World Class? Not so fast.

In an increasingly virtual world, the “high touch” spas are one place consumers go for good old fashioned, live, hands on (literally) customer care. When our clients finally tear themselves away from their keyboards, PDAs and iPads, they’re ready to have their socks knocked off–by your employees.

Are they up to the challenge?

As we all know by now, the new generation of spa goer is the quintessential “tough room.” Millenials currently have a hair-trigger sensitivity about perceptions of slight and a penchant for ignoring their (grandmother’s) admonition, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.” Actually, they don’t say it. They go online.

Of course, all these dark thoughts used to stay trapped in a “thinks” bubble over the heads of your clients. Now their concerns, quirks and criticisms are out there, for all the world to see. And as you’ve heard me argue before, that’s good. We can learn from our mistakes faster, albeit in a public forum.

Embarrassing, yes? Efficient? You betcha. (Did you ever do the dumb thing again after the teacher called you to the front of the room?)

So, Ms. Spa Director, you’ve made some lofty promises about your team. And you’ve done some training. (“We had that training,” is one of my favorite phrases. Alas, training doesn’t work like a measles vaccine.)

Here’s one of the first challenges…have your staff members ever patronized a spa like yours (or better yet, yours)? How can you expect an employee who hasn’t actually been a guest of a five star resort to know what they’re supposed to be creating? How can a receptionist in a renowned medical spa know what your patients are expecting? Would you trust a pastry chef to bake a fabulous chocolate torte if they’d never tasted chocolate? Begin your training program for any employee by having them start as a guest. (The prospective employees that research your spa by visiting as a guest first move to the front of the selection process!)

One of the core values of world class service is empathy, a trait common to people attracted to the spa industry. Individuals who are highly endowed with this trait will have an enormous leg up in creating a great service experience for your guests. Yet the road to lousy service is paved with good intentions. World class service requires, not just a good heart, but a lot of structure. A good head.

The best kind of structure is like training wheels: initially, you ask that a new employee follow protocols to a T. You ask that they get a manager’s approval for anything remotely “out of the box.” Then, as you watch them in action, observe their instincts, their judgement, you can gradually give them more latitude. Some people flunk out at this point. If an employee lacks horse sense, all the niceness in the world will not compensate.

Five star, world class service is not nearly as regimented as you might think. Several years ago, Ritz Carlton hit a ceiling of service with their heavy reliance on scripting. The evolving “world class service consumer” doesn’t want a rigid formula. They want an artistic service experience. The CEO of Auberge Resorts believes that “at the five star level, guests don’t want scripting.”

At a certain point, after your employees have reproduced excellent service standards with consistency, it’s time to let them improvise. At that level, service truly becomes art.

The recipe for world class service is simple, but it’s not easy (thanks to Holly Stiel for that distinction.)

1. Hire people with outstanding core values, including empathy, mutual respect, personal integrity and healthy self esteem
2. Train them: formally, informally, by example, repeatedly, and by having them train others
3. Give them the opportunity to express their individuality and elevate their performance to art

Let’s look at #2: Training. We all agree it’s important. But in the “tyranny of the immediate” that rules busy spa operations, there’s often more lip service than action. Pulling everyone together for a group training (still the most effective way to train) can be next to impossible. But letting a staff member attend a webinar during “downtime” is something any spa can pull off, and sooner rather than later.

Ambitious initiatives can be expensive and have a short half-life. This leads to the very wrong conclusion that training doesn’t deliver adequate ROI. “World class” status can actually be achieved more easily by taking consistent, small and common-sense training steps. The key is measuring. “What gets measured, gets done,” as the saying goes. If you know that a front line employee needs to complete three specific training sessions before he or she completes the New Employee Period, that’s simple. Enabling them to determine when and where those sessions take place, within a time period, makes it more likely that they’ll succeed.

The spa industry, following the lead of retail stores, is bifurcating into luxury and economy sectors. The middle has already begun to atrophy. Neither path is easy; one is a red ocean of endless discounting, the other a challenging world of ever-higher expectations. World class service, to paraphrase, is not a destination, but a journey.

Circling the Discount Drain

Is social media now just about bargain-hunting–sharing discounts, steals and deals with your friends? We know from past studies that discounts do not lead to loyalty. They lead to the expectation of more discounts. Which means, that shiny new customer will linger only if you can undersell your competition. Where’s the so-called wisdom of crowds? It appears to be circling the discount drain.

When it comes to saving money, the wisdom of crowds looks more like the mojo of mobs. To those of us who have enjoyed being “value add” artistes, creating differentiated experiences for discerning guests, the whole thing just looks like a hideous tag sale. High overhead businesses are being thrown onto the bus alongside their bargain basement counterparts, heading down the road to dusty, hardscrabble Camp Discount. The only activity at this camp is a pitiless game called “How Low Will You Go.”

Pitiless, because the companies who are inflicting this torment on us bricks-and-mortar fatties are internet marketing creatures. They have sweaty crushes on their “users” but throw spitballs at the very businesses that are providing the value that endears the users to them. They also have an unfortunate tendency to tell businesses what’s good for them, as if they actually know. And it’s a word I’ve heard a lot: “Exposure.” As I like to say, you can die of exposure.

“It’s your job to retain them,” discounters tell you. Gosh, your only challenge is to make them happy, and they’ll gratefully morph into a loyal, full-price client. Riiiiiight. And the next month, there’s your competitor on Groupon, with a deeply discounted offer. But, if we’ve done our job right, they’ll stick with us. Riiiiight.

The discountante lives for deals. She doesn’t want to bond with your business. She wants to flit from flower to flower, yelping the entire time. Remember, these are the kids who grew up with the concept of “friends with benefits.” Commitment isn’t in their DNA.

But consumers are not the only group out there with some clout. Small businesses scored a victory this week against a user-worshipping company that’s been easy to hate. That’s right, Yelp was squirming this morning as the hot breath of a lawsuit by businesses tickled its backside. They were accused of manipulating ratings based on whether a business advertised with them or not. Frankly, I don’t think Yelp was misbehaving, but I think it underestimated the venomous hatred they’ve inspired in legions of small business owners.

Yelp announced that we’ll be able to see those positive reviews they deem so un-Yelplike (the one-off rave that your client wrote, just for you, which in the past would disappear after about 90 days.) They’ll just be hidden away in a little basket labeled, more or less, “suspect.” Yelp has been trying to walk a very fine line, torn between appearing to pander to users while attempting to convince businesses to give them advertising revenue.

You’ve probably noticed, Yelp has made more and more of their business services free, a positive step that has helped many businesses make peace with them. If you’re not using these free tools, you’re really missing out. And whether you like them or not, Yelp is boosting your search rankings thanks to their their heavily trafficked site. (I know, I know, you almost picture yourself standing there while you’re being slapped across the face, mumbling, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”)

Fitting right in with the current mania for vampire chic, discounters like Groupon and their ilk are feeding off spas’ desperation to fill their schedules. They’re causing quite a stir, but in this case “stir” may just be another word for “churn.” I’d love to hear from spas who have been able to attract and retain guests using this type of program. Please contact me at pwb@wynnebusiness.com and share your stories.

Our experience with Spa Week at our own spa suggested that the folks who jumped on this promotion were, by and large, geographically unqualified to be regular spa guests. A year later, not one guest who came to us through this promotion was retained. And a couple of the little darlings left us unpleasant souvenirs in the form of snarky Yelp reviews. (Cheap and ungrateful–a winning combination.)

Compared to our normal retention rate of over 30%, this was a glaring example of the destructive nature of D-bombing. Aggressive promotions can create volume, but that volume may simply be churn: money-losing “volume” that saps your customer service resources and puts your regular guests in the back seat.

The jury is still out on Spa Finder Deal Days, until we see the 90 day retention statistics. Even Spa Finder feels compelled to embrace the discount mindset, but they promised a more retention-oriented promotion. I’m not sure how they engineered this, but time will tell if they hit the sweet spot. Participating in the heavily-discounted Deal Days while not accepting Spa Finder gift cards for the promotion, alas, created some pretty awkward moments with customers for many of us. We’re not sure how Spa Finder could rectify this in the future. We had much lower turnout than with Spa Week, but hopefully they were higher quality guests. Time will tell.

I haven’t written off Groupon yet, but I can tell you after two-plus decades in business, I’m dubious about their claims. They’ve graciously offered to put me in touch with some spas that have been happy with their results. I look forward to seeing the retention numbers and reporting back to you!

How can I train my front desk team without any time and budget?

Virtually every spa has cut back on meetings and education during the downturn. There’s good news, though. Training your team is less expensive, and more convenient, than it’s ever been, thanks to–yes–the miracle of modern technology.

We’re talking about webinars. These are almost-as-good-as-being-there presentations that will engage and inform you and your team.

We suspect, if you’re reading this blog (behavior that denotes a high degree of intelligence), that you’d be willing to spend $15-$25 per person to get your front desk team world-class training in the following subjects:

• Mastering the Spa Reservations Call
• Mastering Complaint Resolution and Service Recovery
• Checkout that Maximizes Retail Sales and Rescheduling

Each of these Wynne Business Training Library webinars includes a highly original Powerpoint presentation and audio lecture, full of fresh, use-it-tomorrow content. They’re just $99 apiece, and once downloaded, they’re in your training library forever.

Custom training programs, with your company’s branding, processes and signature scripting, can be created quickly and affordably.

To review the webinars in our Training Library, visit http://wynnebusiness.webex.com, and click on “Recorded Sessions” in the left hand menu. You’ll see complete descriptions and agendas for each webinar.

On Tuesday, April 27th, Lisa Starr and I will present our next live webinar, “Mastering the Mindset of World Class Service,” designed for all spa employees.

The Front Desk Must Die!

Spas are working harder than ever to be innovative in their designs, but there’s one convention that just won’t seem to die: the monolithic front desk. Once upon a time, we had big fat computer monitors and hulking CPUs to hide in those enormous desks. So why, in this age of flat screens and cloud computing, are we still confronted with these intimidating beasts when we enter a “state of the art” spa?

Front desks create a barrier between guest and client. In restauranteur Danny Meyer’s parlance, it’s hard to convince a guest you’re “on their side” when you literally are not. Check-in, a simple enough transaction, can be accomplished with about two keystrokes–and for that matter, on a handheld. Why use up valuable square footage that you could use for retail merchandising? Because architects and interior designers think we want these things.

Instead, guests could be welcomed by a friendly host who is visible from head to toe, whose full-frontal greeting will feel much more sincere. He or she checks guests in with his or her handheld, or at a simple podium. (Seeing staff engulfed by giant desks reminds me of those little old ladies you see piloting massive cars.) Perhaps we could even stop calling our spa concierges “front desk staff.” (It’s a bit like calling massage therapists “massage table staff,” isn’t it?)

In the new spas Wynne Business designs, we include a comfortable “checkout lounge” that encourages lingering, with tables where home care recommendations can be reviewed over a cup of tea and some conversation with a Home Care Advisor. This salesflow strategy separates the departing spa-mellowed guest from the frantic incoming one, who often induces the departing guest to unconsciously “giddyup.” Not good for retail or rescheduling. Even when there isn’t room for a checkout lounge, we include in the design a “checkout bar” with stools. “If you perch, you purchase,” we like to say.

The front desk is one part of the spa business that has never undergone a serious rethink, which is very strange. Yes, we store things in those massive desks, we conceal trash cans and we hide our Starbucks cups (heaven forbid.) But our front desks carry tremendous symbolism. They are the physical manifestation of the intimidation that so many guests still feel when they enter a spa. I have no idea why they are so often front and center, like some sort of altar. Talk about scary.

They also function as a sort of fort, from which your staff defends the spa from the clients. Visit a new spa and try to get a spa concierge out from behind their desk. It’s like prying off a barnacle. Behind a desk, it’s easy to look busy as long as you’re not leaning on it, chin in hands. Imagine what happens when there is no longer a desk to hide behind. Shelves get dusted, products are straightened, guests are interacted with, refreshments proffered, doors are opened.

So why not do away with them altogether? Handhelds make it possible for the “point of sale” to be anywhere the client is–another way to encourage more natural interaction with staff, better customer care, more spontaneity, and oh yes, larger purchases.

As we look for new ways to draw the ellusive Millenials into our spas, rethinking the front desk may be a very good place to start.

People Problems

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone in a class or seminar say, “You know, we don’t really have that many issues in our spa–we just have people problems.”

According to a terrific new study of 1350 spa guests from Coyle Hospitality Group, “people problems” are the predominant issue in every spa. Coyle, the leading mystery shopping firm in the hospitality industry, undertook a survey to determine the most common spoilers of spa experiences.

The summary notes that, “62% of the respondents mentioned ‘People’ as a significant contributor to the bad experience…Nearly two out of every three people that have a bad experience at a spa are talking about staff behavior. This is most interesting because most spa owners feel that the quality of their staff is their most significant competitive advantage.”

This is a bad news/good news situation. As the Coyle report points out, behavioral problems, unlike issues with your plumbing, are usually inexpensive to fix. However, unlike a one-time fix, correcting people problems–and keeping them corrected–requires focus, discipline, and follow-through. It sometimes requires a cultural shift. It sometimes requires more supervision. It always requires training.

Hearing what guests actually experience is an eye-opener. The top complaint in the Coyle study? Over 100 of the respondents indicated that the “staff was not listening, responsive about special needs, or accommodating,” and 100 more felt there was “too much conversation.” 64 guests experienced “unfriendly, impersonal, robotic staff.” Others noted that they were “ignored by staff during treatment; not checked on,” and a significant number encountered, amazingly enough, “offensive, demeaning” staff. (We took pains to include some of these issues in our customer service training DVD, including role play examples of the wrong and right way to handle various conversations.)

If like many spas you’ve been focusing on promotions to get new guests in the door, there’s encouraging news–and perhaps a cautionary tale–in one statistic. “Only a total of 35 out of 1,350 respondents spoke about value…the price paid is not at the heart of the problem” for most dissatisfied guests. This rogues’ gallery of poor communication skills, in short, has more to do with a lack of repeat business than economic conditions.

This is counterintuitive during a major recession, when discretionary spending has shriveled. The new generation of social-networking discount promotion sites, like Groupon, may seem tempting to a spa with lots of empty space on its books. But focusing on quantity over quality will quickly erode any perceived value that remains for your customers. Taking the high road–staying focused on delivering a stellar guest experience–is a healthier strategy for a spa that wants to be in business in 2011.