How to Respond to Complaining Customers

Not long ago, we were served with what you could call a class-action suit. The work of one aggrieved member claiming to speak for many others, it came via e-mail rather than the courts — which was good, because frankly, we wouldn’t want to see our fitness instructor who overslept and missed the member’s group-cycling class up on the stand, begging for mercy.

You can afford to joke when the court is virtual.

SUGGESTION BOX A club should encourage valid and thoughtful feedback, but not the type of rampant complaints that disrupt operation of the facility.SUGGESTION BOX A club should encourage valid and thoughtful feedback, but not the type of rampant complaints that disrupt operation of the facility.

We took her criticisms — which, in person and in the lengthy e-mail that followed, embraced more than one conspiracy theory and encompassed everything from our scheduling practices to unclean fitness equipment — with the utmost seriousness. We listened. We apologized. What we didn’t do was capitulate. We let her have her say, we responded (we thought, appropriately), and then we told her she might be happier elsewhere.

The customer is not always right.

We get this sort of all-over-the-place “feedback” (to put it charitably) all the time. About two months prior to the no-show instructor rant, we received a complaint from a member who found a discarded Band-Aid in the shower. Beginning with that one dripping-wet bandage, her e-mail indictment eventually encompassed the overall state of the showers, the condition of the group-ex bikes and the towels that we use to wipe down the equipment. To make matters worse, she was an infectious-disease expert with our largest corporate client, and she forwarded her e-mail to several layers of her company’s management because she felt they should know about her worries.

How do you argue with an infectious-disease expert about your club’s cleanliness? You tell her she might be happier finding a bubble to work out in.

At least, that’s what we suggest. Our belief is that “the customer’s perspective must be addressed.” And that’s what we did with this month’s disgruntled member. Here’s an abbreviated and slightly edited version of our actual 2,600-word e-mail reply:

Hello Disgruntled Member,

We are in receipt of your e-mail and appreciate you taking the time to outline your concerns and those of “many other” members. We understand that you reviewed these issues with our general manager last week, as well, and we trust that our responses will be consistent with what he has already discussed with you.

We appreciate the collective frustration that was felt last Monday when our instructor overslept. This was not acceptable and the instructor understands that it cannot occur again. However, we believe adequate apologies have been provided by our GM, by the instructor (that day via e-mail to several members, and in person at her next class) and by our front-desk person who was working at the time.

As for your comment that we do not care about our members nor treat them with respect — we find that inappropriate and insulting. If we didn’t care, our GM would not have met with you, and our instructor would not have apologized. We would not be responding to you here, and this issue would not have taken up far more time than it has warranted. The bottom line is that an employee made a mistake and didn’t show up for work. It’s unacceptable and if it happens again, changes will have to be made. But, some perspective is in order. It was an hour’s worth of exercise, in a facility with plenty of other things to do. It was not the end of the world.

[Four hundred words answering five distinct complaints have been edited out for reasons of maintaining our, and your, sanity.]

The bottom line for most of these issues, Disgruntled Member, is pretty simple. There are no conspiracies. There are no hidden agendas. To the degree that you and other members may feel irreparably insulted and ignored, we are happy for the rest of this month to bypass our normal cancellation policy and allow any of you to break your contracts immediately. It does us no good to have unhappy members. We do our best every day and will continue to do so, but we learned a long time ago that we can’t make everyone happy; nor is it worth it for us to try.

You are welcome to speak with us at any time about these or any other issues. However, we must ask that you no longer discuss any of these issues with members of our staff. The environment on the morning in question last week, as described by every staff member, was extremely disruptive. Our instructors are not there to be beaten up with complaints, and complaints do not qualify as feedback or valid suggestions. Our instructors — the very people who are trying to help you have outstanding workouts and enjoy your experience — are on pins and needles, and they do not deserve that.

We’re simply trying to run the best facility we can afford to run, while managing the all-too-human issues that we face every day. We are happy to receive all legitimate feedback and questions, but at the same time the behaviors that are creating a toxic environment at an otherwise pleasant facility have got to end. If that means you or any other members would like to cancel your memberships this month and see if you will be happier elsewhere, we are happy to accommodate that.

Rob and Barry

As news of our e-mail response made the rounds, we heard that we were being called “unprofessional,” which we equated with not telling our disgruntled members what they wanted to hear. We were fine with that. We had acknowledged those things that we agreed with or could address (suggestions made about the types of classes we should offer and the length of classes, to cite two examples), while strongly correcting falsehoods and letting it be known that we would not tolerate insults. We had made it clear that we were not concerned about members leaving and, indeed, we had invited them to do so.

It accomplished what we had hoped — it disarmed the rabble. We soon followed up with an invitation for the members to meet with us, and a handful did. The tone was, unsurprisingly, cordial and professional. While they hoped a few things could be addressed, everyone loved the facility and instructors, and nobody felt disrespected or wanted to quit. We made it clear to them that they were always welcome to provide valid and thoughtful feedback, and we wanted them to provide it directly to us, because there was no need for the sort of explosion of issues that caused so much disruption. It was fine, we all said through our smiles — it was all fine.

Our virtual class-action suit was settled. It was not Customer Service 101, but sometimes, enough is enough.

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