Handling customer complaints

Posted by on December 31, 2004 in Articles

Handling customer complaints

By Vivienne O’Keeffe, A.A.D., P.E.A., C.I.B.T.A.C.

Published in Spa Management magazine in 2004

From wide experience in customer service, I am convinced that it is a misconception to perceive customer complaints as a bad thing. It is admirable and important to aim for a business that receives no complaints at all, but this is an unrealistic goal – there will inevitably be shortcomings and breakdowns in your customer service, of one form or another which will result in your business not meeting customer expectations. The key to reducing customer complaints is to firstly realise that there are two elements that result in the number of complaints that you get. Firstly, running a spa is a complex operation, and the more sophisticated the operation the more room there is for error and things to go wrong. Moreover, customer’s perception of your response to complaints will directly affect the number of complaints you receive. You will cease to receive complaints once the word gets out that consumer concerns fall on deaf ears – or worse, that registering a complaint with your business results in “getting a hard time”. Regrettably perhaps, many companies do not need lessons in how to handle complaints badly – committing commercial suicide they show a lack of trust in their customers by making it difficult for them to complain freely, and make the customer feel that they are in the wrong by handling the complaint with a begrudging attitude. More often than not this “sweep it under the carpet” tactic, with respect to consumer demand for fair treatment, results in those establishments instantly losing customer loyalty, and business, to their relevant competition. There is no other end result – there are spas mushrooming up all over the country, and until such time as equilibrium develops within the industry with regard to Standards and Practices, it will be a case of survival of the fittest, with those spas that retain their customer base coming out on top.

Companies who measure their service performance by the number of complaints they don’t receive may not necessarily be addressing the number of customer problems that they actually have. If you reduce the number of complaints without reducing the number of problems, then effectively what you are doing is reducing the number of your customers. Addressing a customer complaint well can actually result in your business deepening the intangible relationship that exists between you – resulting in stronger, more loyal ties to your business, and as mentioned previously, this will become more and more important as the spa industry grows. Regard customer complaints as an invaluable early warning system – a safety valve to your operation, indicating that there are problems within the service delivery side of your business. Remember that the complaints you receive will be only a fraction of the true number. The vast majority of complaints will not be to you – but will consist of those people who have a problem with your facility talking about it to other potential clients. We all know the priceless value of word of mouth publicity, but today’s savvy spa goer needs to hear very little negativity about a particular spa operation to be turned off for good  – there is simply so much competition in the marketplace with other businesses perhaps more ready to entertain a concern or complaint and establish a relationship with the customer. With this in mind, there should be in your spa a “standard operating procedure” for ensuring client satisfaction. Instigate a complaints procedure, the fundamental goal of which will be to ensure that this particular complaint can be avoided in the future. Satisfying a customer, and resolving a complaints issue will almost certainly, 9 times out of 10, ensure their repeat business. The customer may not always be right, but they will never forgive you or your business, if you tell them that they are wrong.

Here then are some tools for handling customers who have something to complain about – swallow your pride and without accepting liability or responsibility, express regret that they are upset. Believe the customer – they are, after all, “always right”. If they are returning product, which they more than likely bought at your spa, don’t challenge them on the issue. Similarly don’t blame the product manufacturer / distributor or pass the buck. You are after all responsible for what you sell, and the product quality is a separate issue entirely – between you and the manufacturer. The vast majority of customers will have a (to them at least) legitimate reason for coming to you. Only a tiny proportion of customers will try to dishonestly take advantage of your complaints procedure, and it is possible to build in safeguards against this, without creating an uncomfortable confrontational atmosphere around returns or complaints. Ensure the customer only has to complain once, to one person. This should always be enough – don’t rub salt in the wound by trying their patience. If they have to repeat themselves to several different people in the space of a few minutes, their complaint is likely to intensify. It also doesn’t help settle the complaint quickly – which is important. Your complaint handling procedures should be cut and dry – efficiently handling and resolving the complaint to the satisfaction of the customer. Of course some circumstances will not allow this to happen, but always let the customer know that you will personally resolve the matter, and how sorry you are for their trouble – before they leave the spa. Be positive and thank the customer for bringing the matter to your attention – you should after all be grateful that they came to you first.

Keep a record of all complaints for future reference in a complaints log, essential for thoroughness. Make it clear to your staff that the complaints procedure is not there to criticise them – but is an important, if not vital, service opportunity to retain and expand customer relations.


Vivienne O’Keeffe, A.A.D., P.E.A., C.I.B.T.A.C., President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc., has earned an international reputation as an expert in designing successful spa concepts. She specializes in working with owners to create profitable spas. As an international consultant she is highly skilled in developing unique product and treatment lines, as well as training programs. Vivienne has studied and trained extensively in the beauty and well-being arena and is a member of ISPA, Leading Spas of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Industry Service Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012) and the Institute of Management Consultants USA (IMC USA). She is also a published author, having written a wide range of articles on developing and running a successful spa. Spa Profits Consulting Inc. is the only SpaExcellence certified consultancy in North America, and is committed to setting the standard for quality, successful spas on a global level. For more information call 604.921.6245 or email


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