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A spa's first impression, may be your client's last.
by Terry Herman

She can be reached at
630 434-1324

Your image should encourage, not discourage.

" The road to successful spa-dom is not paved with crowded spaces,
over-bookings, client disinterest, under-sized treatment rooms,
offensive dors, or general cacophony. Treat a client badly once, and you'll never
get a chance to treat them again."

Too often, salon and spa owners, managers, or their professionals either don't fully recognize some of the trepidations a client might be experiencing upon entering their facility, or refuse to acknowledge this "reality" because their main focus is profit-driven, rather than people-driven.

Whether some want to admit it or not, more people haven't been to these types of facilities, than have been. And, for the novice or uninitiated, going to one of these places can create more angst than we know is necessary, and can be equally intimidating.

Many I consult, or who attend my speaking engagements, express their "ignorance", misconception, misperception, fear, etc. about attending one of these facilities; some, who have had some type of "experience" at one of these facilities, often share with me a number of experiences which left a "bad taste" in their mouths, preventing them from ever wanting to book a return. Many express their lack of knowledge and understanding with the processes involved for treatments offered; I have found that by educating them, explaining what the treatment is, how it is administered, what to expect, etc. has been an invaluable tool in arming the would-be client or "turned-off" client with this "new-found knowledge"; making the explanations interesting and appealing very often guarantees a booking interest or return visit, which can equate to a profit for a business.

I was a consumer of salon/spa services long before I branched out into reviewing, speaking, etc. Armed with an extensive quality management background, and applying this to my reviews of salons, resorts and spas, I am often perplexed with not only my own experiences/observations, but those of others. It is no wonder why so many "out there" aren't too eager to "go in there".

At times, there appears to be a real lack of interest and support of the client accommodation by many of these businesses.

I'd like to share with you some of these experiences/observations, and hopefully sharing them with you, will initiate a pause in your quest for being a successful business entity.

First and foremost, an informed/educated consumer is one more likely to spend money on consumable products and/or services. Never assume that your client is aware of a particular treatment or the spa-type environment, etc. Present them with the knowledge, so that they can become informed and receptive to a particular treatment, enabling them to have a thoroughly enjoyable, successful experience. When the experience is successful, from the consumer's perspective (e.g. treatment efficacy, stellar service, genuine interest in their being one of your clients, ambiance which contributes to an outstanding overall sensory experience, which includes visuals, noise levels, privacy, accouterments, non-invasive music, etc., competitive price-point for service and/or product), then that consumer will more than likely walk away from your business totally satisfied - with intentions to return and repeat their enjoyment. Your business can then fulfill the cycle of client satisfaction. And, a thoroughly satisfied client provides an invaluable benefit for your business, and that is free advertising. Nothing makes a more positive impact than word-of-mouth advertising from one satisfied client to a potentially new one. Conversely, provide less-than-acceptable overall service, and the client can impact negatively upon your business and its image, by sharing this experience with others.

Entering your Business:

When entering your business, what the client sees should immediately establish what you're all about as a business, and exactly what you're trying to convey to them as a client. Very often, these areas function as waiting or holding areas. Furniture is often uncomfortable and in need of replacement or reupholstering; too often, the furniture's placement is cramped, or inadequate for the number of clients waiting to be greeted, or serviced. The areas are often lit improperly, creating a glare, rather than a soft ambient affect. Facilities with a high turnaround of business, and where at all possible, should attempt to keep the exiting path away from any waiting/holding area - congestion and unnecessary noise can result; on the latter, keep in mind that your client may be trying to focus on relaxing, and prepare for their total indulgent experience. If this first impression screams to the client that you're disorganized, don't care, etc., then unfortunately, that will be the lasting impression your client will have of your business. If this impression is further combined with less-than-acceptable overall service, your business won't be able to weather the storm of competition, nor maintain a base of clientele.

Greet your client as soon as possible, and avoid making them wait any longer than is reasonable. Avoid accommodating late arrivals for services, which then back-log and unduly "punish" the client who shows up on time for their service, forcing the on-time client to accommodate the late-arrival. This is a nuisance and very insulting to the punctual client. You're in business not to inconvenience, but to serve the client (obviously there are rude clients who haven't a clue about having the decency to honor their obligation in arriving on-time for a scheduled appointment or calling to reschedule it; consider making the late arrival wait until another time slot is open, even at the risk of losing their business). Businesses hate turning away a paying customer, and often in their quest for profit, diminish the value of another paying customer, which is unacceptable.

After greeting the client, be sure to welcome them without pretentiousness, abruptness, or contrivance; be genuine, and sincere in your warmth of greeting; most people can immediately recognize a "snow job" and insincerity. The client may be under a great deal of stress in their own lives, and may have selected your facility as a refuge or safe-haven from their frenetic pace, so treat them with kindness and interest. Always, always make the client feel like they are the only one going to be serviced at that particular moment.

Escort them quietly to the robing area, and if your business provides a change of clothing, especially robes, make certain that they will be able to accommodate any sized individuals; avoid the mythical one-size-fits-all mentality; in general, it's a lie and can lead to embarrassment and offense for the client if they can't fit into one of these items.

If offered to the client, avoid running out of popular beverages such as herbal tea, decaffeinated coffees and teas; consider offering flavored decaffeinated coffees and teas; avoid offering wine (some facilities think this is "chic", but if your client is coming to be de-stressed and soothed, alcohol isn't the answer). Keep plenty of fresh cut lemon and lime for adding to a client's glass of spring water (carbonated water is fine, but some clients may have a sensitivity to the carbonation).

I once booked a partial day of beauty at a new day spa; when the owner asked me if I'd like a beverage, I asked for some decaffeinated coffee; she told me they didn't have any more made (I guess it was too much of a bother to make another pot, and she had no intention of making another one!); I then asked if she had any tea (any kind would've sufficed); - of course not; they did, however, have plenty of regular coffee and carbonated pop. Consider providing your clients with fresh fruit or veggies in the waiting/holding area; if your business is large enough, you may already have an area for your clients to rest after a treatment and relax even more; such areas are ideal for providing the little "extras" that make a lasting and favorable impression to your clients about your business.

Your establishment can never do too much to try and project what its client preferences may or may not be, or attempt to accommodate most client requests - a successful service-driven business, must keep this as one of their priorities; I'm not advocating going overboard, either; obviously any decisions have to be confined to your forecasted operational budget. Splurge on the client, and you won't be in business very long. The entire area must be clean, free of any debris or extraneous reading materials; the area should always be immaculately clean. Periodically, give your establishment the critical once-over eyeball review; be sure, however, to do so objectively. You'd be surprised how filthy some salons and spas can be. Your color scheme is another factor which affects the client's sensory image of your business. The color scheme of your entrance area, and even throughout your facility, should lend itself to a relaxing and calming affect.

If music is played, consider not using music which has a distinct or easily recognized melody, as many people identify certain experiences in their life with certain melodies; and, if that experience was negative, it may impact on their ability to relax and enjoy their treatment(s) to the fullest. Selecting appropriate music, with a broad base of appeal, can be difficult. I am also a professional musician; the music of "our culture" is categorized as Western music, which is based on half-notes; its "scale" essentially has only thirteen half-tones (including the octave). This limits the probability of melodies because of the tonal permutations and combinations; which is why with Western-based music, there are so many similar sounding melodies.

I once purchased some "relaxation" tapes, which primarily used "Native American flute" (recorder); one of them had the beginning of its "melody" identical to the opening of "Silent Night". Conversely, "Eastern" music is based on quarter-tones, which offers a greater variety of "different or unusual" melodies/tonal combinations, etc. Because of our what our ear has been acclimated to (Western-based music), Eastern-based music is considered by many to be "way out there", aurally bothersome, and even subliminally unsettling/


A synthesizer is often used to supplement or compliment Western-based music; it allows for the "bending and manipulation" of tones, to extend and generate more varied, interesting and appealing melodies/tonal nuisances; when coupled with acoustical instruments (recorders, woodwinds, guitars, strings, etc.) and sounds of nature, for example, the result can be a product which can substantially enhance the aural environment of your business.

Music is a very important component of the relaxation process - whether the music is confined to a treatment room, or "piped" throughout your facility. I recall a stay at a Southwestern destination spa, which had daily color themes; (this spa also coordinated a number of other items and aspects to the color du jour scheme). During my stay, the day finally arrived for the color red to be the day's "event"; while trying to really melt into a phenomenal massage, "what did my wondering ears hear?", but the melodies of "Waltzing Matilda" and "We Are Marching to Pretoria".

I found it quite distracting to have to listen to melodies which I was not only familiar with, but which also seemed inappropriate, and were invasive to the treatment -regardless how "dimmed" the volume level was; I found my thoughts wandering; having had my cerebral-self completely shocked into over-drive, and driven off-the-track - I thought, "what the hell do these two songs have to do with the color red?" The more I thought (all hopes of massage meltdown had been vanquished), the more I recalled that these were popular WWI and WWII songs; if war being the theme, and the color du jour being red, I concluded that the commonality was blood! Yuck!!

The point is, exercise caution and good judgment when selecting music for your facility. There's a lot of junk forced onto businesses as spa/salon-type music, which is either inappropriate or just plain silly; don't buy into the program just because someone else handed you a line about a particular set of recordings as being the be-all and end-all to this type of music.

I once purchased a collection of music alleged, by the producers, as music for "healing"; the music came as a set of cassettes; I decided to listen to the tape called "Light" without reading anything about it; to me, I equate "light" with reaching a level of resolution, and in a "healing" implied context, as a level of sedation or calm; this music was an hour's worth of most percussive rubbish with smatterings of nature sounds and synthesized glissandos of unidentifiable stringed "instruments"; it was more disturbing than healing, and was certainly not something I'd ever recommend to anyone who was "healing"; needless to say, I returned the complete set for a full refund. It's not easy selecting the most appropriate music for your business, so, caveat emptor!

Although it may be obvious to some, make sure your entrance area, and throughout your facility as well, doesn't have any offensive odors (smoke, mildew, cleaning solvents, pesticides, etc.).

If you have carpeting, make sure it's regularly cleaned - old, dirty carpeting, particularly in highly trafficked areas to and from entrances/exits, accumulate filth, moisture (potential mildew), and bacteria - just replace it (you can deduct this expense from your business taxes!).

Each person has a varied sense of smell, with women having the most acute ability to differentiate various odors, for example.

Some odors may only be detected by one individual, rather than a number of individuals; if a person has sinus congestion, or who may be on some forms of medication, for example, their sense of smell will be "altered".

Your HVAC should also be regularly inspected and the system portion controlling the fresh air intake/out-flow should also be regularly checked for proper registration, and adjusted so that the system takes in the highest percentage, or level possible of fresh air; make sure that filters, etc. are regularly changed and the system cleaned out of any dirt and dust accumulation.

Clients who are subjected to breathing stale, re-circulated air, can become nauseous, have their allergies exacerbated, or can become ill (especially if others within your facility are "carriers" of air-borne illnesses; of course, these types of people, staff included, should do everyone a big favor and stay home!).

Consider incorporating into your HVAC system a diffusion mechanism, which can send aromatherapy scents wafting throughout your business (or in limited areas, such as the waiting room); this can greatly enhance the ambiance and "personality" of your business. I recall going to an amenity spa, and sitting down in the waiting area inhaling the delicious and calming aroma of eucalyptus; it was a very nice touch! Consider a combination of lavender and bergamot, which is especially soothing and calming to inhale.

Staff should always employ appropriate hygiene, strictly adhering to their locale's board of health mandates. The hands of staff, when used on a client, particularly for facials, should be free of any extraneous and non-product odors; their breath should be that way too; too often I have been nauseated by either the body odors (perspiration, improperly laundered or soiled work attire, etc.), bad breath, or odiferous hands of a therapist or esthetician working on me in a treatment.

Treatment Area:

Too many hair and nail salons, who frantically want to jump on the "day spa band-wagon", for example, do so by turning under-sized rooms into treatment rooms for facials, body wraps, or massages; these quarters then become cramped and make for an uncomfortable experience for the client; the therapist or esthetician is hindered in being able to maximize the efficacy of the client's treatment, by often having to maneuver around the treatment chair or table, which often occupies the majority of the treatment space (some amenity and destination spas are just as "guilty" about these items too).

Unfortunately, the lease-cost per square footage is exorbitant in most areas. Establishments have to make an intelligent choice; if their business is to become profitable, one of the major elements of concern should be the overall size of the treatment space, and the percentage relationship to the size and type of treatment to be performed, revenues generated, and overhead expenditures.

Cramped quarters can also make a claustrophobic client exceedingly uncomfortable, and may even bring on a panic attack. (I know of what I speak - on at least one occasion, such an attack happened to me). Now, before any of my treatments begin, and if I sense that my phobia might interfere with the treatment's efficacy, or my therapist/esthetician's ability to perform the treatment properly (or even my enjoying it), I inform the therapist or esthetician about the phobia before the treatment begins. The therapist or esthetician appreciates being advised, and the real professional attempts to accommodate the client without having to sacrifice any aspect of the treatment to be administered.

Many, including myself, also find it uncomfortable to be placed in a horizontal position during the course of a treatment for any length of time. I realize that this makes it easier for the therapist or esthetician to administer their treatment, but when you have chronic sinusitis, the last thing that should be done is to place this type of client in a horizontal position, even for a few minutes - breathing can become difficult, pressure builds up in the head, etc.; consider, if at all possible, elevating the top part of the treatment table forty-five degrees or so - this will alleviate your client having difficulty "breathing" or pressure build-up in their sinus cavaties, ears, or head..

Always, always ask questions. It doesn't take that much time for the therapist or esthetician to ask a few questions about the client; most clients would view this as genuine interest in their comfort level, giving a favorable image of your staff and business. Inquire about the client's experience level - if they're a "first-timer", tell them what they can expect during their treatment; take the time to explain or clarify - don't surprise your client; surprises can often offend the client, creating a negative image of your staff and your business. Ask if the client is comfortable - if not, inquire as to what can be done to make them comfortable.

The more information you have, the better able you are to serve your client. Consider using a "neck roll" pillow, rather than a rolled up towel for neck support; a rolled up towel is very uncomfortable, non-pliable and too hard of a surface for the neck and head to rest comfortably during the course of the treatment.

Another turn-off for clients is having to go into a treatment area contiguous with highly trafficked areas (usually because of the paucity of space), extraneous sounds from adjacent treatment areas, are clearly audible; how can a client relax under these conditions? - the noise factor clearly obviates the treatment's calming affect it was meant to have.

The same goes for treatment areas where offensive odors permeate other treatment areas (perm solutions, polish, etc.). Toweling, sheeting, or robing should be laundered using high quality detergent and water softener; another client "turn-off" is having their skin come in contact with a fabric that either has an odor residue, or which is scratchy to the touch.

Treatments which are timed, and where the client is "left" in the treatment room for the process to take effect, whoever administers the treatment, should check-in on their client at least once or twice during the timing period. Don't leave them alone to wonder what is going on; one can, without being a bother, enter the treatment room and either ask if the client is okay, if they are comfortable or need anything, or just take a look to see if coverings, wrappings, etc. need to be adjusted (for example); for herbal wraps, make sure the cold compress is regularly "refreshed"

I can recall one episode where I received an herbal wrap; after being wrapped and covered, a very hot rolled up towel was placed under my head as a neck support, and a cold compress was placed on my forehead; I was left in a totally dark room (I wasn't even given the choice of selecting the lights merely being dimmed) for thirty minutes; not once, in all that time, did anyone bother to see if I was okay, which I wasn't; the hot towel made me sweat profusely; my body heat turned the cold compress warm and was never refreshed by the attendant either; and, the heat from the neck towel eventually elevated my blood pressure and gave me increased heart palpitations (I had never experienced this type of "side-effect" before); needless to say, I was extremely uncomfortable. As the events of becoming over-heated and blood pressure rising, etc. I certainly didn't remain in my cocoon; rather, I sat up, disrobed a good portion of the time I was in the room; I also had difficulty locating someone to complain to.

If dimming the lights is part of the treatment's "effect", just ask your client whether they want the lights dimmed or completely turned off, don't make the assumption for them.

Always use the best products available on the market for all of your treatments. I remember a massage I received at an amenity spa, where the therapist used canola oil; I asked why they were using this type of oil (I was accustomed to blended oils using jojoba, almond, sesame, hazelnut, etc.); the therapist tried to explain that it was more effective than other oils they had used (taking the cheap way out diminishes the overall quality of the massage product); perhaps the oil was rancid, but it took several washings to get the smelly residue of the oil out of my hair, off of my skin, and out of the clothing I had worn after I had received the massage. Your clients may have skin sensitivities to salon/spa formulated products; many people experience hyper-sensitivity (or mild sensitivity) to products containing AHA's, glycolic acid, and even botanicals.

I recently had a facial at a very tony day spa; I was somewhat shocked when the esthetician used hydrogen peroxide on my face after giving my pores the "once-over clean sweep"; almost immediately, my skin began to sting and burn; in all the years I have had facials, not once was this type of product ever used on my face after the thorough cleansing stage; when I asked the esthetician why she used hydrogen peroxide, she really had no logical reason for doing so.

The condition of my skin worsened by the time I arrived home, with considerable redness all over the facial area. In this regard, the allergic reactions or sensitivities may not immediately show.

In cases where the client ends up buying one of the products used in a treatment, and should allergic reactions to the product not occur until the client has begun to use the product on a regular basis, or as part of an at-home regimen, and should the client want to return the product, don't give them a rough time with the return, and don't automatically consider offering a product exchange - especially if the product being offered for exchange has a formulation comparable to the problem causing product the client is returning. I once had an unpleasant experience along these lines with a prominent salon/day spa in my area; eventually I got my money back - after "haggling" with one of the staff; I shouldn't have had to go through this type of customer disservice; it certainly wasn't exemplary of good customer service. Where product exchanges are possible, fine; but if your policy is not to refund, then consider offering a treatment as an exchange, or applying the cost of the product against another booked treatment. Aggravating the client is a bad business move!

For manicures and pedicures, keep in mind that some clients may also have allergies to formaldehyde in polishes or acetone in polish removers. Many are allergic to these two chemicals, including myself. There have been many times I've ended up bringing in my own product to businesses, because the person I spoke to on the phone wasn't sure if their polishes and removers contained these chemicals (even some of the manicurists weren't certain about product ingredients); even if I was told that the products didn't contain these allergens, sometimes I'd bring my own product anyway, because I've learned from experience, that even though someone may've told me that they use products without these allergens in them, often when I arrive for the service, I learn that I was misled/misinformed.

Again, your business must be prepared for any situation which may arise and present a "unique" opportunity in accommodating a client. If your business offers a program for weight management for example, and part of the initial visit involves obtaining a reading of the client's density of body fat , using an electronic sensing device, make sure you advise the client of some of the precautionary information they need to know before you hook any of the electrodes to them and begin sending electrical pulses throughout their bodies.

I remember having this done at one day spa, and the attendant began placing the electrodes to my skin; out of curiosity, I began asking a number of questions, which forced the attendant to get out the operator's manual; we collectively learned that people with pacemakers, heart problems, high blood pressure and pregnancies, were not to have this type of test administered, as it could create side effects, such as increased heart palpitations, for example. Make certain that only qualified personnel, who have thoroughly read the operational manual, and who fully understand what the purpose of the equipment is, the conditions under which is should be used, etc.

Perhaps, I have been a consumer with "bad luck", or who seems to attract negative experiences, but I doubt it. Many I speak to also share with me similar experiences. All of these negative experiences were totally preventable, but because the businesses weren't managed properly, problems occurred.

It isn't easy developing, running, and maintaining a business that not only affords the client the highest standard possible for all services rendered, but can also maintain a profit-margin. I don't necessarily view my personal experiences, or even the experiences of others as "nightmares", or "chance encounters of the wrong kind"; rather, I view them as opportunities to learn personally and professionally. My experiences have afforded me with the opportunity in becoming a better informed and educated consumer; in turn, I have been able to share my learning experiences with others, so they can avoid the hassle, disappointment, discomfort, inconvenience, etc. that I've experienced.

There's a lot of stuff out there to be aware of; most businesses are already savvy; others still need to "listen up". Hopefully, this article will help those businesses achieve, or get on track, and aim for a level of success they've never experienced before.

Yours is a people business - driven by and for people. Your profitability is directly connected to your ability to manage all aspects of your operation, including customer service and support.

Wear-down the trust of your clients, by presenting a less-than-favorable business product, and you can kiss your assets good-bye.

Lastly, just because a client doesn't complain about their negative experiences to you or your management, don't assume that there's nothing wrong - sometimes a client's dissatisfaction can be manifested in the disguise of lost business, or no new client business (word-of-mouth negative advertising from a "disgruntled" client).

Never take your clients for granted.

If your business doesn't already have it, consider developing a follow-up program - especially if the client "bought" into an at-home regimen. Keep in touch with your clients on a regular basis with special mailings, or a survey on their previous visit, etc. Consider rewarding your clients for bringing in new clients, or who re-book their treatments, or even book ones they've never experienced. Consider creating "levels" of client achievement for this (e.g. after six treatments, the seventh is free). Be creative in recognizing your client and re-emphasizing to them that you not only value their patronage, and that you recognize them as a vital and special part of your business. Client interest goes beyond the "ca-chink" of the cash register! It's good business sense, pure and simple!