Customer complaints: curse or blessing?

Posted by on May 31, 2013 in Articles

Customer complaints: curse or blessing?

Depending on how you handle them, your business can dive or thrive.

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

Published in Spa Canada magazine’s Jan 2013 issue.

When it was launched in March 1999, The Cluetrain Manifesto correctly trumpeted the end of business as usual and the dawn of a new age of consumer power engendered by the internet. Rather than listening to ads or corporate spin, said authors Weinberger, Levine, Locke and Searls, consumers could now readily converse with each other about any topic they chose, from product quality to service, cost – or a bad experience.

From my many years in customer service, I am convinced that today’s unprecedented vulnerability of your spa business to negative customer reactions is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the storied judo master who turns the superior strength of his opponent into a tactical advantage, you can transform a complaint or misperception about your business into a tool to help you recover from that conflict and prevent similar ones.

How you and your team manage conflict and negative feedback is a key determinant of your sustained success. Of course, there may be businesses that receive no complaints at all, but is it realistic to strive to become one? I think not – not as long as there are humans and technology with their attendant shortcomings and breakdowns, and consequent customer expectations that won’t be met.

The key is to reduce customer complaints and to deal properly with the complaints you do receive. Remember, running a spa is a complex operation, and the more sophisticated the operation, the greater the room for error. It’s also important to note that your response to complaints will govern how many you receive. Failing to resolve them at all, ironically, may result in no complaints – or feedback – once word gets out that customer gripes are falling on deaf ears. And no communication at all is worse than negative communication.

Start by developing an attitude of trust. Handling a complaint with a begrudging attitude and the desire to make the customer feel wrong is a slow road to suicide. Your customers should feel free to express concerns in an environment of mutual respect, knowing they will be listened to.

Why not regard customer complaints as a valuable early warning system – a safety valve indicating problems with your service delivery? Remember, the complaints you receive will be only a fraction of the true number. The vast majority of complaints will be from disgruntled customers to other current or potential customers. You’ll have no shortage of competitors eager to entertain a concern you ignore and start a new customer relationship. It doesn’t take much for today’s savvy spagoer to be turned off for good.

With new facilities mushrooming all over the country, the spa business is far from mature. Survival of the fittest rules, and the spas that retain and build on their customer bases will come out on top.

Properly addressing a customer complaint can result in your business deepening the intangible relationship that exists between the two sides – resulting in stronger, more loyal ties to your business.

My suggestion? Create a protocol for handling complaints, with the goal of eliminating their causes. Nine times out of 10, satisfying a customer by resolving her complaint will ensure her repeat business. Remember, it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong! If you make them wrong, they will never forgive you.

With that, here are some tools for handling customer complaints.

1) Swallow your pride! Without accepting liability or responsibility, express regret that they are upset.

2) Believe the customer! True to the cliche, they are, in fact, always right. If they’re returning a product purchased at your spa, don’t challenge them. And don’t pass the buck by blaming the manufacturer or distributor. You are responsible for what you sell, and product quality is a separate issue between you and the manufacturer. The vast majority of customers will have (to them at least) a legitimate reason for coming to you. Only a tiny number will try to take advantage of your complaints procedure. And it is possible to build in safeguards without creating a confrontational atmosphere.

3) Ensure customers only have to complain once, to one person. Don’t try their patience; your handling procedure should be cut and dry. Having to spout off to several people will only fuel their ire and delay the solution. Of course some complaints will take longer to address. But always let customers know how sorry you are for their trouble, and that you will personally resolve the matter – before they leave the spa.

4) Be positive and thank the customer for bringing the matter to your attention. And your expression should be genuine; you should be grateful they came to you first.

5) Log all complaints for future reference. Make it clear to your staff that doing so is not a reflection of staff inadequacy, but an important opportunity to nurture and expand customer relations while being on the lookout for trends and pitfalls in your operation.

Despite my belief that complaints can be good, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce them.

Listening to your customers – directly or through staff – will tell you more about your operations than any financial review. Concentrate on what it is you want to achieve with the business. Staff should be alerted to your desire to handle criticisms of treatment policy or mechanics in a positive, progressive way, and should not be shy about passing negative comments along. After all, if you don’t hear about a situation because your staff fears reprisal, you’ll hardly be able to fix it.

Exponential growth within the spa industry has created staff with a broad spectrum of qualifications, experience and treatment methodologies. Train all your staff well, from front desk to aestheticians, to meet client expectations. Your growth potential is proportionate to your attention to customer service.

Ever wonder why a client who left the spa after a seemingly pleasant experience phones or e-mails you three days later to complain? Reactions to disappointing experiences can often be mysteriously delayed. Open, assertive interpersonal communication with client and staff is key. And that doesn’t include formulaic niceties like “Was everything all right?” or “Did you enjoy your treatment today?” Questions phrased to elicit simplistic positive responses don’t help (apart from confirming what you are doing right). But digging a bit to discover little annoyances or mild dissatisfaction, then fixing them, can do wonders for customer loyalty.

To successfully walk the line and deliver a wellness or spa experience providing product satisfaction and genuine value, it is essential that management and therapist have a clear concept of your objectives. A transparent menu of the facility’s treatments to deliver these services is easily available to customers. Staff should have clearly defined guidelines to follow for in-treatment protocols. Practices which go beyond accepted decorum and propriety have no place in the system.

Clients have expectations developed through exposure to your communication and marketing tools, staff and your business – whether it’s their first or 41st visit to your spa. Don’t waste time and energy trying to exceed clients’ expectations when you’re not set up to do so. Far more realistic is to meet customers’ expectations and to do so consistently. Services should be consistently delivered, with little or no variation between aestheticians’ styles or techniques. To balance the energy it takes to bring people into your facility and cater to their requirements, you need congruent policies.

Companies that measure their performance by the number of complaints they don’t receive may be ignoring problems 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.

Ultimately it is your (leadership’s) responsibility to ensure that your staff know your policies and procedures for client handling and seeing themselves as part of the team. Invest vision and inspiration to instill a professional attitude, and you will be on your way to building the client base you’ve always dreamed of having in this wonderful industry of ours.


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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