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Behind the Review | Creating a cultural exchange at the salon

For Clinton Jones, owner of Magnum Opus Hair Salon, running a business is more than just selling a product—it’s about creating a cultural exchange. In this week’s episode, we hear how a simple haircut turned into an opportunity for discussion and perspective.

Clinton is first and foremost a hairdresser, but what makes his craft and business stand out is his role as an artist and what he describes as cultural exchange. “I have been gifted and/or cursed with the inability to make small talk about nothing,” he said. “I just have no idea how people have so much conversation about absolutely nothing. So my conversation is very substantive, and it’s part of the way I design, part of what we style.”

He’s also always observing his customers—taking in contextual details like body language or whether they’re wearing lipstick or lip gloss. This not only helps him determine how to style them, but it also gives him more opportunity to understand and connect with them. In return, they can get to know him as a person, so they can create a real connection. “It makes them more comfortable in the space, and we can have a more honest exchange. That leads us down a road of actually talking about real things. And in a place like D.C., where people are highly educated, the conversations are incredible. Nothing’s off the table.”

As for our Yelp reviewer, Diane M., she hadn’t had her hair cut in seven months because of the pandemic, and she was looking for a new stylist and really wanted to support a local hair salon. During her haircut, she was taken aback by Clinton’s artwork on the walls of the salon—one piece in particular. Not understanding what it meant (or even its worth), she asked Clinton about it, and they had an open conversation about its meaning: expression and empowerment of women.

Magnum Opus is a place where people can go for much more than a haircut, and it’s because of the business owner. It’s the environment Clinton works so hard to offer. 

Here are a few things business owners can learn from Clinton:

  • Your business can be more than the product. We’ve heard in so many episodes that people remember how you “made them feel,” so think about that in the vision of your business. Think about what you want to be known for. Is it great haircuts? Or is it a great place to have an open, honest conversation and to get a damn good haircut as well.
  • Be respectful but unafraid. Clinton likes to have raw and real conversations—ones that can be a bit uncomfortable at times but that result in something special. Create a trust with your customers that allows you to have a deeper exchange.
  • Use reviews to construct the customer experience. Clinton loves reviews because he’s able to see himself through the lens of others. They help him determine how he can change the customer experience to satisfy future patrons. If someone complains about pricing, it may not necessarily be that it’s too expensive, but rather they’re looking for more value. What can you add to your business to show the worth of your product and its price?

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Clinton and Diane, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Soundcloud


Behind the Review, episode 13 transcript
The business of creating a cultural exchange

DIANE: After about seven months of not having a hair cut during the pandemic, I was looking for a new hairstylist because my stylist was pregnant and decided not to go back to work, understandably. So I made some inquiries on NextDoor, which is a social media site and got lots of suggestions.

I’d walked by Magnum Opus several times, and I knew it was a relatively new business. I thought it’d be great to support a new business, and they had gotten good reviews, both on NextDoor and Yelp. And so I decided to make an appointment and give it a go. 

EMILY: That’s Diane. She’s telling me about how she came to visit Magnum Opus Hair Salon as a new client—in the middle of a pandemic. She began her search on NextDoor because she enjoys the asynchronous engagement and question-response style of the platform. Then she checked the Yelp Page to verify the salon’s reputation before giving it a go. After a great appointment, she decided to share her own experience on Yelp, which is what brought us here today. Let’s hear her review.

DIANE: Great service, great vibe, and great haircut. This was my first haircut in many, many months, and I decided to go to Magnum Opus based on a NextDoor recommendation. Clinton did an excellent job with my stick-straight hair. His very cool and dramatic artwork is all over the walls, which added to the experience.

EMILY: You might be surprised to hear that Diane was actually first offended by some of the art, particularly a painting directly in front of Clinton’s chair.

DIANE: He had artwork all over the place, but the two pieces of art that were sitting right in front of his chair were of the backsides of women and with very voluptuous bottoms, and they had their hands behind their backs with guns in their hands, and, you know, it was a little off putting to see the combination of women and guns and especially in a hair salon, which I’m sure 90% of the customers are women. And so I just asked him, I said, what’s with the guns, you know, because he was celebrating a beautiful woman, and I wanted to know what the thought was, and his explanation made sense to me.

I’m still not sure I loved the art, but it was his expression of empowering women and that the shooting was more about shooting somebody up with enthusiasm and excitement. And I can’t explain it as well as Clinton did, but it was an interesting conversation, you know, and I respect him as an artist, and he didn’t seem insulted when I asked him about it. I didn’t know what to say, but I had to ask, cause I just was like, I’m looking at somebody’s rear with guns. This was very strange, but he’s a good artist. And some of his other works in there, I wish I had room in my house cause I would actually buy some. 

CLINTON: So for me, I relish those moments because real art offends. It rubs. It catches your attention. It’s provocative. It makes you think. And ironically, that particular piece is probably my number one seller. And I sell it mostly to women by the way. But one of the reasons why I think people gravitate to it so much is because it is provocative. I think that that’s kind of almost the duty of art is to create a conversation and to create the opportunity for us to look at issues that she even brought up—Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, in terms of, like where women are placed.

And one of the things that I celebrate is feminine energy—in my art. I think it’s part of being a hairstylist for so long, hearing so many women’s stories and understanding how powerful women are, but watching culture, society, and even these powerful beings, dim their light so others can shine. Me wanting to express even the power in that sometimes. But just celebrating this awesome power. 

EMILY: Hearing Clinton explain his art and the exchange he had with Diane was so enlightening to me. Clinton knows who he is as a stylist, as an artist, and as a business owner. He has actively selected the location of Magnum Opus to serve a particular demographic and clientele. And he’s not only prepared but enthusiastic about talking about these things while working with a client. He calls it the cultural exchange, and he considers it his competitive advantage.

CLINTON:  So part of what I think our competitive difference is, is the cultural exchange. I’ve learned to make that, and I have been gifted and/or cursed with the inability to make small talk about nothing. I just have no idea how people have so much conversation about absolutely nothing. So my conversation is very substantive, and part of the way I design, part of what we style, is a thing that we call Vision Crafting. So I take in a lot of context clues. I look at a person, I look at what they’re wearing, how much jewelry they have on, whether they have a face of makeup on, or just lip, or just a simple lip gloss, all of these things that directed my decisions.

I hear how they talk, the way they hold their body. All of these things are giving me signals to understand who I think that person is so that I can style for them. And another thing I try to do is allow them to get to know me so that we can create a connection because I understand that that connection takes away their anxiety. It makes them more comfortable in the space, and we can have a more honest exchange. That leads us down a road of actually talking about real things. And in a place like D.C., where people are highly educated, the conversations are incredible. Nothing’s off the table. We talk about politics, which I know some people don’t want to talk about, but one of the things that I do differently I think than most is in my world, there’s not a right or wrong. It’s always about understanding how people come up with their ideas. Why do you think the way you do? Why you believe the way you do? And I share that about myself in a very honest way. And most people, they leave here with a fantastic haircut but also a strong connection to the community. What I’m describing is a lot of normal behavior down South and Southern hospitality.

But the hospitality is not big here. So it’s becoming a competitive advantage for us, but that honest exchange about information, is part of the experience. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why she’s going to come back and because she describes her stick-straight hair that she feels like is, in her own words, somewhat impossible.

But what else is she coming back for? She’s going to come back for me and her. We had a fantastic time, you know? And when she left here, I hate that it was COVID, cause I just wanted to hug her. It was that kind of a moment. And that’s really what I’m interested in creating. Being part of the community is really my goal.

EMILY: That sense of community Clinton wants to create is so important, and it’s also something Diane strives for when she decides where to spend her dollars and how she engages with the immediate neighborhood of businesses she lives in. We’ll get back to that, but first let’s talk about COVID. I can say after interviewing Diane that she definitely felt the same after her experience with Clinton. She would have loved a hug, and she told me she can’t wait to go back. But safety was definitely a factor.

DIANE: I had just gotten to the end of my rope. It was before the latest surge. And so we’d been practicing all the measures for COVID safety. So I felt a little more safe than I did early on and than I do now, actually. He had on his website that they were all set up for COVID safety. And I told myself, if they’re not, if I don’t feel safe, I’ll walk out. And I walked in and hand sanitizer, everybody was wearing masks, stations were set far apart, and Clinton wore a mask. I think he did a good job. He’s going to get a phone call from me soon for another haircut now that I’m vaccinated. 

EMILY: Diane checked the website for Magnum Opus and saw it clearly stated what their COVID measures would be, and more importantly, she decided she would simply walk out if she arrived for her appointment and didn’t feel safe. I want to highlight this because I have heard some businesses talk about not wanting to be so obvious in front of their customers that they’re overly sanitizing and taking safety precautions, when in fact consumers like to see those efforts! If you operate a restaurant, for example, and have outdoor dining or limited capacity with spaced seating indoors, you should be clearly sanitizing the highly trafficked areas, as well as menus, etc. where your customers can see you. This creates a level of safety that is felt and not spoken. As Diane mentioned, the simple placement of hand sanitizer at the entrance of a brick and mortar is a great signal as well for the standards of your business and as a sign of safety and respect for your customers. I talked to Clinton about this and asked him to share with me the impacts of the pandemic in general.

CLINTON: So COVID came in like a thief in the night, if you will. One day it was just here and in our area, they put us on quarantine, so they shut our business down for two months. And this is a highly affluent area, meaning they watch the news, and they like to try to follow the guidelines. They wear a mask, they do all of the things. They socially distance, everything that they are telling us to do. So immediately I wanted to know what the guidelines were. And not just so that I can reach them, but I wanted to figure out how I could actually go above because I knew that it was going to be necessary to make sure that the guests knew that we were doing everything that we could to keep them safe and ourselves safe.

So the way our salon is laid out is really convenient for what happened because it’s a really open space. It’s like an art studio. So it’s really open and airy. The chairs are pretty far apart from each other already. We just eliminated the middle chairs, used the ones on the ends, and just kind of rotated. And once we sit somebody in one chair, we clean it up and we won’t use that chair for a whole cycle. And things of that nature were really easy to do. And then we did the hand sanitizer. We wear masks. Constantly spraying the place down. We’ll leave the door open pretty much all the time, keeping the air flow going, having air cleaners in the actual building and just doing everything we can. And we’ve been successful in terms of not catching COVID ourselves, which I feel like means we’re not spreading COVID as well. So it’s been really fun to take on that challenge and to figure out how to keep people safe, keep ourselves safe, and do as much business as we can.

EMILY: Every time I do these interviews I’m blown away and inspired by the positivity and pivots these entrepreneurs have made in the last year. Somehow, Clinton ended that response by saying that it’s been FUN to take on the challenge of COVID and figure out how to keep his clients and staff safe. And that’s just Clinton’s attitude! For a little context and background, Clinton worked for a large-scale salon company called Red Door for eight years before he opened Magnum Opus. There were many things he didn’t agree with about the corporate salon culture, but a lot of it was wanting to create a space that provided opportunity and the freedom of expression to him and his other stylists. He also cares about being a part of his community. 

CLINTON: Again, I’m from the South. So I think that I’m just being my natural self, but there’s nowhere I can go on the street where I don’t know every single person. I’ve really gotten to the point where if I walk in the door they’re like, ‘“Hey Clint, how you doing?” So being a part of the community is very important to me. This community was really interesting though because I’m one of the younger businesses in this area. A lot of things have been here for a long time. So it wasn’t like this big, “Hey Clint, you’re here, you know, glad to have you.” The community had to kind of warm up to me, and I had to warm up to it. And part of it was patronizing the other businesses, and [doing it] genuinely. I think that I’m genuinely concerned with people and trying to figure out how I can help. So I think I lead with that first and I think that I really helped out a lot. A lot of the small businesses here, the owner is in the business, which makes this area so cool. It is a really interesting place to live, and to be a part of, you get the opportunity to meet these people and get to know them. So I feel as though I have a really good relationship with all my neighbors and everybody around me. Even the ones that are kind of gruff—they just have more of an East Coast mentality, kind of short and to the point—we kind of have the, “Hey, how are you doing?” They know who I am, and I know who they are. But the people who are warm, man, I go and visit with them. When I don’t got people, I go and visit with them all the time, but I definitely have made myself a part of this community.

EMILY: Clinton is integrated into his neighborhood, but it took a lot of effort on his end. I can totally imagine him going up and down the main drag popping into other retailers and saying hi, but what I love is that he mentioned patronizing them. When he came to the area, his way of introduction was, in many instances, making purchases at the other businesses nearby. That time and effort has paid off tenfold, especially in a time like the global pandemic. 

The sense of community is something important to Diane as well.

DIANE: I’ve always loved small local shops, but when I moved to Arlington from the suburbs of Maryland, there are tons of small local shops within a mile of my house, and it made it so much easier and so much more obvious that they were your neighbors, and you get to know them and things like that.

So we moved to Arlington about nine years ago. We walk everywhere, one-car family.  And we love getting to know the restaurant owners, the business owners, you know, the little boutiques and everything like that. It just makes you feel like part of a neighborhood. 

EMILY: Supporting local is also a part of what motivates Diane to review. 

DIANE: So I like to read the reviews, and I like when there’s lots of reviews because somebody can have one bad experience with a good organization and really skew the ratings. And I usually write a review when I’m either really happy or really disappointed. I don’t write reviews everywhere I go, but when I feel strongly, one way or the other, I like to write a review. I especially like to write reviews for local, small businesses that need support and rely on Yelp reviews cause they don’t have huge advertising budgets. 

EMILY: I also think it’s worth mentioning that in the case of Diane’s review and experience at Magnum Opus, another motivating factor in her review was the negative review of another customer.

CLINTON: And I understand why she wrote the review. You want to know why she wrote the review? She saw the review of the woman who did not like my artwork. And she had such a great experience with me that she wanted to make sure that she shined a much better light on something that she may not even have a hundred percent agree with or understood.

Which is the cultural exchange. It was like I completed my mission. I’m gonna just say that. But that was a mission complete with that. 

EMILY: Clinton has an interesting perspective on reviews. In his years with that corporate salon, he identified certain things beyond the cut or the customer exchange that would make their way into the reviews. The way a client felt in the space. What the bathroom was like. These details impact the experience and takeaways. But also, reviews are insights to a paying customer’s perspective.

CLINTON: Personally, I love the reviews, and I love the opportunity to see myself through other people’s lenses because I think one of the hardest things for us to do is critique and judge ourselves, honestly. So whether I agree with the reviewer or not, I really put myself in a place where I want to listen to what they’re saying, and I want to hear what they’re saying.

And for me, it’s very important because I grow that way, and I understand that the experience that I’m trying to create, I want to enjoy it, but to be honest with you, it’s more important for the guests and the customer, the person who’s spending their money, to have the experience that they’re looking for.

So I feel like the reviews really point me in that direction quite often, and not just when somebody is critiquing me in a bad way, but also in a good way. I really listen. Like I said, one of my pillars is community, and I listen to hear. If I’m hearing them talk about, wow, I really feel a part of something, this was great; this is exactly what the neighborhood needed. I really look for those cues to see if I’m actually doing that correctly. 

And if not, it sends me back to the drawing board on how I want to construct the experience. I listened to things about pricing. For instance, if somebody felt like it was expensive. A lot of times when they talk about things being expensive is in this area, it has nothing to do with money. It has to do with value. It has to do with—do we have the right refreshments? Does the bathroom smell fresh when they go in? Things like that are how I’ve learned how to dissect and utilize those reviews to actually perfect my offering and make it better. 

EMILY: To close out, I asked Clinton if there was anything he wanted to share from his experiences and perspective as a Black business owner. 

CLINTON: I would like to address this in a way that I feel like can help people of color who may want to do what I do or be an owner or whatever.

I was very fortunate to grow up with my father and me. And my father, like most kids who grow with their father, is probably my biggest inspiration and probably my biggest hero. And to understand what I’m about to tell you, I have to tell you this part about him. The year that he graduated high school was the first year they integrated high schools in that area. So my father is a Jim Crow baby. He grew up in a segregated South that was never integrated. He basically spent his whole childhood in the segregated South.

He went on to join the military. He’s got a postgraduate degree. He’s owned several businesses and has done any and everything that he probably has ever wanted to do in life. So being his child, it was really interesting. We didn’t talk about race a lot at home. And I remember when I realized that I was Black, and it was not at home that I learned it. I learned it from an encounter that happened in my community. And I went home and I’m kind of almost upset that like, yo, you didn’t tell me that it was going to be like this, you know? 

And as I got older, my dad kept pushing forward these values that ended up sticking with me that I think were more important than my skin color and the value was to always strive to be the best. And what does that mean? When you’re striving to be the best… I grew up in the Michael Jordan era. Michael Jordan would take 200 jump shots after practice, you know, you work harder than everybody else. And then you hear some of the mantras of people of color, “You gotta work twice as hard to get just as far.” Wel, you can work twice as hard to get just as far if you’re a woman, if you’re a minority, if you want to. But I work twice as hard because I want to be the best. 

And I think that your hard work is undeniable. You cannot fake hard work, and you cannot deny hard work. You can delay it, but you can’t deny it. It will come to fruition. So I tell anybody, period, but more importantly, people of color, to try to be the best. One of the reasons why we do so well with our advertisements on Yelp is not because we’re simply there, but we really are the best at hair color and balayage. And guess what, you’re not going to be better than us for long because I’m going to find out who you are, I’m going to find out what you’re doing, and I’m going to find out how to do it better. 

And that is my advice to anybody really, but especially anybody who feels marginalized, anybody who feels like they don’t have a shot—don’t do twice… stop. Don’t try to do just as much. Try to be the best at whatever you want to do. Find your passion, and work in that. And I don’t know how you stop that.

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