Scott A. Chovanec, MS, MA, MBA, FAWHP, is president of Scott Chovanec & Associates Inc., a strategic planning practice providing design services, thought leadership and decision support for the fitness and wellness industry. An author and presenter at major health and fitness conferences, Chovanec is often asked to help organizations improve their managerial leadership and customer service standards. His facility and customer service audits have helped companies achieve unparalleled levels of service. Chovanec holds four master’s degrees, including an MBA in finance. He can be reached at scottchovanec@comcast.net.

Don’t have time for the delivery of exceptional service? Don’t worry. Someone else will gladly do that for you.

The biggest reason that people leave a club is poor customer service, not competition. In fact, 65 percent of customers leave because of poor service while only 12 percent leave because they’ve been won over by your competitors. If you concentrate on that 65 percent, giving them what they need rather than what you think they need, then you can sustain a competitive advantage that will distance and differentiate you from your competition.

So, if good customer service is so important, why do I still see such poor customer service when I do my club evaluations? I’ve developed a list of eight ugly things I see at many clubs:

1. No greeting initiation by the front desk staff, which often means no greeting occurs.
2. Inattentiveness, which is shown in body language and manners.
3. Lack of any personalization.
4. Gossip and “desk talk.”
5. Lack of information imparted to members and guests.
6. Lack of follow through.
7. A multitude of facility issues.
8. Lack of “positively aggressive” floor help for members who need help.

Many of these issues can be alleviated if staff members are customer-centered. Being strong in customer “centeredness” will not only distance your club from others, but it will differentiate and define you as well—which will help your bottom line. Simply said, customer centeredness is the ability to create a remarkable, memorable or magical experience during every customer encounter at your club. It requires you to offer the kind of service in which one extremely satisfied person tells one person after another about your great service.

To be able to focus on your customer, you must remember that your customers need and expect four things at your club:

1. Qualified staff. Do you post your staff qualifications, credentials and certifications for customers to see?
2. Instruction. Are you providing ample floor instruction during peak times, and are your staff members anticipating members’ concerns and needs?
3. No overcrowding. Are there policies and practices that address busy times on equipment?
4. Safe environment. Are tripping hazards eliminated and safety procedures practiced?

But good customer service doesn’t end there. Customers want everything better, cheaper, faster and their way. Customers value reliability, responsiveness, assurance, empathy and the special tangibles that set your facility apart from others. Because leisure time is at a premium for most people, they also appreciate shortened wait times for equipment, on check-ins or on the phone.

In addition, customers become confused and annoyed when you use industry jargon. Explanations and instructions should always be given in clear, simple language.

Members also want to be valued. Nothing can justify making a customer feel like a nuisance.

Customers expect quality and satisfaction in direct proportion to the membership prices they’re paying.

When it comes to customer service, your front desk staff is your most important asset. They make a first impression with every encounter. And the first and last impressions are extremely important because you are in the “memory management” business. If you manage the first and the last impression with all the members and guests who enter your operation, you’ll always come out on top.

Involve your front desk staff in making decisions, allow them to attend conferences, engage them in professional development opportunities and empower them to remediate complaints on the spot. They are in a position to deliver a remarkable or memorable experience that prompts your customers to tell others.

As Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, once said, “The folks in the front lines—the ones who actually talk to the customer—are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there.”

This is especially critical when dealing with complaints, which are unique opportunities in disguise. How we handle complaints will make the long-term difference with the customer. Empower your front line to resolve a customer issue immediately without adding extra steps for the member. Empathy is a core value. It is especially crucial in dealing with complaints.

Remembering the customer in all transactions and encounters during his or her visit to your facility can be challenging. To help, consider this simple but highly effective customer-service formula:

  • Look at me
  • Smile at me
  • Talk to me
  • Listen to me
  • Thank me
  • Remember me

Most successful fitness operators, knowing that cost and quality differentiate the winners, also understand that customer perceptions drive the reality of their operations. In many fitness markets, customers hold cost secondary if they perceive the value of their membership as something that exceeds expectations. This only happens through the delivery of effective customer service strategies. The accountability of those strategies creates this culture of service and makes it a reality.

It makes all the sense in the world to deliver exemplary service at every opportunity, especially at a time when the dollar is so stretched, where it costs five to seven times more to attract a new member than to keep an existing one and when the battle for the discretionary dollar is at an all-time high. Anticipate your customers’ needs. Make safety, quality, service and satisfaction not just words on paper, but the premise for the creation of a culture of service that will distance and differentiate you from all others.