantly struggles to distinguish her salon from the mostly Asian-run discount shops that are a common sight throughout the San Fernando Valley area.

And while being a business owner in a highly competitive industry is a difficult job in itself, she recently became an educator for Creative Nail Design (Vista, Calif.) with a unique and challenging mission: to take all that she has learned about the nail business and Creative products to neighbouring discount Asian salons, many of whom view her as a competitor, not a teacher.

It is not easy, as Nguyen herself will attest, especially after a visit with a neighbouring salon doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. She admits that she has moments where giving it all up to go back to working four days a week as a booth renter sounds tempting. However, those thoughts pass quickly when she remembers with satisfaction how far she has come, the clients who rely on her gentle touch and skills, and the education that she is slowly, but steadily providing to other Asian salon owners and nail technicians.

The Lean Years

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Dee and her family came to the U.S. and were sponsored by a family in Maryland when she was 9 years old. Her sister’s friends had parents who were school teachers and offered to tutor Nguyen and her sisters until they were ready to enroll in school. “I remember doing a lot of alphabet flash cards,” says Nguyen.

Even before she graduated from beauty school 11 years ago at the top of her class, Nguyen spent time in beauty supply stores reading product brochures, books, and anything else she could get her hands on to learn more about products and the industry.

Despite her drive, Nguyen found that her first years as a professional nail technician were lean ones. “The salon owner at my first salon was one of my beauty school teachers and she told me that there were never any nail technicians who stayed there long enough to build a regular clientele, so I had to start from nothing,” she says. “Every week I made just barely enough to pay my baby-sitter, but I still managed to stash aside some money so I could show my husband that I was staying busy. He didn’t know that I was struggling.”

Nguyen dug down deep and decided to keep trying to make her chosen career work because she loved the profession. “I enjoy making my clients’ nails look beautiful on the outside and making them feel good about themselves on the inside,” she explains.

Almost six years after her first job, Nguyen found a job at the Hair & Nail Shop, located not too far from her salon’s present location It wasn’t long before she solidified her reputation as a nail technician who not only made her clients’ nails look nice, but one who also customized treatments that were designed to solve that particular client’s nail problems. “I study the nails, especially the texture, and use the information to decide when to use a product or when not to use it to keep the nails healthy,” she says.

Barbara Klivans, a client who has been with Nguyen for more than a decade, never had regular manicures until she started going to Dee. “I have nails that split into layers when they get to a certain length, but she tried different products on me until she solved the problem,” she says.

Toward the middle of her three-year tenure with Hair & Nail Shop, Nguyen took a job working during special events at the Lancôme counter in a local Nordstrom department store. “It was a way for me to spread the message about the need for regular, professional nail care and to meet potential clients,” she says.

However, Nguyen had to drop her Lancôme job one year later when she accepted her current position as a Creative educator. She was first approached by Creative to be a translator for an educator who was not Vietnamese. “I said, ‘No, if you want to teach me everything there is to say about the company and its products, I will help you reach these salons,’” Nguyen recalls.

After attending the extensive training classes required by the company, Nguyen began to approach the Asian salons in her area to share information with them about Creative’s products.

With her Asian heritage, Nguyen soon realized that she would make more progress with other Asian salon owners if she talked to them as a fellow salon owner rather than a corporate representative. “I come from a society where everyone older than you is entitled to certain privileges over you, such as walking down a street ahead of you,” she says. It is very important for Nguyen to be on the same level in society as other Asian salon owners so she could communicate with them as an equal and show them the proper respect when requesting their time. Therefore, plans to find her own salon location had already began to form when a scary incident made her move even more quickly.

“The salon where I was working was robbed at gunpoint by two men, one of whom stood directly in front of my station,” she explains. “Because my personal belongings were in plain view, they took them.” Thankfully no one at the salon was physically hurt, but the “learning experience” has made Nguyen ever- conscious of her surroundings. It also inspired her to take certain precautions at her own salon.

Beverly Hills in the Valley

Many long-time clients followed Nguyen when she took the plunge and opened up her own salon last April. The approximately 900-square-foot upscale business is Nguyen’s own concept, one she says is as close to “Beverly Hills in the heart of the Valley” as possible.

Nguyen conceptualized every area of her new business in advance, then drew up a detailed plan. “I showed the sketches to my clients before we opened the salon,” she says. “Once they came for their first appointment at the new location, they all said how much it looked like my plans.”

With little time left before the salon’s opening, Nguyen took her plans and went shopping for the best deals on the furniture (other than the pieces she had custom-made) and other products she needed. As she bought things, she stored them in her garage at home until the opening.

Just two days before her grand opening, Nguyen brought all the furniture and accessories to the salon and started to put it together. Building on her display-making talent, which at previous salons helped her earn retailing dollars, Nguyen put her creative energies to work. On top of the wall-mounted display cabinets are hand-made gift bag decorations that are examples of her retail design flair. She also has a handmade gift basket that shows clients how ordinary product purchases can make great deluxe gifts.

Relaxing music, such as that used by- massage therapists, plays throughout the salon, instantly calming and welcoming clients who pass through the front door. Plants placed throughout the salon create a tropical and natural air throughout, while modern-looking wood shelving, cabinetry, and nail tables give the salon an upscale edge.

“Everything I designed was more for the convenience of the client and the manicurists while we work,” she explains. The wood and black nail tables have specially designed doors and drawer compartments to keep contents hidden from view (something she insisted on after the robbery experience), but accessible to the technician.

She had four retail display cabinets custom-made and mounted on the salon’s wall and they are beautiful enough to double as wall coverings (this way the products get attention instead of pictures). Each is equipped with sliding glass doors to encourage clients to handle products without ruining wet nails. “I wanted the displays to easily glide open and shut because I want clients to feel comfortable handling the products.” The glass covers were actually an idea Nguyen thought of during her tenure at her previous salon when an especially large earthquake caused polishes to rain down on her and a client from an uncovered wall display.

The custom wood cabinetry keeps other parts of the salon organized and functional as well. Tucked in the back right corner of the salon is the pedicure station. Surrounded by lush plants, a miniature waterfall fountain, a large tropical fish tank, and fabric that is lavishly draped from the ceiling, Nguyen’s pedicure cabinet holds all the tools needed to convert hands-only clients into regular pedicure clients.

Because it is so richly done, the pedicure station is the focus of the salon. Nguyen laughs when she recalls how many new clients come into the salon, take one look at the station and then head back outside to the ATM (conveniently located next to her front door) to withdraw more money for a pedicure service.

The matching woodwork also extends to the “L” shaped reception station topped with product displays and backed by stylish nail posters on the wall. Toward the bottom of the station is a glass-enclosed display case that Nguyen uses to show off various products and gift certificates.

The salon is completed by the three five-shelf displays that take up the majority of the room in the salon. “I decided to make the salon into a beauty supply store also (and it is listed only as such in the Yellow Pages) because that gives other nail technicians, especially Asian ones in my territory, a reason to come in and observe how it is set up and how I work,” she explains. “This allows them to learn from me without having to make an excuse for why they are in my salon. There is no other way that I can draw other Asian nail technicians here because they look at me as a competitor, not someone who is going to help them further what they already know.”

The technicians come into the salon under the guise of making a purchase and end up watching Nguyen work and observing her salon and its components. Then they often go back to their salon and change the way they do things. “After our first week in business, I had several nail technicians call me and ask where I bought my covered trash cans,” she says. “Now that time has passed and I go back out into the discount salons, I see closed-lid trash cans and stations that are more inviting to the client.”

The Client Is Queen

Client comfort and respect are the main themes of Nguyen’s salon and have influenced the design of the salon, its menu, and the choice of staff.

For the first three months after her opening, Nguyen could not find nail technicians who were willing to learn to work the way she wanted. “I stressed to them that they were not working in my salon because I needed them to help me make it — I could do it myself,” she explains. “They were here because client demand made it so. If they couldn’t do what the client requested, then they had to leave.”

While it took more time, Nguyen eventually found and hired nail technicians who were willing to take the time to learn her methods at their own pace. “I was known to be the controlling salon owner in the Valley and many nail technicians did not want to work for me,” she says.

In fact, Nguyen says that having nail technicians with different talents and at different levels is a plus at her salon. For instance, Nguyen herself is referred to as the deluxe manicurist, while Jennifer Nguyen’s (no relation) manicure service is called the “to go” service because clients can get in and out quickly, which makes for a nice balance. “Jennifer helps me draw the type of client into the salon that doesn’t know what a deluxe service consists of. Then they see me at work and ask her about the different add-on services I perform.” This way, says Nguyen, inexperienced clients do not get scared away by big service packages, but they do get what they ask for. This also brings in more profit as clients request extra services with each appointment.

While Nguyen may sound tough, she has the best intentions. She wants her staff to benefit from her experience and education so that her clients in turn benefit each time they walk into her salon. “I am here to perform for my clients, even if I have a personal problem that day. If I am ill, I do not work because I am not able to do the job right,” she says. “When the salon is open, the clients come first.”

Nguyen shows the utmost respect for her clients’ time by padding her appointments so that if one client is running late, it doesn’t throw her off schedule or inconvenience any of her other clients. Many nail technicians would point out that this decreases profit over time, but Nguyen is quick to point out that money is not her main goal. “My reward is not in how much a client tips me, but the feet that she keeps coming back to me for nail care,” she says. “That is a feeling I want for every nail technician.”

Nguyen is considering adding massage and/or facials to her salon’s menu, but for now, nails are what she knows best and does best. “Maybe one day we will expand the salon and its services. I do not want to get into a service that I do not specialize in because I feel there is a chance it could make the business weaker and affect my reputation: And my reputation is more important to me than the money I can make.”

Getting Lost in the Translation

Nguyen transfers the dedication she shows her salon staff and her clients to her role as Creative educator.

Last February, after six months of gruelling training, Nguyen became a certified educator. She believes that if each nail technician went through the same type of experience that she did in Boot Camp, not a single “chop shop” would exist. “You work so hard to perfect your technique, that there is no way you would come out later and lower your standards. You are too honored and proud of what you have accomplished,” she says. And it is these feelings that Nguyen tries to share with other Asian salon owners (no matter which product they decide to use) so that they may consider abandoning their discount business mentality.

While she agrees that education is the key to reducing the number of discount salons, teaching Vietnamese nail technicians is not as easy as it sounds, even though she speaks the language fluently. Translation problems exist, making her task daunting at times.

For one, most existing nail instruction manuals do not directly translate because certain words don’t exist in Vietnamese, such as “sanitation” or “disinfection.” Nguyen teaches nail technicians the new words using word association to help them correctly recall the word and its meaning in English.

Because of different Vietnamese dialects, one word can have many different meanings, which are derived based on the context of the sentence. “That’s why the person translating to the Viet­namese technician must be a nail professional so that what is translated is as close to the desired meaning as possible,” Nguyen says, adding that instead of creating Vietnamese words for concepts like sanitizing, she continues to use the English words to communicate with Vietnamese technicians.

Teaching the English words and the concepts behind them takes a long time. “I have to break down the meaning and teach them step-by-step,” she explains. “Therefore, what should be a two-hour class takes me six hours because the technicians have lots of questions.” Nguyen studies for hours trying to decide how to approach Vietnamese technicians and make this important information inviting and exciting to them.

Other major roadblocks make Nguyen’s job as educator a little harder. “The people that I deal with do not want to sign up for classes to learn. For the most part, they want me to teach them right there and then, so Creative and I are working to customize our efforts to fit the Asian audience,” Nguyen says. “If we can only get their attention at shows or when they visit my salon, then that is when I need to educate them.”

Another issue is teaching customer service skills to Asian nail technicians. “Asian technicians are taught not to speak to the client, but to focus on the work,” she says, though she notes that many of them would rather be talking to the client, but don’t speak English or know how to initiate conversation.

Nguyen tries to bring change to the Asian salons slowly. She approaches them by dropping off free product samples for them to try and complimenting the best aspects of their salon to build a relationship and earn respect. She is then usually invited back to give the salon owner more information or advice. She gradually builds a relationship with the salon owner before she starts to offer her services as an educator. “It is important to build that bond before finding out what kind of problems they have and offering solutions,” she says.” If I feel that my presence is unwanted, I tell them that I can see they are busy and I will come back another time and we can talk then. I never push them into listening to me.”

Nguyen can already point to some successes with the Asian market, as she tells of one salon owner in nearby Woodland Hills who she will soon meet with to discuss converting her entire product line over to Creative. And she is not the first salon owner who has called and converted.

It is a slow process for Nguyen, who like many salon owners, feels frustrated that the salons around her that discount their services. So she chooses to educate them about how to run a profitable business rather than lower her own prices or her standards to match theirs. “I can’t lower prices and cut corners because that is not the way I was taught,” she explains. “Instead I want to share what I have learned with other salon owners so that we can all be profitable and keep the nail industry thriving.”