Keys to Improving Your Customer Service
By Melinda Minton

A service-based industry is all about serving clients, and clients come in a variety of forms. Sometimes a client is a gift from the heavens, and other times a client can be a full-blown nightmare. Whether you work in a spa or are in private practice, you need to know how to tactfully handle customer service issues. How do you deal with angry clients? How about clients who refuse to pay? And how can massage therapists stay motivated when they have to deal with customer complaints? For the answers to these questions, and more, read on.

Patricia Holland, administrator of the Desert Institute of Healing Arts in Tucson, Arizona, tries to train workers who will satisfy clients and help make the health-and-beauty industry more professional.

"We teach our staff to handle complaints with professionalism," says Holland. "We try to give 100 percent customer satisfaction. Massage is such a personal thing. You are touching this person for 30 to 90 minutes with the intent of making them feel better. If the client complains after a massage, it is sometimes hard to take as a therapist."

While nasty client comments can sting, Holland teaches therapists not to take it personally and to get to the root of the problem.

"You never know how a person is going to respond to a massage," says Holland. "Memories stored in the body, old injuries, attitude and personal preference all play a role in how the client will respond to their massage. One of the biggest problems is clients complaining after their massage that they did not receive the massage they wanted. At that point they typically refuse to pay for the service."

The facility remedied this situation by offering a pre-massage questionnaire. The therapist and the client now have a pre-massage huddle about the client's expectations. "It is also a good time to ask about contraindications, past massage experiences and personal preferences. From a business viewpoint, this is also a good time to talk to the client about the benefits of receiving regular massage," says Holland.

Susan Leonard-Macinko, owner of Essentials Spa in Boulder, Colorado, says that they, too, have the occasional problem. Whether due to scheduling errors or other misunderstandings, complaints do happen.

Using essential oils in massage."We organize therapist roundtables to discuss the issues brought up by clients. These brainstorming sessions are powerful; we come up with some great solutions," says Leonard-Macinko.

After sharing their experiences in a recent roundtable, the staff discovered that a client was coming in at different times for a massage and refusing to pay. Because the client was coming in during various shifts, it took a roundtable to resolve the issue. By all of the therapists getting together to share their experiences, the client was found out.

Just as communication between therapists is important, so is communication between therapist and client.

"We have found that communication is an essential part of customer service. Before, during and after a service, it is crucial to check in with the client to see how they are feeling," says Leonard-Macinko.

When problems do occur, the management staff at Essentials listens to both sides and tries to resolve the problem. Offering another massage is the most common way that the staff resolves complaints. Other spa owners have offered various solutions, such as giving a small gift, discounting the next visit or offering a refund.

Sometimes customer mishaps can be downright funny. Barb Valentine, spa manager at Sanderling Resort Spa in Duck, North Carolina, laughs as she describes one of her spa's few client complaints. "The massage therapist was doing an aromatherapy massage. Essential oil-laced mist was to fill the room with a particular essence. The therapist didn't know how to work the sprayer," says Valentine. The client apparently ended up soaked and cold, and the room was rather wet at the conclusion of the service. "Needless to say, that fiasco generated a complaint," says Valentine.

"We have a therapist from China who is a darling, petite female," Valentine continues. "She is a wonderful therapist, and she is incredible at deep-muscle work. We have, however, occasionally had a client call after the massage and claim to be bruised from her work. The therapist was spoken to, and now she verbally reviews [her massage style] up front with the client so that they won't complain after the fact.

Customer complaints are a common element at most spas, and the combination of angry clients with the fast pace of a busy spa can be trying for massage therapists. At the Atrium Center for Body Therapies in Ashland, Oregon, massage therapist Lynda Forderer has seen her share of uptight, stressed-out clients. "They come in, and they are so tense and anxiety-ridden that they just want to scream. You can literally feel their stress. Even when clients come in and they outwardly appear angry or even crazy, I know that they really just need help. I really try to extend my love to them," she says.

It is tough to stay motivated when you're seeing several clients a day, some of whom aren't particularly pleasant. Forderer says she really tries to focus on the client. Like most massage therapists, she feels that she is working her magic not only on muscle tissue but also on the client's soul. "There is love in every person that I see. Mining that love is a different matter. All I can do is really try to send positive energy to the client and give them a great massage. I guess I stay motivated because I know that on some level I am helping the client," says Forderer.

At The Sterling Institute, a spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ctaise (pronounced Stacey) Hobbes shares her massage talents with a variety of clients. "I see a lot of tourists, given our location in Santa Fe. It can be trying to see a tourist who is tense and rather irritable. I even had a client once tell me that her massage therapist at home is so good that her massage just wouldn't measure up no matter how good it was. That isn't easy to handle," says Hobbes.

However, Hobbes is doing what she loves, and that makes all the difference in the world. "It is difficult to see these clients who are in such bad shape. It is especially difficult with the tourists; I can usually predict the type of life they lead just by where they are tight and the body parts with the most knots and tension," she says.

However, the occasional cranky client doesn't de-motivate her. "I try to take time for myself between massages because I need to get centered and have a moment to let go of the last client's energy and prepare for the following client," says Hobbes.

"Speaking of energy, it is important not to hold onto the client's energy, whether good or bad. Massaging clients all day can really drain a therapist if she becomes too involved with the clients receiving the services," Hobbes said. "There are a lot of ways to protect yourself from a potentially negative client. I have a cleansing mantra that I chant in my head at the end of a massage. I also do specific movements that guide the client's energy back to them."

She uses other methods to symbolically cleanse herself from each client. Simple activities, such as washing one's hands after a massage, can also cleanse your mind of the experience. There are, of course, other ways to make a room free of negativity, such as essential oils, smudging sage and using crystals.

Susie Fields, founder and CEO of Salon Training International in San Diego, California, owned her own spa for many years before becoming an industry consultant. Now Fields shares some of her experience with salons and spas in training sessions. One of her specialties is customer service. "Providing a great service is a start, but that is what the other 10 spas on your street are already doing," says Fields.

When thinking about your business, you have to go the extra mile. Asking your clients what they want is a powerful way to get to the heart of how to please your customers.

"For example, we had an espresso machine that our clients absolutely loved," says Fields. "They would come in early just to enjoy a cafe mocha before their service started. Sometimes it's the little things that make the big difference."

Listening is another rare skill that most of us don't embrace, she says. "God gave us two ears and one mouth for a purpose. Listen twice as much as you speak. That is one customer service ingredient that will always get you ahead no matter who the client is."

Saundra Washington is president of Washington & Associates in Chicago, Illinois; she feels that the most magical thing that you can do to please a customer is to make them feel special.

"I've been to my share of spas in the past," Washington says. "Funny thing, some spas treat you like you are a widget in a conveyer line. At other spas, however, you are greeted by name and you leave feeling generally hugged. You feel better because you were treated so well."

It's true that small gestures, such as making eye contact with clients, calling clients by name and offering juice or a cozy pair of slippers, are basically free and leave a strong impression on clients. In this touchy-feely industry, some spas and massage businesses have lost the ability to care about their customers, and their customers know it.

"I have received massages before where I knew the therapist was making out her grocery list and not in touch with me at all," Washington says. "My time at the spa is my time. Massage therapists need to know that their clients are sensitive people who want them to focus on them for that 60-minute session. It takes work to keep a client."

Along with communication and professionalism, maintaining a positive attitude is key in creating the type of wonderful massage experience that clients expect. Taking these three keys in hand now will allow you to open the door to more satisfying massage sessions, for both you and your customers.

Melinda Minton, L.M.T., is an esthetician, cosmetologist and former spa owner. She currently works as a spa and salon consultant, E-business expert and free-lance writer. She calls Fort Collins, Colorado, home.