Sticky Situations
Handle clients with style

By Barbara Hey

Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, April/May 2007. Copyright 2007. Associated Skin Care Professionals. All rights reserved.

All skin care professionals will eventually face difficult clients and situations. Like all care providers, you'll have to deal with challenges that can compromise your work, including clients who are chronically late, who cancel at the last minute or just don't show, or who bring along companions--small children, perhaps even a Chihuahua in a handbag.

The hands-on nature of your work makes it especially sensitive--it's your business, yes, but to a client, any relationship issues feel personal. Since your work affects appearance, there's also customer expectation--unspoken or not--of what the end result will be. And there's bound to be emotion if things don't go as planned (ever had a bad haircut?).

Your job is to do your job. Sometimes that means setting limits in ways that protect your business but don't antagonize your clients. How you handle sticky situations may also depend on whether they are first-time visitors or clients with whom you have longstanding relationships.

Just what do you do when the going gets tough? We asked experienced professionals about sticky scenarios they've faced and how they managed to save the day.

Small Distractions
"In life, attitude is everything," says Helena Brommeson, skin care professional and spa manager at Watercourse Way in Palo Alto, California. "Whatever happens, I try to work with it or around it. That's just part of customer service."

Sometimes what you need to work around is a child, one or many. Despite the fact that a treatment, be it a facial or a bikini wax, is me time, many women show up with kids in tow. It could be a last-minute no-one's-available-to-babysit situation, or just a presumption children are welcome everywhere.

Many say if the salon is not too busy, they try to accommodate children, if they are old enough to sit quietly. "I have kids myself; I understand," Brommeson says. She talks to her client's children, and accentuates the positive: "I like the way you can sit and be so quiet," is one tactic.

Age is critical. "A ten-year-old is quite different from a four-year-old," says Amy Waldorf, co-owner of Harmony Day Spa in Caldwell, New Jersey. "A couple years ago I had a woman bring in her four kids, all under the age of five. They were throwing pillows, and I was concerned. So I explained that we better stop or I would do the treatment too quickly and not do a good job. I didn't want to wax off her eyebrow."

Things got worse before they got better. "Then she started yelling at her kids to be quiet, and that was not good either," she says. Waldorf stopped the service, and rebooked her client for a kid-free appointment. "I felt bad, so I comped her."

Jerri Fish, a skin care professional at Body Wrap Master and Spa in Jacksonville, Florida, allows a child old enough to sit still, to wait on the couch while mom gets a treatment. No babies, ever. If the child is too young, she'll politely ask them to reschedule and explain the reasons, among them the noise and potential for accidents.

Liability a Factor
Terry Herman, a spa management consultant based in Westmont, Illinois, suggests being proactive about as many sticky situations as you can envision. She suggests clearly delineating spa rules in a document that clients must sign prior to treatment. "Children are a liability issue," she says. "Spas are not daycare centers, and clients need to understand there's no one on-site who is a licensed babysitter." Emergencies are another matter. "If, at the last minute, the babysitter cancelled or if the school is suddenly shut down, then look at it from that perspective," she says.

A child can make it difficult for the mother to relax. "I might say, 'this is your time,'" Brommeson says. And suggest the experience might be more fully enjoyed solo.

But there are other considerations. Fish says it's not polite to the other clients who have left their offspring at home and are paying for a relaxing, stress-free experience.

Dog Dilemmas
"I've had clients bring dogs too," Brommeson says. If they are well behaved, she allows pooches to stay.
Not so everywhere. "I say, it's not that we don't like dogs," says Mary Rode, location manager at Maximus Spa Salon in Merrick, New York. "It's a health issue. Some people are allergic."

Of course, some dogs are working. "I have one client who is blind, and her dog is in the room with her for everything," Rode says.

Tardies and No-Shows
Chronic lateness is another common complaint. "If someone is chronically late, and you tolerate it, you're an enabler," Herman says. That goes for all no-nos, like using cell phones during appointments. "Nip it in the bud," is her advice, and make the consequences part of policy. "However late they are, that's how much the appointment is shortened." Otherwise it's not fair to the next client.

If there's a gap in the schedule, some skin care professionals complete the full treatment. But Brommeson urges her staff not to stress themselves to accommodate lateness. "Take honor in starting and ending on time," she says. "Pleasing clients shouldn't cause you to compromise how thorough you are or compromise your schedule."

One skin care professional knows her clients so well, she gives regulars prone to tardiness an appointment reminder card noted with a time that is actually fifteen minutes prior to when the appointment is booked. That way, she deals with their idiosyncrasies, and her schedule is not disrupted.

Last-minute cancellations or no-shows are an all-too-familiar occurrence. Once again, put it in writing. Most salons require clients provide credit card numbers when booking appointments, and at that time the cancellation policy is stated: usually any cancellation must be done twenty-four or forty-eight hours prior to appointments and any short notice is charged a 50 percent cancellation fee. If need be, elaborate. "I explain that our therapists are commission-based," Fish says.

Because of the number of last-minute cancellations, Brommeson's spa upped the cancellation period to forty-eight hours for longer treatments. "It's easy to rebook short sessions, but last-minute cancellations of spa packs, two hours or more, are hard."

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule: family emergencies, bad weather, or a long-term relationship with the client. "I find that people are much more respectful once they've given their credit card number," Waldorf says.

Something in the Air
Poor hygiene is another delicate issue, and one that many prefer to deal with indirectly. "We have supplies in the room," Fish says, that can be used to do something about less-than-fresh feet. "I wouldn't mention that their feet were dirty; I'd just clean them."

If it's more of a global odor, you have options: ignore it, which is the path of least resistance. If in a spa and time permits, ask whether they'd like to freshen up first in one of the showers. Or camouflage: "Bring out the aromatherapy," Herman suggests. Mist the air with essential oils or light a scented candle. "Make it part of the ambience," she says.

Another common issue: a client who comes in sick. "A woman came in just recently with her nose running, and my skin care professional didn't want to work on her" says Brian Lewis, co-owner of Amai Day Spa in Bothell, Washington. "The facial treatment would make the symptoms worse, and she didn't want to catch the bug either."

The best response is honesty. What Brommeson says is this: "If I work on you now, it may accelerate your illness. It would be much more beneficial if you came in when you've recovered."

Fish offers a choice: either rebook when you're well, or "I can work on you now, but I am going to wear a mask and gloves, so don't take offense."

Male clients present an altogether different kind of sticky situation, and here again being indirect or using humor is the best response. "I've had men want to date me or marry me," Brommeson says. "My joke is to say, 'my husband doesn't ever get any treatments.'"

Treatment Confusion
Then there's the client who is displeased with the treatment. Maybe she doesn't understand what, for example, a chemical peel or microdermabrasion is going to look like, or doesn't follow the protocol for aftercare, like avoiding the sun. "Cover yourself by putting it all in writing, in the informed consent," Waldorf says. "Put in all the facts about the procedure, who should do it and who should not, what to expect after treatment, and how to take care of yourself."

Lewis says, "That's happened with phototherapy. A client called the next day with a complaint; she felt sunburned." Though this topic was in the information provided prior to treatment, he invited her in for a complimentary application of cooling aloe or a cream for reactive skin.

When dealing with clinical skin treatments, often clients aren't clear either about the procedure itself or what the benefits will be. The solution: "I always suggest a consultation prior to treatment," Waldorf says. "Some clients have unrealistic expectations, and I need to hear what they are. Listening is important, first and foremost. Sometimes I see red flags and just know they might be off in what they expect and need to be guided elsewhere for cosmetic surgery."

Then there's the do-it-yourselfer. "I had just done a spray-on tan for a client, then left the room for her to dress," Fish says.

"Apparently she had continued to spray herself and came out looking silly because she knew she'd made a mistake. I explained that this is why a trained professional provides the service, and that she could juice and salt scrub to encourage the color to fade." No doubt, she learned her lesson.

* * *

Ultimately, it's about doing your job and pleasing your client. The best advice is provide as much in writing beforehand--policy and education. And then, when the sticky situation arises, follow protocol, but in a kind and gentle manner.

Barbara Hey is a freelance health writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in several national publications, including Allure, Health, Alternative Medicine, and Parenting.

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