Updated: Aug 7, 2019
I received an email today from a parent of a recreational student who has been dancing with our studio for 5 years. The background is... the mum can be a little cold at times, but she is never rude. I think she's just a fairly serious person. The girl is 12 years old and is a great dancer. She's one of the strongest dancers in our recreational program.
Here was her email:
I am writing to you today regarding #######'s Jazz lesson yesterday afternoon and her dance teacher ######.
Veronica came out crying because she said her dance teacher was picking on her. ######## was told her legs were disgusting, meaning ########'s legs were going everywhere. She was also asked to do a spin which she was then mocked and was asked "what was that?" The teacher mocked ######## and was told that's how you're spinning.
I understand when teachers are meant to teach students and are to be told if they need to improve on something or are doing things wrong however I do not believe they need to be insulted and mocked. In the 5 years ####### has been dancing at your studio I have never come across anything like this and I'm quite disappointed that this has occurred.
I would like to know if I can swap ######### to another class with a different teacher, please let me know what other days you have and times.
Please feel free to call me should you wish to discuss this further.
So my question is, what would you do? The teacher she is referring to is only 18 years old but has been teaching for me for a few years now, and she just happens to be genuinely the sweetest person I know. Her demeanour is gentle and she doesn't have a nasty bone in her body. Reading into the email, I can picture myself getting into this sort of trouble, with my own personal teaching style which does involve lots of humour, sarcasm and warm tough love, especially on the kids I know well. So my instinct isn't to blame the teacher right away. At the same time, if this girl was upset and came out crying then no matter what, it is the teachers fault. What I expect is that the playful nature of the interaction was misread by the student. It's certainly the teacher's responsibility to create a judgement-free space and it's never acceptable to humiliate a student.
So what did I do?
I immediately called the parent. I firmly believe that this is always the best thing to do with any complaint. Answering by email is definitely not the best way to begin to repair the relationship with the customer. I called her and started the conversation by apologising that her daughter was upset and letting her know I understand her anger and I will take actions to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.
I then explained that I have used similar language before so I think I can see what the teacher was going for, but if it's not received in the manner it was intended then the teacher is to blame. I also mentioned that the teacher is very sweet and that I'm confident she meant no harm.
I asked her if she would like to try another week in the class or if she definitely wanted to switch classes. She definitely wanted to switch classes, so I helped her find an appropriate class to switch to, and apologised again. Then I thanked her for bringing it to my attention and being honest and forthcoming. She told me how happy she has always been with Commotion and that her daughter very much wants to continue to come here and enjoy her classes.
My next step was to contact the teacher. This is the more difficult part usually. No one likes confrontation. As a studio owner my responsibility is to look after the best interests of my students and also my staff. When these conflict, it's a challenge to balance between "customer care ambassador" and "tribe protector".
I wanted to wait until I saw her in person at the studio. That way I could have the benefit of reading her body language whilst talking to her, so that I could be appropriately gentle and communicate more clearly. She came in the following week to teach her classes and after a warm and friendly greeting and a bit of small talk, I said... "I wanted to share some feedback I got from one of the parents. She was concerned because her daughter got upset. It surprised me, and I'm pretty sure it's more of a misunderstanding and misinterpretation than anything else, but I need you to be aware of it for future reference. Have a read of it, but don't take it personally." I showed her the email from my phone, and then said "I think I understand the manner in which you intended it, I've said similar things before. But I think she didn't get the playful encouragement behind it. She's moved to a different class now, which her mum insisted upon. But I've spoken with her and it's been resolved. Just for future, be careful with your approach. It's easy to forget how fragile some kids can be, I know I've accidentally upset kids before without intending to. Don't let this shake your confidence as a teacher, we can't always keep everyone happy all the time. Just take in on board for next time. I know you're a great teacher, that's why we love having you here."
She was so upset to hear that she'd made her student cry. She hadn't been aware that her words had been taken that way. This was one of her favourite students. But she took the criticism on board, apologised to me a few times, and went in to teach her classes... probably a bit more gentler than before.
So what's the point of the story?
I'm sure you'll agree, this is a fairly tame situation. This was an easy one. The mum was reasonable, didn't overreact, and already had a suitable solution requested - a simple transfer to a different class. I have had dozens (over the last 17 years) of complaints, and some have been far more difficult to navigate. More often than not it seems the parent is grossly misunderstanding or reacting irrationally, fuelled by emotion and strong parental protection instincts. Sometimes the customer is right, and sometimes they are not.
The old adage "the customer is always right" is totally and completely wrong... but then also to a certain extent 100% true. It completely depends on perspective. Even when a customer has just got it so wrong that you feel a deep desire to bash your head against the studio mirror repeatedly, the fact of the matter is that in customer service THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG. It's all about perception. How to be an absolute legend at dealing with customer complaints...
1. Have clear, concise, documented and communicated policies. Your information pack should have all your rules and expectations for students and parents. Your teachers should have super-clear instructions, responsibilities, mission statements, guidelines and expectations that fit with your studio ethos - and these should be regularly revised at staff training and briefing meetings.
2. Have a system in place for getting back to the customer quickly if the communication has been by email, message etc. If you have admin staff answering emails, establish what would constitute an email or situation worthy of being sent to you to deal with personally. Keep records of all correspondence. Have a "cheat sheet" of wording to extract from, to not only save time, but also to help maintain professionalism when you might otherwise be inclined to respond emotionally.
3. Whenever possible CALL the customer. For big issues, ask for a meeting in person.
"Hi ######, I would really like to sit down in person and discuss this. I want to give this my undivided attention, hear your concerns and be able to completely understand the situation so that we can find the right solution. I'm available A, B or C - would any of these times work for you for a quick meeting at the studio?"
4. People want to be heard. Listen. Ask questions. If they feel heard, you're already 90% of the way towards making them happy again.
5. Question your own WHY. Is a parent complaining about a studio policy that they think is stupid? Maybe it is? Maybe it isn't. Evaluate the policy. If it still makes sense under scrutiny and taking a moment to empathise as a customer, then stick to it. Is there a good reason why. No matter what, either there's a problem with the policy or there's a problem with the UNDERSTANDING of the policy. If there is a good reason why, then it should be able to be easily explained.
6. If the complaint relates to a staff member (and often it does), communicate openly and professionally. Maintain an ongoing dialogue with all of your staff, and set up a culture in your business where to receive feedback is normal, expected and not to be taken as a direct personal attack. At regular staff meetings, share feedback from parents that is general in nature... eg. "some of the parents have mentioned that the classes have been starting late - can we please all make extra effort to start on time, and I heard a bunch of mums complaining in the waiting room last week that the teachers were checking their phone during class - let's remember to turn phones on silent and keep them out of sight when we're teaching."
7. Check in a few weeks later. It will be important to repair the relationship with the customer, and in many cases a quick message or phone call a few weeks later to check our a solution to a problem is working out, or ask how the student is enjoying their classes etc. will make a huge difference in the rebuilding of trust and the feeling of appreciation from the customer's point of view.
8. Never hold a grudge. Separate the emotion. Never take out frustration or anger towards a parent on their child. Smile extra big next time you see the parent at the studio. Repair, repair, repair. Even if you don't want to.
9. Remember that no matter what, the words and actions of the parent (though sometimes perhaps misplaced, erratic, illogical or just downright absurd) are almost always coming from a place of love. Powerful love for their children, and that is tied in with all kinds of natural protection instincts. This so often can cloud judgement, but from our point of view, we must respect it. Parents want their children to be happy. Parents want what's best for their children. (Or more accurately, they want what they THINK is best for their children.) And for the most part of that's a good thing. Sometimes the parents help keep us in check. Other times the parents get it totally wrong, but that's when taking the time to listen and explain and educate the reasons behind decisions is crucial.
10. Finally, be grateful that you're getting a complaint instead of losing the customer. That's actually a big deal. They obviously like it enough to stay, but they just have an issue with a certain thing. They are still willing to give you money. A complaint (most often, though not necessarily always) is better than a lost customer.
We can't please everyone. We shouldn't try, it will turn us insane. All we need do is strive to provide the best we can. To offer a service, product and education that we are 100% proud of and an experience for the customer and the student that is at the highest possible level of greatness, in every possible way.