12 strategies for handling difficult spa customers

Once in a while you’re going to encounter an unhappy and/or difficult spa customer. Hopefully not too often, but it happens. Spas build their brands on promises of “pampering” and “luxury,” which sets expectations high, sometimes unrealistically so. And sometimes people are unimpressed with even the most painstaking of efforts.

A guest may become angry and make an issue or a scene because of a legitimate complaint, or a completely erroneous one. Whichever you’re dealing with, here are 12 strategies for handling the situation.

Stay calm. If the guest is mad, stay calm. Angry people are often diffused when countered with calm. True, sometimes staying calm makes someone even more angry. But you still want to come out looking good in the end, and keeping calm will help you do that. You will gain nothing by losing your cool. Anger is undignified, and he who gets mad first loses.

Take it out of sight. Do your best not to allow the customer to cause a scene in front of other guest and disturb the peace and calm of your spa environment. If you have an office, a treatment room, or an otherwise private space you can take them to for your discussion, do so.

Listen. Invite the guest to air their grievance and let them tell you all about it without interrupting. Sometimes, when people are being difficult it’s because they feel invisible and as though they don’t matter. All they really want is to be listened to and acknowledged, and making a scene is the only way they know how to take up space in the world and say “I’m here. Notice me,” because they never learned how to do it in a more productive way. Let them finish speaking. Don’t argue, get defensive, or spend the entire time they’re talking figuring out how you’re going to respond..

Use active listening. Active listening is a practice through which you make “a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated.” What is the customer really angry about? Was the massage subpar or were they made to feel devalued when they wanted to feel important? Repeat phrases back to them to show that you’re taking them seriously – “So, what you’re saying is that….” You can learn more about active listening at Mind Tools.

Protect yourself and your team. Make it clear that you won’t tolerate abusive language or behaviour towards either you or, if you’re a manager, your team. If the guest behaves in an unacceptable manner, you might have to just ask them to leave. You can’t allow anyone to abuse you or your staff. And don’t throw your team member under the bus. There are too many stories out there of spa managers siding with customers over their team members. Know that if you do this your team member will never forget it. As a leader it is your job to treat your staff with respect and to have their backs, and to be diplomatic during conflict.

Get the story from the service provider. If the complaint concerns a therapist or service provider get that person’s version of the story. Take them away to a separate area and do this privately, rather  than in front of the customer. The last thing you want is an argument over contrasting versions of events.

Apologize. Even if you don’t think you have anything to be sorry for, tell the guest that you are sorry they are unhappy with their experience. Do it sincerely and with enthusiasm. A heartfelt apology can disarm an angry person who is raring for a fight – because now what are they supposed to yell about? Famous friend maker Dale Carnegie tells a story in his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People about disarming, with a profuse apology, a police officer who was about to give him a fine for an off-leash dog. In this case Carnegie was inarguably in the wrong, but it still proves this point. The officer immediately started backpedalling and reassuring Carnegie that his offense wasn’t actually so bad. Carnegie writes: “That policeman, being human, wanted a feeling of importance; so when I began to condemn myself, the only way he could nourish his self-esteem was to take the magnanimous attitude of showing mercy.” This doesn’t mean you have to admit to wrongdoing where there is none. But you are sorry they are unhappy, aren’t you?

Try to resolve the situation. Ask the guest how they would like to see the situation resolved. Is their suggestion reasonable? If not, attempt to come up with your own solution. Perhaps it’s a complimentary treatment or a discount next time. Remember that even if the guest is in the wrong, they can still go online and give you a terrible review and bring your average rating down. And while bad reviews aren’t the worst thing that can happen, you do want to avoid them if possible. There may be no way to resolve the issue. But try. If it’s not fixable on the spot, tell the guest you will follow up with them at a later time.

Follow up later. If you can’t resolve the situation on the spot, send the guest home and follow up with them later. Reiterate your apology and suggest the solution that you have come up with.  Don’t leave the guest hanging forever. Ghosting the guest might make them angry and turn them into an enemy.

Cut them loose if you must. The above suggestions are to be used with one-time or occasionally difficult or angry guests, not repeat offenders. You should not keep offering apologies and free massages to someone who is really just impossible. At some point you may have to say enough is enough and tell the client that you think they would be happier elsewhere. It’s not fair to your team to force them to continue to tolerate someone who is angry and offensive.

Learn from the experience. Does the complaint have merit? Just because someone is behaving badly doesn’t mean they don’t have a legitimate grievance. How could this situation have been avoided and what can be done to prevent it happening again in future?

Keep notes. Make a note about this guest’s behaviour so that when they return, your staff can be prepared and know what to expect. Or, if you choose to ban the customer from your spa, make a note as to why. Your spa management software should have a note taking function to allow you to do this and to distribute this information to all your staff and across multiple properties.

Hopefully you can turn the angry guest into a friend. If not, you’ll know you did your best.

Spa Executive magazine is published by Book4Time, the world’s most innovative spa, salon, wellness, and activity management software. Learn more at Book4Time.com