Two months ago, when I presented at the Club Industry East show in New York City, every club operator I spoke with was concerned about the volume of new clubs. They said they had three to 10 new competitors in their market in the last three years. However, industry figures show that membership has only slightly increased from 14 percent to approximately 16 percent of the population. As a result, club owners have a growing concern and focus on the new clubs down the street.

What are operators to do? They need to not only grow new sales but also keep current customers happy and loyal. How do they do this? Each club needs to carve out its own market, its own niche, its own differentiation, and own that differentiation in the eyes of all its club members and the nonmembers who live in its primary market. The differentiation cannot be based solely on features or equipment.

Club owners must train their staff to meet and deliver on customer expectations at every critical interaction. In today's competitive landscape, delivering a valuable customer experience becomes increasingly important. When products can be copied, processes matched and club layouts duplicated, it is the people and their behaviors that create distance and differentiation from competition. It's about the ability of employees to respond to customers based on their unique needs and to engage them emotionally in a memorable experience.

Ultimately, it is about creating value for customers, for employees and for the club. Dov Seidman, author of “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything … in Business (and in Life),” corroborates this position when he says that “sustainable competitive advantage comes more from how you deliver your products and services than what the products and services are.”

When it comes to engaging members emotionally, your employees make the difference. Excellent products and reliable processes are part of the equation, but to make memorable connections with members, staff must be ready to deliver a reliable yet personalized experience to each customer. To do this, staff must have a consistent understanding of the company's brand message and possess the skills, attitudes and resources to handle each interaction, while having the situational judgment to customize the experience to what each customer values.

No script, process or set of policies alone can substitute for the skill, judgment and commitment of your employees. In the book “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,” author Danny Meyer, founder of the Union Square Café restaurant in New York City, writes, “If you simply have a superior product or deliver on your promises, that is not enough to distinguish your business. There will always be someone else who can do it or make it as well as you can. It is how you make your customers feel while using your product that distinguishes you. It's the experience.”

You must ask yourself and your management team tough questions. How can we do a better job of retaining members, delivering on the promises we made to get them to join and earning their loyalty and referrals? How much do we budget for reinvestment in new equipment and updates to facilities? Do we have money budgeted for investing in our staff, who ultimately either earn or cost us our customers' loyalty?

Differentiation … emotional engagement … value … consistency … loyalty. Do you want to stay competitive? Focus on these five controllable factors first. You can't change what is happening in your market, but you can change how it will affect your business.

Ed Tock is a partner in Sales Makers, a marketing and sales training consulting firm that has worked with more than 1,200 clubs and won the IHRSA Associate of the Year award. He can be reached at 800-428-3334 or eddie@sales-makers.com.