Critical Condition

IT'S A CUSTOMER SERVICE TRUISM THAT HAPPY customers share their experience with three other people, while unhappy customers tell nine. We also know that the bad reviews don't stop there—those folks in turn will tell about eight more people. In one study, 75 people were "infected" in just one week by a single dissatisfied customer.

Ready for more bad news? The numbers are worse than that—far worse. And we have the internet to thank. The same tool that giveth us new customers via web searches and pay-per-click advertising is all too happy to taketh away, thanks to a rapidly growing trend: online review sites. Citysearch was one of the first to proliferate online amateur reviews, but new competitive sites are on the march. The hot newcomer is Yelp (

Online amateur reviewing is part of the trend toward more inclusive forms of media. The internet has enabled literally anyone with computer access to freely share their creations, thoughts, and opinions with others. MySpace and other social networking sites like FaceBook offer a venue for personal marketing. YouTube enables us all to post our amateur videos, ending the tyrannical reign of ABCs America's Funniest Home Videos as the venue to air our stupid pet tricks. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, compiles the wisdom—and errors—of the masses, and is reputedly rendered inaccurate once every three seconds by its contributors.

Spas are sending fewer newsletters and posting more blogs. It seems we all have something to say. And our customers do, too. When customers post their reviews about your spa on sites like Yelp, your customer service glitches won't just end up as fodder for that intimate 75-person gossip tree. They are served up on a silver platter with a brilliant spotlight shining on them, for thousands to view.

Don't get me wrong. Happy customers post reviews, too. And getting your satisfied customers to review your spa is crucial. But once again, the malcontents are far more motivated to share. Unlike professional reviews, there are no rules to this game. There is no code of conduct. The first time I visited Yelp, I nearly passed out. Four out of the five reviews posted for our spa were negative or dismissive.

Once I recovered my composure, I launched a campaign to contact our reviewers and find out how we could make things right, just as I would do with an unhappy guest in our spa. Here's an example of some of the things I've discovered in my encounters with negative reviewers:

Reviewers are not always current clients. One negative reviewer had not visited our spa in five years. Reviewers may be passing through the site, notice your reviews, and add their comments—without sharing the fact that they're not recent.

You only get one chance to please online reviewers. They are comfortable posting a review on a company they've visited just once. None of this restaurant reviewer "visit-three-times-before-reviewing" nonsense. They shoot from the hip, and they do not give you the benefit of the doubt.

Customers who would share their unhappiness with a store employee or manager in the past are increasingly willing to first pull out the online flamethrower. We all know how hard it is to complain; online reviewing is easy. A friend of mine who had happily dined at a well-regarded restaurant with me on a number of occasions took to her computer after one bad meal with her family, rather than speak to the owner, whom she had met in the past.

Young guests (a disproportionate percentage of online reviewers) are much more likely to complain online than to try traditional forms of complaint resolution, such as asking to speak to a manager. Because young guests are often less confident than their older counterparts, and because they are accustomed to communicating through a keyboard, this is probably a pretty comfortable and safe way to take out their frustrations.

It's much more fun to post negative reviews than positive reviews. The only place where there seems to be an exception is restaurant reviews. Foodies love to share good news and energetically endorse their favorite haunts. One gentleman I contacted about his review for our spa admitted he had recommended our spa to others because he knew we had a good reputation. However, he did not admit as much online.

The saving grace of these sites is that you will usually have an opportunity to contact the reviewer. I have done so with every review, negative or positive, that we've received on Yelp. I thank the folks who take the time to share their thumbs-up, and I work to rectify whatever inspired the thumbs-down. I never ask these reviewers to change their review, just to come back to the spa and give us another try. I usually ask them to mystery shop us at the same time, using our own internal review tool. It's my way of explaining just how hard we work—the number of "moments of truth" we have to manage in a typical guest visit are all carefully documented in the Mystery Shopper form. Nonetheless, I don't want their sympathy. I want to earn their positive review.

The Yelp reviewers that I emailed were surprised and pleased to be contacted by us. There seems to be a prevailing assumption that a spa has given poor service because its staff does not care or because all management cares about is money. It should not come as a surprise to learn that, according to the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, customer happiness is at a two-year low. Consumers are jaded, even cynical. When we fail, it's viewed against a broader backdrop of eroding customer care standards. It's no wonder we don't get a second chance.

Contacting online reviewers is another opportunity to exceed customer expectations. A salvaged customer can become a true evangelist, if the new reviews posted by guests who gave us a second chance are any indication. And this has always been true—that's because people who actually complain (out loud or in writing) are people who have a stronger emotional connection to the service or product you're selling. If you can make that experience a good one, you'll benefit from their passion. Another study has shown that the technically satisfied guest, as opposed to the emotionally satisfied guest, is scarcely more likely to promote your company than a dissatisfied guest.

Contacting happy guests is just as important. A sincere thank you means a great deal. (And a little gift or upgrade during their next visit doesn't hurt, either.) Make sure all your regular guests know that you'd like to be reviewed. Provide a link to review sites in your online newsletter and ask them to share their experiences. I've observed some loyal clients get downright indignant at poor reviewers and write vigorous defenses of our reputation.

Please resist the temptation to sway the results by posting your own reviews under pseudonyms. But no one says you can't issue an "SOS" to your hardcore fans if you discover you've been dissed beyond recognition online. The reviewers with the most credibility, by the way, are ones who post frequent reviews of different businesses. If their review of your company is a one-off, it carries less weight.

We've always taken complaints seriously because we know that most people (at least in the pre-Yelp era) would rather just go away mad. It's estimated that only one out of 10 customers with a complaint or issue will ever voice it. Rather than shrug off complaining customers as cranks, treat them as the canary in your coal mine. Yelp and its counterparts have fashioned an impressive cage for these canaries. It's now our duty to go in there and clean the coal dust off their little feathers. Add it to your list of customer service and marketing responsibilities.

When, after some work on our part, our Yelp rating climbed to four stars, I was contacted by someone from the company who wanted to sell us advertising. "Congratulations on your high ratings!" trumpeted the email. I had to laugh. I wrote back and explained that I was having a hard time imagining giving my money to a company that had created a product that had given me so much stress and frustration and had cost so many hours of my time. I also told the salesperson that I knew she was in sales and that I hoped she could pass on my thoughts to upper management. Her poignant reply could not have been more ironic. "Thanks for your feedback. Most companies I contact don't realize that I'm just in sales," she wrote. "Thank you for not attacking me."

Peggy Wynne Borgman is the CEO of Preston Wynne and the director of two Preston Wynne spas. Borgman is a principal consultant and seminar leader for Wynne Business and author of Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty: Spa Rituals for Well-Being Throughout the Year (Broadway Books, 2003). She is also a member of the Day Spa Association's advisory board. You can reach her at [email protected].