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Lice Squad Canada Inc. founder and president Dawn Mucci checks her daughter, Diana's, hair. (TAMMY ANN CHAPMAN/TA PHOTOGRAPHY)
Lice Squad Canada Inc. founder and president Dawn Mucci checks her daughter, Diana's, hair. (TAMMY ANN CHAPMAN/TA PHOTOGRAPHY)


Small businesses that face lousy challenges Add to ...

When Dawn Mucci moved to a new head office, she hung a sign bearing her company’s name above the storefront – and instantly inspired horror among many area residents.

“How dare you put a sign like that up in this town,” said one aghast resident.

There was nothing wrong with the sign per se. But Ms. Mucci’s business, Innisfil, Ont.-based Lice Squad Canada Inc., does cause some to get a little squeamish.

And that’s something she’s had to take steps to overcome since the founder and president of the professional head lice-removal business first opened a decade ago.

Ms. Mucci and her nine franchisees operate in 18 territories in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, offering lice checks and removals at homes, schools, daycares and camps, as well as information seminars and products such as lice combs and special shampoos.

Now, she’s aiming to expand the business with bricks-and-mortar clinics, which will act as franchise hubs, provide training, help boost product sales and complement home visits. Her headquarters will eventually double as one.

She’ll have to keep battling the stigmas associated with her kind of business – which have often presented their own challenges.

One franchisee, for instance, was turned down by four landlords before finding one that was cool with her nitpicking. Ms. Mucci herself took months before she found a willing landlord for her current head-office space.

She’s not alone. Many small and medium-sized businesses offering products and services that might generate embarrassment, squeamishness or a penchant for privacy face their own sets of obstacles.

While attitudes are increasingly open about health conditions and lifestyle choices, many are still very guarded about needing bladder-control products, requiring the services of a criminal lawyer, buying sex toys or coping with critters – and have to be treated with discretion.

Any thoughtless moves or words can damage word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals – the most valuable form of marketing for these kinds of businesses.

“Advertising for small business is hard anyways. For these types of companies, it’s even more of a challenge,” says Dan Kelly, senior vice-president of legislative affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Word of mouth has been pivotal to Lice Squad’s growth. And that’s one reason Ms. Mucci says she has put a strong focus on customer service.

Since it takes a good 20 minutes to comb out lice, Ms. Mucci and her staff use the time to educate families and dispel myths, such as that lice prefer dirty hair – they actually prefer it clean.

“You make them feel good and accepted and not ostracized, they’re likely to become a fan and they’re going to share that,” she says of customers, hoping that will help spread word about her company among neighbours, friends and other potential referrals.

When Ms. Mucci first began to grow her franchised operation, she hired a consultant to develop a seven-step marketing plan involving local advertising and face-to-face networking. She put up a web site and created humorous ad copy that feature four cartoon “Super Lice Ladies,” numerous lice puns and myth-busting information.

She also relies on tried-and-true marketing methods: Know where your customers are, and be there. People looking for private services often hit the Yellow Pages or Internet, so putting out ads and optimizing her site and people's ability to find it helps generate the right exposure and reach target customers.

More lately, Ms. Mucci has jumped on the social media bandwagon with Twitter, Facebook and blogging.

Still, she has to be careful. Unlike other companies that may plaster their logos all over their vehicles, Ms. Mucci’s staff drive around in cars with Lice Squad magnetic decals on them. They’re always peeled off and tossed in the back seat when the delouser makes a home visit.

And when she opened five storefront clinics in Ontario earlier this year, she opted for the more discreet name LS Clinic. It's a moniker so vague that people who visit a restaurant near her head office location often ask wait staff what it is — even though Ms. Mucci did local press and a national public relations push when the clinics opened.

In her business, as in many others that are dealing in things that people would rather keep guarded about, both flawless service and a meticulous approach to protecting privacy are paramount.

“All businesses need to take privacy very seriously, but at these sorts of businesses, one slip-up can lead to serious consequences,” Mr. Kelly says, including stopping positive word-of-mouth in its tracks.

To avoid minor and large-scale public relations disasters, “it comes down to understanding the needs of your customers and having good processes and procedures in place” to protect privacy, says Susan Low, owner of Directis Consulting, a small-business consulting firm based in Victoria, who has worked with mental health organizations whose clients have confidentiality concerns.

If a new challenge over privacy or customer service comes up that’s not in your manual, Ms. Low says you have to rely on well-trained staff who share your company’s values.

Promoting your company to prospective staff is a challenge, too. “It’s hard to find someone who wants to pick head lice,” Ms. Mucci admits.

She herself stumbled into it after answering a job want ad, and ended up taking over the company. She seeks out people with health-care experience who barely notice the “ick “factor.

Still, there are benefits to offering a squeamish service – fewer competitors, for one.

And when clients do find you, they’re extremely grateful for the help. While picking nits is tedious at times, Ms. Mucci says she and her team love it.

“I enjoy seeing my clients happy after they’ve been sad. There’s something in that that’s worth a lot more than money.”

Stigma busters

If you’re in a business that may generate embarrassment, squeamishness or privacy concerns, here are some tips from the experts:

  • Be truly passionate about helping people cope with whatever problem your product or service aids.
  • Be prepared to talk about a touchy subject to your clients.
  • Understand that while you may be comfortable dealing with stigmatized subject matter, and advocate for more openness, clients may still be worried about privacy.
  • Expect to deal with tears or other displays of emotions from clients.
  • Be ready to constantly educate in person and through your website.
  • Protect privacy and have your privacy protocols tested regularly.
  • Market directly to target clients where they hang out.

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