Laces Case Study: A Systemic and Soulful Approach to Customer Experience Design
Note: This extended case study was written before the current COVID crisis. It is republished here on Medium in order to be referred to in the longer term as an extended case study from our book Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design.
Laces is a Brazilian network of hair spas based in São Paulo which was created with the mission of promoting the natural health of hair. Maria and I interviewed Cris Dios, the founder of Laces, for our book Customer Experiences with Soul in which she discusses her visionary approach to the design of her hair salons.
This article therefore explains the systemic and holonomic nature of their approach to customer experience design. In doing so, I will use the framework from Temkin Group which we cite in chapter one of our book, which describes the four customer experience competencies which companies must build and sustain for long-term success:
Purposeful Leadership: Leaders operate consistently with a clear set of values.
Employee Engagement: Employees are aligned with the goals of the organisation.
Compelling Brand Values: Brand promises drive how the organisation treats customers.
Customer Connectedness: Customer insights are infused across the organisation.
These are all essential components when approaching the design of a customer experience.
Maria and I have worked with Laces helping them articulate their purpose and business model more systemically, help the team better explore new sustainable business opportunities, help in the training and development of their collaborators and helping to tell and communicate their story in a systemic manner. This project involved us using the Flourishing Business Canvas (which I have recently written about in a previous article), which locates business models within the three contexts of the economy, society and environment, and which also provides four perspectives of people, value, processes and outcomes.
As we say in our book, customer experience design is the forgotten dimension of sustainability, and when this discipline is brought together with a systemic approach to sustainable design, the result is an award-winning customer experience which contributes to society, the planet and an expanded understanding of trade which is fair.
The philosophy of the company can be traced back to 1920, when João Manuel Domingos Dios, a Spanish barber came to Brazil and started to work in São Paulo. At a time when hair products were derived from petroleum, João Manuel created handmade formulas for shampoos and natural creams with natural herbal products, teas and herbs that helped cure many diseases relating to the scalp diseases such as alopecia for example.
Mercedes Dios, the daughter of João Manuel continued this work and developed the range of natural products and healthier techniques for the care of hair, serving her customers at their homes, and bringing this knowledge to a female audience.
In 1987, Mercedes inaugurated the first location of Laces and Hair. The name ‘Laces’ was chosen since its name in Portuguese means ‘strands’, representing the nature of hair and also symbolizing that which embraces and creates relationships. Mercedes passed on to her children the awareness of the need to take care of the health of hair in a natural manner, and not just to focus on the aesthetic aspects.
After having studied architecture, her daughter, Cris Dios, became involved in the work of her mother. She then went on to become a qualified cosmetologist, traveling around the world to study best practices in natural hair care.
Cris is founder of the business Laces as it is now known today, introducing a new level of professionalism and also creating a commercial line of hair care products, Cris Dios Organics. From 2010, Cris initiated the new phase of expansion of the business which saw the inauguration of the second unit of Laces in 2012 in the Marumbi neighborhood of São Paulo, which you can see in the photo below.
A Systemic Approach to Customer Experience
The customer experience of Laces can only be fully understood from a systemic perspective, elements which include our natural hair treatment services, their natural and organic products, their approach to the design of their spas, their use of the most advanced sustainable technologies, the use of natural vegetation, the inclusion of art, hand-crafted furniture, the use of guided meditations during treatments, and of course the training, development and support of every employee. In this section we will introduce the overall customer experience of their spas, and in the following sections we will discuss more specific aspects.
Laces currently have São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. They refer to their units as hair spas and not hair salons, since their focus is the natural care of hair. Their philosophy is to create an oasis in the metropolis, and as you can see in the photo below, the designs include a combination of natural vegetation, antique and modern hand-crafted furniture, art installations and natural lighting technologies. Loud music is not played, as is the norm in many beauty salons, and noise is kept to a minimum, so that clients can relax and enjoy the experience as a whole, treating their spas as a home from home.
Each unit has been designed to create an experience sympathetic to the building and the architecture of the local neighborhood while at the same time fully embodying our values and customer service. With so much unique furniture, clients are able to choose a space in each spa which fits their own individual tastes and needs.
The reason Laces have invested in so much natural vegetation is that it serves to both create a natural climate in the spa, and also contributes to the reduction in air temperature, thus reducing the reliance on air conditioning. Where possible the latest sustainable technologies are used such as natural lighting, solar power and also rainwater processing units which allows them to capture rainwater, process it and use it to wash client’s hair. The photo below shows their spa in the Moema neighborhood of São Paulo.
The natural hair care philosophy of Laces has enabled them to create hair spas which avoided many of the unpleasant aspects of modern salons, which can affect professionals as much as clients. For example a November 2014 report produced for Women’s Voices for the Earth found that that salon workers are at greater risk for certain health problems compared to other occupations. Hair sprays, permanent waves, acrylic nail application and numerous other salon products contain ingredients associated with asthma, dermatitis, neurological symptoms and even cancer. Salon workers absorb these chemicals through their skin and breathe them in as fumes build up in the air of the salon over the course of the workday.
People who work around hair dyes regularly as part of their jobs, such as hairdressers, stylists, and barbers, are likely to be exposed more than people who just dye their hair on occasion. Many of the concerns about hair dyes possibly causing cancer have focused on people who work with them. If a salon does not follow full safety procedures such as offering face masks to either clients or professionals, health risks are increased.
The natural ambience of Laces’ salons is a major feature of our customer experience which is pleasant and safe for all of our team members as well as our clients. They invest heavily in green foliage, which contributes naturally to the quality of the air and ambience. They place a huge emphasis on natural design, as you can see in the photo below which shows the reception desk at the entrance to Bioma Laces.
Because issues relating to natural hair care and sustainability are so important to Laces, they invest a lot in the education of their clients and also the analysis of their hair on an individual basis. The customer experience starts when a client first visits one of the spas. Before any treatment is started, clients complete a questionnaire, allowing the hair professionals to fully understand their personal habits, what they are looking for from the treatment, and also any psychological issues such as worries about potential hair loss.
If a client wishes to have their hair colored using Laces’ natural and organic hair coloring products, a diagnostic technique is used which analyses the volume of their hair, allowing them to use exactly the right amount of product needed, meaning that the client receives exactly the right amount of product during the treatment and preventing the waste of any product unnecessarily.
The philosophy of natural hair care is also focused on how a client treats their hair at home, and not just the treatments they receive in the spas. Time is taken to educate clients on how to use the products at home. For example, with shampoo, small plastic bowls are provided in which a small amount of shampoo is placed and then diluted. It is far better to wash the hair with pre-diluted shampoo rather than applying it directly on the hair, straight from the bottle.
The overall approach to developing relationships with clients is to help them learn how they can best treat their hair. Laces are not attempting to sell as many spa treatments as possible, as this would not be in the best interests of the client. Rather the approach is to develop long-term relationships, providing styling and other treatments such as hair nutrition when necessary, and to empower women through the use of the best natural products and the best hair care practices.
The Laces team believe that they have managed to go far beyond what is considered typical for an experience in a hair or beauty salon and for this reason they have been able to grow through word-of-mouth recommendations from clients. Laces have also featured regularly in the fashion and lifestyle press, especially magazines, and this also includes international press coverage. Examples where their specialised hair treatments and approach to beauty have been cited include the Women’s Wear Daily fashion portal, Vogue Japan and Marie Claire.
Laces is still a privately-owned business and at this moment in time they do not measure our customer experience using industry metrics. Their senior professionals are all trained to be focused on always ensuring that the best experience possible is offered for clients, and therefore the most powerful feedback mechanism they have are the daily conversations we have with their clients.
The approach to the design of our salons and the level of training provided to every single member of Laces means that they believe that they have created an outstanding experience for clients who are able to relax in the hair spas and receive natural hair care treatments which are not currently available in other mainstream beauty salons. The salons provide a naturally healthy environment which is free from the normal synthetic and chemical ingredients, and this is as beneficial to their professionals as it is for our clients. The photo below shows our spa in the Jardims neighborhood of São Paulo.
Many clients of course are looking for natural treatments which are also kind to the environment. By using technologies which enable either the recycling of rainwater, or no water at all, as is the case of some of products which treat the hair without the need for water, Laces are able to provide an experience which is in complete harmony with the aspirations and beliefs of their clients.
Laces is often seen as the ‘SOS’ of hair care in São Paulo. It is often the case that clients who have used products with synthetic ingredients have ended up with hair which is damaged. Laces offer value by always focusing on the natural health of hair, and so the focus is on helping clients to repair their hair to a naturally healthy state.
This philosophy of natural beauty is based on the belief that Cris Dios and her team have in inner beauty, and that the health of women’s hair reflects their inner beauty and self-confidence. So for example, during their hair treatment processes, there are often times when our clients need to wait for 45 minutes for the treatments to take effect. Laces offer their clients a self-guided meditation which was recorded by Marcia De Luca, considered to be Brazil’s most knowledgable practitioner of yoga and meditation, which teaches clients how to integrate body, mind and soul.
Outcomes and Business Results
In the last few years Brazil has been suffering from a severe economic recession, but despite this Laces have managed to continue to grow. The leadership team believe that this can be attributed to their focus on the client and our dedication to offering the best salon experience, with around 40,000 clients each year.
In the last five years, Laces has grown by around 30% a year, currently counting on five stores in the city of São Paulo. In 2012 there were just two units, one in Morumbi and one in Jardins. In 2014 Laces opened a unit in Amauri, and then in 2015 the unit in Moema opened. The most recent unit in the Vila Lobos Shopping Centre was opened earlier this year. In this period we grew from 35 employees to 180.
One way in which Laces measure our success is the number of solicitations they receive to open branches of Laces in other cities. They continually receive requests from shopping centers throughout Brazil who would like to have a branch of Laces. However, while Laces do have plans to grow, they do not wish to do so at any cost, and so their plans for growth are based on their ability to always maintain the high level of service provided by our professionals, and indeed, maintain the soul of Laces which Cris feels is what their clients really connect with.
Another important metric is the amount of press coverage received, especially in relation to other salons which are part of global brands. In recent months for example Laces have been covered in the following Brazilian magazines: Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Pais e Filhos, Bons Fluidos, Revista Ela and Casa Claudia.
The leaders in their business are the most senior professionals who are normally located at one single spa. They have responsibility for always ensuring that clients receive exceptional service from Laces in addition to providing the most advanced treatments and services.
Laces rely heavily on their most senior professionals in each salon as they are the ones who continually discuss the brand, values, mission and approach to customer service with all members of staff. Their management processes include structuring a career plan for every single one of our members, and this allows those who wish to develop have their skills and knowledge continually evaluated so that they know which courses and training sessions they need to attend in order to progress through the career-progression levels which have been designed.
The leadership team at Laces believe that Laces offers their most senior professionals levels of training and support at levels far above the industry norm. For example, they often take small groups abroad, for example to France, to allow them to study and develop the most advanced skills and knowledge in the industry, as well as rewarding them for their excellent work. They also have a program in place to recognize the most exceptional professionals, and this includes the opportunity to become a partner in the business. This program is helping their leaders to develop commercial and leadership competencies in addition to their professional skills, thus leading them to understand the importance of their systemic approach to customer experience, and how to help all of their employees contribute to their way of offering natural hair care.
Compelling Brand Values
Laces’ values not only relate to the way in which they treat their clients and commercial customers (those businesses who purchase their products wholesale) but also their direct competitors. So for example they have a policy that they do not try to poach professionals from other salons. The training system that they have created allows Laces to hire people from a wide variety of backgrounds and train them in-house over the course of a number of years. Their sense of fair trade means that they look to be as authentic as possible not just with their customers or our clients, but with society as a whole. Their treatment processes are always designed to include an element of education for their clients, and this reduces their need to come to the hair spas, allowing them to treat their hair in a more healthy way at home.
In relation to their spa clients, as has already been mentioned, the purpose of Laces has always been to provide products and treatments which focus on the natural care of hair, and not beauty at any price. One example of this is the way they have searched for natural and organic hair coloring products which demonstrates their commitment to ‘slow beauty’ — a movement they are developing which was inspired by the slow food movement.
According to Brazilian government figures, 80% of Brazilian women color their hair. Many studies have found that synthetic ingredients in traditional hair coloring products such as PPD ( p-Phenylendiamine ) can lead to the risk of an elevated chance of cancer. Some women are allergic to many ingredients, and there are also specific risks for women who are pregnant.
Originally Laces did manage to find hair coloring products which caused much less damage to hair, but this represented a small percentage of their overall business, around 5%. This is much less than a typical hair salon. In 2012 Cris Dios started to travel to many different countries in search of a solution which was consistent with their values. In 2015 Cris did find the basis of a potential natural and organic hair coloring product during her investigations in France. She started a process to adapt these ingredients to make them viable for import to Brazil.
In 2016 Laces launched Coloração Vegetal LCS, the first 100% natural hair coloring products in Brazil. However, the product is only one part of the service which makes natural hair coloring possible. Laces also implemented a new training program since professionals have to be taught a new system to understand color which is specific to natural hair coloring. In relation to the customer experience, natural hair coloring also involves a re-education of the mindset of clients, since they visit our spas for the treatment, but the actual coloring process lasts for two days, a natural process which is also found in plants in nature.
This commitment to offering natural products has seen an increase of 80% in hair coloring treatments in our spas. By the end of 2018 Laces now expect that 20% of their revenue will come from our natural hair coloring service.
Laces believe that they offer benefits to their employees that is at a level far beyond that which is normal for hair salon professionals, particularly in Brazil where salons employ people on a self-employed basis. This means that professionals are not registered as being full-time employees, resulting in the loss of many important benefits relating to their pay, their pensions, their savings schemes and access to health care for example which businesses must pay.
Laces do not ask people to work on a self-employed basis. Laces fully registers every single employee in compliance with every single piece of employment legislation. This means that they pay a significant amount of taxes to the government which salons which are not registered simply avoid. But they fully believe in being one of the most ethical businesses in Brazil.
The treatment of employees is much more than fulfilling our legal obligations. Laces have created a training program which can take the most junior member of staff up to the highest level of professional skill. This again is a program which Laces believe is the most advanced and comprehensive in Brazil. The highlight of this program is taking the top professionals abroad, to countries such as France where they can learn about the ingredients and manufacturing process of our natural coloring products.
The training covers every single aspect of behavior and attitudes towards clients, and not just in relation to technical skills. One practice which Laces believe is unique is that each year they take groups of their professionals to the centre which is owned by the owners of Laces in the north east of Brazil. Not only do they take professionals to this centre, they also often take their family members as well, as their philosophy is one of ensuring the best for the families of all our members.
The photograph below show one of these training sessions, which you can see, is by the coast in a wonderfully natural location. It is at these types of events where the senior team is really able to spend a considerable amount of time with individual members, discussing their philosophy, values, and helping employees to develop to the best of their abilities.
One of the best ways for Laces to connect with customers and collect rich feedback from them is to speak to them during events which are hosted at their spas. The design of the spas allows them to close them for half a day and to host specific events based around the themes which are close to the hearts of their customers.
So for example Laces have hosted talks and discussions on trends in the slow beauty movement, self-esteem for women, fashion, art and how to promote the reduction of violence against women. At these events Cris Dios and the leadership team take part not only in the actual presentations and talks, but afterwards by discussing these themes in depth with clients.
An example of an event was the launch of Laces’ manifesto for women, which describes the actions needed to support women’s rights. The manifesto was launched in April 2017 in a video format, with the campaign featuring stylist Adriana Barra, presenters Adriane Galisteu and Sarah Oliveira, chef Renata Vanzetto, entrepreneurs Tathiana Ventri and Silvia Freitas and PR executive Stephanie Kopenhagen, who all discuss how it is possible to feel good about themselves through natural beauty without judgments and stereotypes.
Often at these events professionals are also present, and this allows them to have conversations with our clients which they would perhaps not normally have time for during normal working hours. Laces have also opened some of our units on a Sunday, a day when they are not normally open in order to allow our customers to bring their children and also even their dogs. We sell natural and organic products for both children and for dogs, and this allows both clients to get to know us and our products and services better, as well as allowing us to have time talking in a relaxed environment with them.
Bioma Laces was Laces’ first spa to be built inside a shopping centre as opposed to one which has its own dedicated building and infrastructure. For Cris, Bioma Laces represents the most complete expression of Laces’ vision.
Bioma Laces was constructed inside the Villa Lobos shopping centre, which is situated next to Villa Lobos park, one of the major recreational parks in São Paulo. Bioma is Portuguese for ‘biome’, a term defined by biologist Neil Allison Campbell as “the world’s major communities, classified according to the predominant vegetation and characterized by adaptations of organisms to that particular environment”. The name was chosen to reflect the way in which Laces see their new spa as an extension of Villa Lobos park inside the shopping centre, as a visual extension of the DNA of the park.
The management team of the Vila Lobos shopping centre already have a vision of ensuring that is becomes one of the most sustainable shopping centers in Brazil. They already host events which help raise awareness about sustainability issues, and they support an organic food fair which takes place each Sunday morning in the car park. However, Laces believe that their achievement of constructing a sustainable hair spa inside a shopping centre with the range of sustainable technologies in addition to our approach to customer experience is a major innovation. By being inside the shopping centre, their message and their vision are able to reach far more consumers that they are able to reach in their other units which are located on roads with far fewer pedestrians.
The inviting reception area attracts people who may not be looking for hair treatments or products at that moment in time, but who may be curious and who therefore enter to talk to Laces staff. These consumers may not realize that natural treatments can repair and strengthen their hair while at the same time all taking place in such a natural environment, and so Bioma Laces places a major role in the education of people.
As well as the leadership team, many different people contributed to the design and development of Bioma Laces. So for example the spa features 1200 plants, which architect and landscaper Caroline Elkis brought in to represent the treetops of the park. And engineer Carlos Raiza was tasked with the challenge of bringing natural light into a shopping centre, a technological feat rarely achieved.
Art specialist Adriana Bianchi curated the largest collection of Brazilian furniture in a beauty salon, which includes works by Sérgio Rodrigues, Jorge Zalszupin, Michel Arnoult, Jean Gillo, Florence Knoll and Nadezhda Mendes da Rocha. In addition, artist Armarinhos Teixeira, who already had some of his works exhibited in other units of Laces, has a number of his paintings on display. The specialist architectural elements were possible due to the contributions of architects Marcelo Bicudo, whose signature designs are in two other Laces projects, and Juliemy Machado.