No matter how good your club and staff are, you are going to receive complaints. How do you handle those complaints if they are about one of your most prized employee groups — your trainers?

Over the years, we've learned how best to handle these situations. Once you receive a complaint, you have two response objectives and ways to handle them. The tactical response is to contact the complaining member(s). The strategic response is to look internally for root causes before taking action.

Surveying your members on a regular basis (perhaps quarterly), codifying the results and taking tactical and strategic action can create change that helps keep your members longer or makes them want to come back when they leave. When surveying becomes part of your regular operations, you create an ever-changing business designed around the customer experience.

So let's look at how we addressed a general complaint we received about six years ago when we did a survey of our members, to which we received about 350 responses.

Complaint: “Most of your staff is great, but your trainers will only talk to you if they're paid. They seem arrogant.”

The wrong response to your member: “Our trainers are excellent at their jobs and are focused on their clients. It is important that they give their undivided attention to their clients. Have you tried working with a trainer?”

What the member heard: “You're wrong and we aren't about to change anything. Can we sell you something?”

The correct response to your member: “Thank you for your input. I am sorry your experience has not been positive. We will be discussing what we can do to remedy this. I will personally let you know what actions we are taking.”

What the member heard: “My input was listened to, they care about what I have to say, and I am important enough that they are going to keep me informed.”

So far so good. Our tactical response created a positive feeling with that member.

Our next step was taking a strategic response to discover the root cause of the problem because you cannot just assume it is a “bad attitude.” My first reaction to the complaint was anger at our trainers. I wanted to yell, “Are you kidding me? What the #$%@ are you doing out there? I just gave you all a raise!” Fortunately, I have learned to mentally act out my tendency toward adolescent behavior before it actually happens…most of the time.

Instead, we brought our trainers into a meeting and showed them the 15 negative comments specific to trainers. (The member and employee names were blacked out.) We also had 45 positive comments, which were printed separately and withheld until later in the meeting.

Once the trainers read the negative comments, we asked what they thought. They were defensive. Undaunted, we continued to ask a lot of “how” and “why” questions: Why do you think members might see you as arrogant or too “stand-offish?” How can we portray something different to members?

We discovered a gap in how we train our staff and an issue with our trainer compensation. I had implemented, with buy-in from our trainers, an across-the-board raise on all personal training pay with the tradeoff that they would have no floor hours (paid time in which they are generating no revenue). This ranks as one of my dumber ideas. My effort to reduce waste in payroll resulted in members making comments such as: “Your trainers don't talk to anyone unless they are getting paid. They sit in the snack bar and read or drink coffee.” I had to realize that of course they do this because that is what I set up in the compensation plan.

We agreed to immediate changes that made our trainers happy, made all of us more money and made negative comments about our trainers all but vanish.

When handling member complaints, it also helps if you know who you are and what you stand for. For instance, we don't panic when we get comments about not offering programs or amenities that aren't part of who we are as a club.

The most important thing in handling complaints is to keep your cool, listen and respond appropriately. Your members will appreciate it.

BIO

Blair McHaney is CEO of Confluence Fitness Partners Inc., which does business as Gold's Gym of the Wenatchee Valley in Wenatchee, WA. He also previously served as president of the Gold's Gym Franchisee Association.