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.

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