[Updated] 13 tips for handling complaints

From chipped nails to rude therapists, clients will always have complaints, but how you handle them can win or lose your salon business. Eve Oxberry and Ellen Cummings asked the experts for their top tips.

1. Encourage feedback

While it might sound counter-intuitive, receiving complaints can actually help you retain clients in the long run. 

Kelly Shaw, founder of k:spa in Whiteley, explains, “96% of clients won’t complain – they would rather just leave. We want to encourage our clients to complain because then we have a chance of fixing the experience for that client and redeeming ourselves. 

“The key to handling complaints is to fix the ‘experience’ for the person who is unhappy. Manage that and you will find they turn into one of your most loyal clients.” 

2. Make sure it’s genuine

“Not every complaint is viable and it’s important to know when someone is playing the system,” warns Sammy MacDonald, director of The Studio Salons in Aberdeen. 

She continues, “Always ask the client to return to the salon for you to see the quality of work for yourself.” 

Speaking to the therapist involved is also vital to make sure you’re armed with all the facts from both sides. 

If the complaint is found to be unjustified, Lesley Caster, owner of the City Retreat salons and spas in Newcastle, suggests you should explain in detail the processes and expected outcome of the treatment to make sure the client understands what was supposed to happen. 

However, in some cases it’s still better to offer to remedy the issue so the complaint doesn’t further escalate. 

Belinda Price, owner of NailSpa in Huddersfield, adds, “We have to be seen to put the treatment right if the complaint is about that. If we have offered to do that, then to a degree we have covered ourselves.”

3. Keep calm and listen

When a client gets angry, it’s vital you remain calm. 

“Be empathetic and listen to what they have to say rather than being defensive as that will make them more agitated,” says Tima Reshad, owner of Coco Nail Bar in London. “Clients like to know that their opinion and experience matters.” 

Caster suggests you demonstrate how seriously you are taking the complaint by clarifying each point with the client as you go along and noting details in writing.

Helena Field, house manager at 42 Acres in Somerset, adds, “Listening and giving your undivided attention to the guest goes a long way already in solving the issue.”

Where possible, she suggests taking the guest to a comfortable place, away from other clients and staff, to discuss the issue to limit confrontation or embarrassment.

Not sure how to handle an upset client? Check out our top tips for dealing with angry customers.

4. Involve your team

Never take the client’s side without giving staff a chance to explain. 

“Make sure you have all the facts before approaching the member of staff. Start by having an informal meeting with them so that you can explain the nature of the complaint,” suggests Sheral Griffin, beauty therapy tutor at The Beauty Academy

“It is vital that you support the therapist throughout the process.” 

Angela Moulding, owner of Angela Moulding Mind and Bodywork Therapist in Worthing, agrees: “Speak to the therapist who did the treatment and obtain the relevant details – which products were used, how long they were left on the skin, what machine was used and whether or not the problem was apparent at the time of the treatment. 

“Without this information it will be difficult to determine what has gone wrong and, therefore, how to put it right.”

5. Resolve it quickly...

A speedy resolution could prevent that customer from telling their friends, or worse, announcing it to the world online. 

“I tell my staff they should always find a resolution before the customer leaves. If they leave with it unresolved it nearly always escalates the situation,” says Field. 

If you can’t find an immediate solution, don’t put it off for too long. 

“Tell the client you will investigate their concerns and come back to them within the next 24 hours, and make sure you do, even if it is just to say you are still looking into the matter and that you will come back to them when you have had the time to investigate the matter thoroughly,” advises Caster. 

It’s fine to seek advice on the situation, but never pass the buck, warns Field: “If you can’t resolve a complaint there and then, say you will investigate or refer to a higher manager – but always personally follow up in a timely manner.”

6. But take time to think your response through

“All too often, I see hot-headed replies to complaints – and whether this is via email, in person or on a review somewhere, responding when you aren't in the right headspace can do more harm than good,” comments Hollie Power, co-founder of Salonology.

She adds, “Professionalism is key here, because we want to resolve the situation and not pour fuel upon it. On an online complaint, for instance, it's likely your response to a review will be visible, so you can use this as a platform to diffuse any future client's concerns rather than show anger or offence taken.”  

Shaw comments, “Whenever anyone makes a complaint, there are three key things they are looking for – to be listened to, to be respected and to have their problem solved. Focus on these three key points in the right way and you can turn a complaint into a positive experience for the client.”

7. Re-do, don’t refund

It is usually better to offer to re-do the treatment or discount the next one rather than giving the customer their money back.  

“Once a refund is issued it’s pretty much guaranteed that client will never return,” says MacDonald. 

Instead, she suggests you should “offer a gift certificate or free service to try and restore the customer’s faith in your salon”. 

Deborah Anne King, who runs Angel Loving Care in West Lothian, usually offers a mini complimentary treatment or a substantial discount on a future treatment of their choice to be taken within three months. 

King says, “I would then treat them myself if possible so I could be sure they were getting the attention needed to change their opinion about us.”

8. Respond to online complaints...

If the worst does happen and you see a scathing review online, it’s unwise to ignore it. 

“Where possible, leaving a comment directly underneath the complaint is ideal. You should state that you are sorry the customer has experienced something below the high standards you set for the company,” suggests Moulding. 

“Make the customer, and everyone else reading, aware that what has happened is not a normal occurrence and you are happy to rectify the problem.”

9. Then handle them offline

The general consensus about online complaints is that you should tackle them privately. 

“If the review is genuine, you should already have the clients’ contact details to call them directly. If not, respond to the review saying you are sorry that they are dissatisfied and could they please contact the salon as soon as possible to discuss the matter further and give you a chance to resolve it,” suggests Rebecca Dowdeswell, owner of the NKD specialist waxing salons in Norwich and Leicester. 

“Never enter into an argument online for all to see, as that’s one thing you’ll never win, even if you are in the right.” 

However, even if the conversation is private, it’s still unwise to argue in writing. “It could easily be screenshotted and appear on social media later,” warns Price.

10. Write a procedure

While complaints should be considered on a case-by-case basis, having an official procedure will give you a good starting point. It will also give your staff guidance on how to deal with issues when you’re not there. 

Price advises that your procedure should involve asking members of staff discreetly and professionally what happened. “Then record your findings. You may need to come back to this information for a number of reasons so be clear about what has happened,” she adds. 

You should also have a procedure in place with your suppliers, so staff know what to do if they receive a complaint about a homecare product. 

“There should be a returns policy in place with the supplier. This should protect the salon or spa owner whether the complaint is about an allergic reaction or if the product doesn’t deliver the expected results,” says Griffin. 

“Offer an exchange or refund to maintain good relations with the customer.”

11. Thank them and mean it

We’ve all heard the saying “feedback is a gift”, but that can be hard to remember when a client is yelling at your junior therapist.

“Although no salon wants to receive a complaint, we’d much rather our customers tell us when they have an issue, which in turn gives us a chance to resolve it,” says Dowdeswell. 

“The alternative is that the client goes away, probably badmouths us to others and remains dissatisfied with the service she or he received from us for evermore.” 

King agrees, adding, “I generally start by thanking them and telling them we always welcome all feedback, be it good or bad, as clients’ words are our only reality of how we are doing.” 

NKD invites feedback via a survey after every treatment. “Clients have the option of remaining anonymous if they wish, but of course we’d rather they reveal their identity so we can contact them and put things right,” says Dowdeswell.

12. Use complaints to train

Your complaints procedure is wasted unless you also use it to make changes in your business. 

“If you identify a problem, resolve it, then put in place new procedures so that particular problem cannot happen again,” reminds Jones. 

Ideally, complaints should be used to identify training needs rather than to punish staff. 

“Rather than reprimand the therapist or receptionist in question, we’d first consider whether the incident occurred because of a lack of knowledge or skill that we have failed to pass on to our staff,” says Dowdeswell. “That changes if we receive persistent bad comments about a particular therapist doing a particular thing, but that is very rarely the case.” 

The training needed may not always be in treatment skills. Caster suggests, “If necessary, the member of staff should be given training in effective communication or dealing with difficult clients before the issue becomes a disciplinary matter.”

13. Remember that a five-star rating isn’t everything

Power says, “We all strive for perfection, but a negative complaint here and there won't massively impact how your potential clients see you. 

“In fact, it can make you seem more genuine. Potential clients may see a perfect five-star rating as ingenuine, so a slightly lower score shows you in a more authentic light. 

“As long as your general rating is high and you respond well, you'll always appeal to the right clients.” 

How do you handle client complaints? Let us know in the comments below.