Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 5.5 | Delivering on the Service Promise

The bottom line for spas is delivering on the promise that a spa makes to its owners, employees, and guests. It is easy enough to write a mission statement that says, “We intend to be a premier and progressive spa” or “Our goal is to deliver the most relaxing, uplifting experience of any spa in our class”—but how does each spa do it? What makes it really happen?

a. Guest Loyalty

 

It’s a truism that the most profitable customers are the loyal customers. They purchase more, cost less to serve, refer others, and are willing to pay for receiving exactly the experience they want. Despite widespread knowledge of this truism, most companies invest more in acquiring new customers than they do in retaining the customers they have.

Investing in guest loyalty is an investment in profits. There is an oft-quoted business axiom that it costs six times more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing customer. By investing a small percentage of revenue into strengthening the loyalty of existing customers, a spa can sustain profitability and in some cases make dramatic increases in revenue. However, some loyalty programs have not achieved the desired outcome. Grocery store loyalty cards have become so commonplace that they act today as price promotions and incentives for customers to spend their grocery budget with whoever has the best price offerings. They do little to build loyalty. Airline frequent flier programs started off as loyalty programs, but now all major airlines have them. The generally uninspired service delivered along with the miles for many airlines is not achieving the mission of building loyalty.

Spas recognize the importance of repeat guests. Many will track their retention rate, which is determined by the percentage of a given day’s or month’s guests who have been to the spa before versus how many are first-time users. In Customer Loyalty: How to Earn it, How to Keep it, author Jill Griffin suggests a ladder of customer relationships that moves from prospect to a first-time customer to a repeat customer, but continues to two additional levels of loyalty: the client and the advocate.

In the spa world, the prospect is the consumer who is either unaware of the spa and its offerings or has yet to make up his or her mind about whether to purchase spa services. The spa is in the courting stage with prospects and must convince them that there is a reason to partake of spa services.

The client is a guest who buys everything the spa has to sell that he or she can possibly use. The client purchases regularly and over time the business builds a strong, ongoing relationship that makes the client immune to the pull of the competition.

The advocate is like a client in that he or she buys everything the spa has to sell that they can use. However, advocates also encourage others to buy from the spa. They talk about the spa, defend it when others raise objections, and bring new customers to experience it.

Only 15 to 20 years ago, a major metropolitan city might have had only one or two spas. Customers had few choices and repeat customers were probably assumed to be loyal clients. Today, however, there are many more choices. When clients find a spa that delivers a better experience, they are likely to become former clients instead of advocates. Even within the resort and destination spa markets, a specific spa’s competition is not simply those properties that are in a close geographic proximity.

With the affluence of the average spa-goer (44 percent of U.S. spa-goers have a household income of $100,000 or higher with an additional 41 percent making between $50,000 and $99,000), each spa is now competing with the world of spas. It is no longer good enough to be the best spa in a served market. With the convenience of air travel, a guest can simply choose to get on a plane and fly over one resort at 30,000 feet and check into a spa that is delivering a better guest experience.

When asked how many spa visits they anticipate taking in the next 12 months, nearly two thirds of Canadian and U.S. spa-goers said they intend to take one or more trips to a spa. The figures suggest that once a prospect is turned into a client, they are increasingly likely to make the journey from client to advocate.

Clearly, advocacy is not an event but a process. The relationship with the guest grows over time and must be built systematically. All spas conduct training and establish service standards and protocols. They must also design the experience to consistently deliver on the spa’s brand promise. There are several assumptions that can be made before designing a spa experience:

Develop a brand promise. The brand promise needs to be well-developed and deeply ingrained in the spa’s culture so that it cannot be separated from how the spa experience manifests itself. The brand promise is not simply a marketing slogan, but a core value or mission that is synonymous with the spa itself and cannot be torn apart by any competitor.

Recruit the right employees. Spas need to recruit and hire employees who have an attitude consistent with the spa’s promise.

Provide the right resources. Employees need to have all the tools, knowledge, and skills required to deliver the promise day in and day out over time.

With those assumptions, the spa is now ready to design the guest experience. It is not simply the massage itself or the haircut that defines the experience. As guests journey through an individual spa experience, they are constantly and probably subconsciously creating a report card of each element of the spa experience. It begins when they form their first impression of the spa as they pull into the parking lot or approach the building and continues through their final impression as they check out and pay for their experience. As they pay, they make that final judgment about whether the experience was equal to the value that they are paying. The guest will subconsciously evaluate each and every encounter with spa staff and will be comparing memories such as “the check-in at this spa was better than X or was not as professional as at spa Y”, “the locker room attendant was just great”, or “why didn’t I get a foot bath in the relaxation room like I did at spa Y?”

 

Every guest in every spa in the world today is constantly conducting this evaluation process whether the spa has designed their experience or not. So it makes sense for a spa to carefully construct the guest journey to build advocates rather than leave the outcome to chance.

b. Touchpoints

The concept of moments of truth was popularized by Jan Carlzon, the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) in the early 1980s. “Each of our 10 million customers came in contact with approximately five SAS employees, and this contact lasted an average of 15 seconds each time. Thus SAS is ‘created’ in the minds of the customers 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 50 million ‘moments of truth’ are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company. They are the moments when we must prove to our customers that SAS is their best alternative,” Carlzon explained.2

Unfortunately, it is also all too easy to create a memorable experience by delivering particularly poor service during those moments of truth. Everyone has stories of a horrible restaurant experience or an unknowledgeable, unhelpful clerk at a retail store, or the frustration generated by calling a help desk where the goal is to minimize staff and time spent per call to reduce fixed costs and overhead, resulting in limited time being spent with customers. The customer then becomes not an advocate, but a vocal critic of the business.

Touchpoints have been defined as all of the communication—human and physical—that spa guests experience during their relationship lifecycle with a spa. This includes ads, the website, employees, and the spa treatment rooms.

 

Touchpoints are important because customers form perceptions of a spa based on their cumulative experiences. The average spa has numerous touchpoints. Some of the basics include:

  • Website: Often a guest’s first communication from a spa is with its website. A spa needs to ask whether the website articulates the spa’s experience promise and engages the prospective guest.
  • Local or national ad: Does the marketing align with the spa’s brand promise and engage guests in the experience that awaits them at the spa?
  • The information call: In many cases, the prospective guest will call first to learn more and to ask questions generated while browsing the spa’s website.
  • The reservation call: Does the reservations employee make the guest feel that the spa is concerned with his or her individual needs or is he or she just there to book a massage or facial? Did the reservationist offer a true suggestion or recommendation according to the individual’s concerns?
  • Cleanliness: The cleanliness of a spa will have a major effect on the experience that guests have. Has the equipment been sanitized? How inviting and clean is the spa area? Are the towels crisp and fresh? A physical plant that is worn—worn furnishings, chipped paint, mold in corners or on ceilings of wet areas, dirty carpets, or broken equipment—has a significant impact on the overall experience. How healthy is the physical plant?
  • The sense of arrival: Guests form impressions even as they walk or drive up to the spa facility. Is the signage easy to spot and read? Does the outside landscaping and storefront represent a pride of ownership or is it unkempt?
  • The welcome: How does the spa staff greet the guest? Is it easy for guests to determine just where they are supposed to go? Is there a collection of sensory impressions greeting guests? Do employees give an attentive and personal greeting or is a guest treated like just one more person to check in?
  • Entering treatment areas: Are guests escorted to the ladies’ or men’s locker rooms or is the door simply pointed out? Does an employee nicely direct and guide the guest?
  • Locker room: Does the locker area have an attendant? If so, does he or she extend a warm welcome? Is there a locker room orientation tour for first-time guests? How is the tour designed? As the guests open lockers, are they impeccably clean? Are they well-stocked with slippers that are the right size and a fresh robe that is large enough? Is the area well-organized?
  • Wet lounge: Is the guest shown how to use the sauna, steam room, and whirlpool? Is there a plentiful supply of clean towels? Are there easy-to-understand instructions for use, safety, and enjoyment? Does the locker room attendant routinely check on the guests in the wet lounge or showers? Do they refer to the guest by name? Is there a sign for temperature and how to use the equipment?
  • Relaxation lounge: Is the guest shown the relaxation areas and told what to expect next? If there is a hospitality station in the relaxation lounge, what does it communicate? Are there skimpy or diminished offerings or an ample offering of fresh, well-stocked refreshments and interesting things to read? How are guests received when the therapist collects them and escorts them to the treatment room?
  • Pre-treatment interview: Is the therapist engaging and personal? Does the guest end up feeling like the interview is a somewhat mechanical rote process all therapists conduct? Is there a consultation with the guest?
  • Treatment room: How does it speak to the guests? Is it calming and full of sensory aids that allow the guest to deepen the relaxation experience?
  • Treatments: The ultimate spa experience is the treatment itself. Does it include the spa’s attention to points of distinction? Is it professionally administered with technical skill and evident training? What are the therapist’s behaviors during the treatment? Do they enhance the relaxation process or distract from it? Does the treatment meet the spa’s experience promise? What is the therapist’s intent? The greatest number of touchpoints can be found during treatments—and the most crucial ones. They will vary depending on what type of treatment is being received.
  • Post-treatment protocols: Do they reinforce the experience or is the guest simply left with the impression that they are to get up and leave the room with an “it must be over” feeling?
  • Product suggestions: How is the product suggestion process handled? Does the guest perceive it as a pushy attempt to sell spa products or is it seen as an educational experience?
  • Transfers: How does the spa transfer a guest from one therapist to another for those having several treatments? How is the experience handled when guests who are having a treatment in one area are taken to another, for example, from the spa to the salon?
  • Exit process: Is the guest escorted back to the relaxation lounge or perhaps outside by the spa pool and encouraged to continue the relaxation process or are they made to feel that it is time to take a quick shower, get dressed, and leave? Once back in the relaxation lounge or locker room, does the attendant inquire as to the quality of the guest’s experience and perhaps ask if the guest would like to add an additional treatment to extend the experience?
  • Complaint resolution: If guests have a problem during their spa experiences, how are conflicts resolved?
  • Retail area: If guests wander through the retail area, are they traveling alone or is there someone available to assist and enhance the shopping experience? Is there someone with product knowledge available to assist?
  • Check-out: When the guest checks out at the reception desk, what things are done to continue building a relationship with the guest? The departure memory may be the most important element of the spa experience to design correctly, as it is that last perception the guest has. This perception will imprint the memory of the value of their experience. When the guest is leaving, are they simply offered a thank you for coming or is there a design to stay in contact with the guest and continue building the relationship?
  • Post-visit: Through the use of technology, does the spa maintain communication with the guest to strengthen the relationship, which can lead to creating a new advocate for the spa?

This is just a basic list. Spas will have additional touchpoints depending on whether they have accommodations, fitness facilities, food service, classes, outdoor activities, or educational programs. Spas must examine each of their touchpoints and determine whether what is being offered deepens the delivery of the spa’s service promise. Destination and resort spas have touchpoints that last 24 hours a day.

The spa must dissect the guest experience and identify each touchpoint. Once those touchpoints are identified, they must align each and every communication with the guest to support the brand experience promise.

Successful spas focus a good deal of management attention on establishing quality standards for each touchpoint, communicating these standards to employees through training programs, and measuring performance. Quality standards can include how long a guest has to wait, how guests are approached, or what techniques are used for each service.

Providing consistent services is extremely complex where guest contact is involved. This is especially true with therapists and technicians who deliver services that are highly personalized and artistic in nature. Spa leaders must convince highly independent providers to give service that meets the same standards across the board. However, they must not try to take the variations of personality out of individual staff members. In many ways, it is the differences among staff members that can keep the spa experience unique and interesting through multiple, repeat visits.

c.  Uncertainty and Concerns

Since guests cannot evaluate and experience the services they are considering purchasing in the same way that they can products, they often feel more hesitant, anxious, and unsure of their decisions. Not being able to experience offerings increases perceived risks and presents barriers for spas. This is especially true with more exotic treatments such as Thai massage or Shiatsu. To overcome their feelings of uncertainty, guests often rely on the experiences and advice of “knowers”—their peers and friends, reviews, testimonial letters, and comments on the Internet. Spa professionals should also be prepared to recommend treatments for the first-time spa-goer, treatments that will help guests to relax and appreciate the spa experience.

 

There are several common sources of anxiety among infrequent spa-goers:

  • Getting there early enough—not coming early enough to unwind before the treatment.
  • Clothing removal—not knowing how much they have to remove relative to their comfort level
  • Pain during massage—knowing how to ask a therapist to change the pressure
  • Temperature—worrying that the temperature of some body treatments, such as wraps and scrubs, will be too extreme
  • Skin rashes or breakouts—guests who are about to try a body wrap, facial, or skin treatment for the first time want to be assured that they won’t break out or develop a rash.

 

Some spas will now introduce their services by providing a mini treatment for free—such as a chair massage or an add-on aromatherapy element to a massage.

e. Fluctuating Demand

Spa services are perishable and cannot be stored, which means that widely fluctuating demand can create challenges. During peak seasons and busy periods, the spa’s capacity may be taxed to the limit. In off seasons and hours, excess capacity may exist. Delivering excellent service to guests during periods of peak demand is a continuing challenge. It can be just as difficult for guests to obtain outstanding service during lulls when employees have nothing to do and are standing around talking to each other. Yield management, promotion strategies, and pricing strategies are used to iron out and reduce the amplitude of swings in demand.

Making sure the appropriate number of staff members are on hand to service customers during fluctuating demand times is also critical. Many spas use a mix of fixed and variable staff positions, with fixed positions being covered by permanent full-time workers or permanent part-time workers. Variable positions typically include therapists and technicians.

The scheduling of variable staff positions becomes much easier when the spa is run by appointment-only. However, one of the issues that spa-goers have is that when they want a spa service, they often need it with little advance notice. Some will preschedule or call ahead, but others have had a bad day and decide that they need a massage. Or they have an important meeting and realize that their nails look terrible and want a quick fix. If the spa doesn’t have an open appointment, they’ll go somewhere else—sometimes for good.

 

Spas can manage demand through promotions and creative scheduling. Some spas use day of the week pricing—offering discounts on a slow day or increasing the price during peak times. Some are even implementing time-of-day pricing where a morning massage is less costly than one received during peak demand (such as late afternoon). Another way to manage demand is to encourage the front desk staff to always offer alternative appointment times or different treatments, if what the guest wants at first isn’t available. They can also offer a wait list or try to figure out how to get the guest in with an alternative plan. Promotions during non-peak times help to fill the books. For example, an e-mail blast can advertise a special offer for an upcoming weekend. Giving special discounts on specific days to identified VIPs works to make the most of a spa’s top clientele.

f.   Evaluation

After a spa plans and delivers an experience, it needs to ensure that the experience is delivered consistently and over time. It is one thing to have carefully crafted an experience promise and for the staff to be passionate about that promise. However, the verbal commitment and passion is only the launching pad for what the staff actually does day in and day out.

If a spa really wants to deliver a consistent, superior experience over the long term, then it has to inspect and evaluate. Customer and employee feedback systems are the most common form of ensuring that the experience promise is being delivered. It also provides the spa with information about changing guest expectations. An experience that exceeds guest expectations today may fall short when those guests desire change. Feedback systems can help create lines of communication between the spa and the guest. However, feedback should not be reserved for after the guest has left the spa. Spas need to talk to and listen to their guests each and every time they arrive at the spa. They need to evaluate the guest and try to understand what the best experience is for that person’s needs at that moment.

A guest feedback system should attempt to measure how well the spa’s experience is meeting guest expectations and whether the guest perceptions are what the spa has designed them to be.

This feedback system usually takes the form of a report card. The spa will set goals for each touchpoint and then collect data—usually in the form of guest and employee comment cards—on how that area is doing. So, for example, a spa might establish a five-point scale for each department. If the spa reception desk is averaging 4.2, it might set a goal for the front desk to raise that rating to 4.5 over a specific period of time.

Such a feedback system also lets a spa monitor which areas might need additional attention if the numbers start dropping, or let the spa know what area is doing something particularly well that could be adapted for other areas.

Another suggestion that spas use frequently are secret shoppers. They are firms spas can hire to come in and evaluate the spa and the experience, then provide management with a full report and consultation afterwards.

One of the challenges with a guest comment card process is that it reports only on how the spa is currently doing. It doesn’t ascertain what the guest wants that the spa is not doing. Dave Power III of J.D. Power & Associates says, “When we measure satisfaction, what we’re really measuring is the difference between what a customer expects and what the customer perceives he gets.”

 

So how does a spa identify just what it is that the customer really wants? There are several techniques that might include:

  • Guest surveys.
  • Paying attention to what the guest is buying and not buying. When a treatment doesn’t sell, a spa should investigate why. Is it just not wanted? Is it priced too high?
  • Industry surveys.
  • Phone calls to follow up on the spa visit. Spas can give a personal contact to find out what worked and what didn’t work.

 

Another issue is that most guest comment card surveys are designed for the ‘average’ guest, but the goal of designing the spa experience is to create advocates. How does the spa communicate with its most loyal guests? One way is to design special surveys sent by e-mail to those potential advocates. Another might be to invite those guests to the spa to meet with the leadership team for an open focus group discussion. 

 

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