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Hourly Hiring in the New Normal: How Sport Clips Prepared for the Future (Before It Happened)

This is going to make me sound incredibly vain, but one of the things I missed the most when we were all locked down during COVID qurantines was getting my hair cut. 

Partially because I actually like the experience. My barber — a 70-year-old Sicilian named Tony — is hilarious. And he’s a lot better than me taking a pair of Wahl shears to my dome and praying I don’t end up looking like Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber. (Spoiler alert: That’s exactly who I looked like from March to May...)

Which brings me to Sport Clips. 

With nearly 1,900 locations in all 50 states, the Texas-based hair salon is in business precisely to help its clients not look like I did during quarantine. Which explains why, in mid-May, with only one-third of its stores open during the pandemic, men across the country were desperately calling Sport Clips locations, insistent on finding a solution for DIY cuts gone awry.

The problem: Recruiting challenges in the hair salon business existed before the current health crisis. Back in May, they were doubly so. 

“It’s always been a challenge to find and hire talented stylists,” Julie Vargas, Sport Clips’ Vice President of Career Opportunities, told me recently. “But under the circumstances, we really had to step up our game and be a lot more efficient.”

Preparing for the Great Rebound

Thankfully, Sport Clips was already in the process of doing that months before the pandemic hit. 

In 2018, the 27-year-old chain started beefing up its recruitment playbook and laying the groundwork for digital transformation with a new recruiting plan that was rooted in simplicity, speed, and efficiency — for candidates and its own recruiting team. 

When the pandemic hit, they simply pivoted to focusing on what “recovery” would look like. And that started with a fairly simple — but also complex — question: What exactly would recruiting look like in a post-pandemic rebound? 

Vargas and Sport Clips’ Director of Talent Acquisition DeLisa Atkinson settled on a few key bets:

  • Potential candidates would care a lot about benefits packages including health, dental, and vision. 
  • They’d also want to know how they could create some stability — through a regular, built-in client base — and safety for their family.
  • Speed and accessibility would be more important than ever, which meant Sport Clips stores would need to quickly respond to inquiries from qualified stylists, before those candidates started to look elsewhere. Because, Atkinson says, great stylists will look elsewhere. 

Vargas and Atkinson were confident Sport Clips could meet those needs. The next question: How to communicate those benefits to every candidate, instantly — and when qualified stylists raised their hand, schedule them immediately.  

Making Digital Transformation Reality with Conversational AI

For the first two bullets above, Atkinson says Sport Clips has always been well-positioned as an employer. They offer excellent benefits and provide more stability than employment alternatives that are more akin to entrepreneurship.

The third bullet is the one that typically requires technology and process transformation in hourly employment.

Fortunately, Sport Clips has a secret weapon. And Atkinson says it’s primed to help them even when human-to-human contact becomes a thing again. 

Over the past year, and for the last several months in particular, the Sport Clips team has increasingly relied on sophisticated conversational AI — an assistant they call “Kenzie” — to immediately answer hundreds of day-to-day questions from candidates, and bring a human touch to every stage in the hiring process, 24 hours a day. 

“A lot of times candidates apply after 5 p.m. — sometimes it’s in the middle of the night. But you’re not always on; you’re with your kids or your family,” Atkinson says. “I think one-third of our candidates apply after normal business hours. Our ‘Kenzie’ assistant from Paradox allows us to interact with candidates as soon as possible — often completely through their phone — and immediately schedule them for an interview. It’s amazing."

Transparency. Speed. Quick access to information.

Delivering a candidate experience rooted in those principles was critical before the pandemic. But Atkinson says they’re even more important now. Vargas also says video interviewing has become a new norm, whether via Zoom, GoToMeeting, or FaceTime. Once merely a convenience, it’s now a necessity. 

“What we’ve always told our team leaders from a recruitment standpoint is, ‘You can’t rely on one thing,’” Atkinson says.

“You’ve got to try lots of different things at once, and you’ve got to be proactive. You can’t sit around and wait to be disrupted by something you couldn’t anticipate.”

Using AI to Create Better Experiences for Everyone

As the country has slowly re-opened, Sport Clips’ most active outposts are again brimming with business — so much so that Vargas says some stores are struggling to meet demand in a timely fashion. Consequently, the need for skilled and dedicated stylists keeps rising — and its left Vargas and Atkinson searching for new ways to meet that demand. 

“It’s very important as a franchise owner and manager to be mindful and considerate of demands that are being put on stylists right now, because it’s more than they’re used to dealing with,” Vargas says. “We’re programmed to serve clients all day, and that’s what we do. But when you add these other variables to it, that really complicates things and intensifies the stress. We have employees in our stores who literally don’t have time to take breaks and lunches because there are so many clients. And we have two-, three-, five-hour waits.”

To fix that, the Sport Clips team is focusing on meaningful, strategic changes that will allow them to provide a safer work environment and incredible career opportunities for the millions of workers who will be in the market for a new job in the coming months. 

Atkinson and Vargas say they're bracing for a significant influx of new applicants. And when that rebound happens, they’ll be ready — in part because they’ve made investments in the safety and well-being of their stylists, and in part because Sport Clips' AI assistant Kenzie will be there to help. 

“It’s definitely been a team effort,” Vargas says. “And we consider our AI assistant part of that team.”

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