When a Guest is Rubbed the Wrong Way…

Instead of publishing an annual trends piece or another ‘year in review’, Coyle went to its treasure trove of hard data and asked, “What would really help spas in 2010?”

Coyle researchers analyzed more than 1,350 responses from spa goers about the things that ruined their spa experience.

Why the negative approach? A research project completed jointly with WTS International showed unequivocally that word of mouth was the most important driver of new business to a spa. Good to know, but word-of-mouth cuts both ways, and those that leave unhappy present a bigger cost to spas in the long run.

Coyle reasoned that if spas were aware of the most common ‘significant negatives’ and their root causes, spas could take action. Yes, ‘Top 10’ lists and ‘Trends for 2010’ surveys are good reading, but they rarely provide anything a spa director can take to the bank.

Coyle kept it simple. Two very straightforward questions were posed:
1. What spa provided you with the worst experience last year?
2. Why?

Each open-ended survey response was read and catalogued into the following categories: People, Product, Post-Treatment, and Price.

People A complaint about the receptionist, reservationist, therapist, or spa staff member.
Product Anything relating to the spa facilities or products used.
Post-Treatment Emotional or physical feelings that were realized after the spa experience.
Price Comments that centered around cost or value

62% of the respondents mentioned ‘People’ as a significant contributor to the bad experience. Let’s put it in context. 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.

The bad news is that changing behavior is harder than changing the music, which by the way was the number one thing guests complained about the ‘Product’. The table below shows the most often mentioned ‘People’ complaints.

Type and Ranking of ‘People’ Complaints

Reason for Complaint # of Complaints
  1. Inappropriate pressure/touch; staff not well trained in massage
  1. Staff was not listening, responsive about special needs, or accommodating
  1. Too much conversation
  1. Treatment felt rushed
  1. Pushy sales
  1. Unfriendly, impersonal, robotic staff
  1. Disorganized experience; treatments cancelled/not on time, etc.
  1. Negligent during treatment, causing pain or bad result
  1. Ignored by staff during treatment; not checked on
  1. Demeaning/offensive staff
  1. Talking amongst staff members
  1. Bad staff hygiene and soiled uniforms
  1. Received different treatment than what was booked; inaccuracies in booking
  1. Unprofessional staff
  1. Debate over bill
  1. Treatment cut short
  1. Service provider insincere
  1. Service provider not thorough or did not explain procedure
  1. Staff obtrusive
  1. Staff harsh voice/tone
  1. Poor follow-up by management
  1. Children permitted to run around and cause distraction
  1. Communication with staff difficult

The good news is that changing behavior is not capital intensive, but it does require vigilance and commitment. How many of these things above would be correctible by simply making your staff more aware of it? Some training and role play about how much we speak (#2), what we say or fail to say (#3), how we say it (#6, #10, #20) and who we say it to (#11) would go miles in addressing almost half of the top ten things that drive guests away. Spa guests are vulnerable, so remind your staff of the saying “You cannot un-ring a bell,” or the one about “loose lips.”

It also appears that all the yield management training of recent years has created issues as well, with ‘rushed treatments’ and ‘pushy sales’ taking two of the top five spots.

Changing behavior is not solved by a memo or webinar. Staff development requires diligence and stamina, and it must be a daily thing that gets measured, so there is accountability, leading us to another saying: “You get what you inspect.”

Brace yourself: Some excerpts of why ‘People’ caused the worst spa experiences:

  • “The male massage therapist quipped coyly that “I had issues with my tissues,” and other choice rhymed phrases. It lacked professionalism and made me uncomfortable.”
  • “The massage therapist asked me if I had seen a doctor about my back acne. I was mortified.”
  • A staff member blatantly ignored a guest who was talking on their cell phone in a ‘No Cell’ relaxation area.”
  • “The massage therapist never asked if I had a massage before and a deep-tissue massage caused me a great deal of pain.”
  • “The [staff member] had bad body odor and talked during the entire treatment.”
  • “An esthetician continually pitched microdermabrasion services during the facial. When I declined the upsell, she sulked and made me feel as if I had done something wrong.”

Perhaps the biggest conundrum that faces spas is that a lot of guests would feel too embarrassed to even complain. The massage therapist who thinks he has coined an endearing term about muscle tissue could actually be making your female guests very uncomfortable. The well-meaning massage therapist who sincerely wants to help the guest solve a skin problem could actually have mortified a guest.

The ‘People’ category was also divided into ‘departments’ to identify what staff, in particular, was mentioned the most. The results are highlighted in the table below.

News Flash: Besides general complaints, Massages account for 300% more negative comments than any other modality!

Massage services are generally the most frequently scheduled, accounting partially for its bulge in the numbers, but despite that, it is clear that massage is the most volatile in terms of guest response.

It makes sense then that massage clients would be most carefully gauged before the treatment, thoroughly informed during the treatment, and most carefully followed-up with to ensure that the ‘word of mouth’ the treatments they provide result in is the kind you want. These meetings may be tough, but preventing another guest walking out with hurt feelings or with the thought that the therapist came on to them, will be worth the awkward sit-down.

The good news about the ‘Product’ category is that while it encompasses 26% of the overall complaints, many complaints were not about the facility, almost certain to be an expensive fix. Most complaints in this category are correctible without calling a contractor (ugh) or ‘doing it yourself’ (Help!).

We divided comments into four subcategories and ranked them in the degree of difficulty for change:

Cleanliness (Easiest to change)


Dirty environment 112

Atmospheric (Relatively easy to change)


Ambiant noise too Loud 46
Temperature too hot/cold 24
‘Crowded’ feeling 39
Bland/sterile atmosphere 21
Unrelaxing/stressful atmosphere 15
Other guests disrupted treatment 11
Bad/Harsh lighting 10
Music too loud/annoying 6
‘Cheap’ décor or water features 6
Unpleasant/overpowering scents 4

Amenities (A bit tougher to change)


No products/lotion, water, or snacks; lack of amenities 12
Poor food/beverage 10
Steam room/sauna not working 8
Inferior (or lack of) robes 5

Facility (Difficult to change)


Cramped (or absence of) locker room 11
Uncomfortable (or lack of) relaxation room or waiting area 5
Showers dingy and not properly maintained 5

A total of 294 complaints fell on the left half of the line graph above, meaning 84% of the ‘Product’ complaints are generally easy to fix. This is very good news for the cost-conscious operator; changing easy elements like cleanliness, noise, lighting, temperature, etc. would potentially eliminate over 20% (84% times the overall 26%) of the worst spa experiences.

The post-spa results constituted 10% of the worst experiences overall, and the actual number of complaints can be seen below.

It makes sense that most guests that get a deep tissue massage should feel some soreness. Instead of the cursory medical history review or the blunted, “Do you have any medical problems?” which almost always begets a ‘no’, massage therapists would be wise to do a thorough review and check in regularly about pressure. This is also one of those cases where a guest really would appreciate a follow-up call the next day. A three-minute call or an even less intrusive email will show sincere concern, building trust. You also may just catch the guest while bad word of mouth is still just a muted thought.

All of the remaining issues seen above could be addressed on this follow-up call as well by putting some variation of the words ‘How’ or ‘What’ in front of the items above and creating a question that can not be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Though we know sales are always at the forefront of everyone’s mind, “So, I am glad you did not feel too much soreness, how did you feel about the rest of the
experience?”sounds a lot better than “So I hear you have back acne. Can I schedule you for a back facial?”

The small number of complaints attributed to price is probably one of the most telling and insightful findings from this study. Only a total of 35 out of 1,350 respondents spoke about value.

This shows that the price paid is not at the heart of the problem, which in turn suggests that discounting will not create demand or improve perception of value. It’s about how the guest felt, not what they spent.

We think the story for spas overall is very positive. The things that people complain about most are almost all entirely correctable, something a savvy spa owner can address. The one thing a spa owner can not do is vivdly measure the guest experience from the guest perspective. For that, you need a trusted friend or a professional mystery shopping service to anonymously test and measure these crucial moments of guest interaction. A shameless plug? Maybe, but spas are so unique in that the experience they provide happens behind closed doors, that things are said, implied, or left undone, rubbing guests the wrong way. Wouldn’t you like to know about them?

For more information, please contact:

Coyle Hospitality Group

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More guest experience research can be found at: www.coylehospitality.com/news/

About Coyle Hospitality Group

Coyle Hospitality Group, based in New York, N.Y., is a market research leader designing and implementing mystery shopping programs and providing brand quality measurement services exclusively to spas, hotels, resorts, restaurants, timeshares, and cruises worldwide. Having referred professional evaluators for over 50,000 successful evaluations, Coyle is uniquely positioned to help hospitality companies align their services for optimal guest satisfaction and loyalty.www.coylehospitality.com

© 2024 Coyle Hospitality Group. Reproduction of any material without written authorization is strictly prohibited.

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