My very first salon experience was when I was 12. I found this black hair salon through the yellow pages. I wanted my hair relaxed by a “professional”, as I told my mom. She acquiesced, booking me the appointment and dropping me off after school.

The stylist seemed annoyed at how kinky my hair was. I’d gotten perms before, but I guess my roots were particularly thick because I’d left them undone for more than the allotted 8 weeks. She was either clueless or defiant about how to gently care for afro‐textured roots, choosing to comb through them as though she were taming a wild animal. Despite her murmuring in inaudible Spanish, I stuck to that chair and didn’t move until it was done. My hair was relaxed and blown dry to a deathly perfection that incurred breakage in the weeks to come.

I learned my lesson that time. One should put some forethought into picking a stylist because it’s certainly in your and their best interest. Since becoming an adult, I’ve scored fabulous stylists every time, in every place I’ve lived who have done great jobs with my hair. Here are a few helpful tips to choosing and keeping a good stylist. (We’re using the pronoun ‘she’, but obviously there are male natural hair stylists and the rules apply to them too.)

1. Choose a specialist.

There are few stylists who are truly good at everything. While the work of a wash and set can usually be done by anyone, more intricate styles that need extra skills will require someone who specializes in them. That doesn’t mean you can’t chose a stylist who’s never done a particular style before. But you want to make sure that they have history of doing similar looks for others before you book with them. When I approached my Michigan stylist about creating faux locs for me, she had never actually done the style before, but she had an excellent braids and twist record, and knew that her expertise in that area would carry over. It worked out pretty well!

2. See her work.

So, this is pretty self explanatory. Any work you can see will give you a sense of the stylist’s particular touch. If you don’t like the way her clients’ hair looks, than chances are you won’t like it on you either.

3. Get her on the phone or go see her for a short consultation.

You can’t really get a sense of someone’s vibe until you see them in person or speak with them on the phone. And sometimes you just have to voice what you want so you can be understood. Vibes don’t make a good hairstyle, but they make a good experience. If someone’s going to be in your hair for a few hours, it’s nice to know in advance that they’ll vibe with you.

4. Hear from her clients.

Message your stylists clients, or better yet, look for referrals. The stylists your friends rave about will usually be who you’ll rave about also. I’ve had people message me on Yelp to get more insight into reviews I left, good and bad, for various stylists and salons. It’s a good practice!

5. Respectfully ask the tough questions.

And see how they respond. This goes hand in hand with no. 3. Most naturals come away from stylists with subpar experiences because of rough combing, excessive trimming, too‐tight braiding or crazy heat. You need to know how stylists address these issues. And even if they don’t answer to your liking, you need to get a sense of whether they are gracious, understanding and will listen. I have a sensitive hairline and have discussed looser braiding with a stylist who acquiesced. For another, I asked her to cut down her blowdrying time so I could avoid heat damage. You’ve got to speak up because gentle haircare practices aren’t exactly commonplace in black salons.

6. Ask about the products she uses.

This is for the product junkies/ingredient checkers out there. If she is using a salon line that has never agreed with your hair, then you know to go ahead and skip the whole experience. Some stylists are open to washing and conditioning your hair with products you bring from home, although most will want to use their own styling products and tools.

Praise them and always tip.

When they do excellent work, don’t hold your tongue or your wallet, show some love! Also be sure to tell others. Your stylist will not only love you for this, but you might get some added perks, like being able to get booked at the last minute, get sample products, etc.

Ladies, what are your tips for choosing and keeping a great stylist?