Dealing with upset members.
In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote an excellent book called In Search of Excellence. One of the first principles discussed is called "Getting Close to Your Customer." Essentially this means that a business needs to ensure it is paying attention to and listening to its customers.
I believe this is vital to a club's success. Obtaining customer feedback is essential in order for you to adjust your business plan and strategy artfully.
Take Immediate Action
When dealing with a troublemaking member, or even a member who makes a casual complaint, the most important thing you can do is to act. It is very likely that you will retain customer loyalty if you respond immediately to a customer complaint - extremely likely if you immediately resolve the complaint. (An immediate response would be making contact within 24 hours of receiving a written complaint. An immediate resolution would be working with a customer the minute he voices a complaint.)
In sales, a membership consultant won't be successful unless he sets many appointments that lead to tours. Ultimately, a consultant must be "belly to belly" with the prospect in order to make the sale.
Dealing with an upset customer is no different. Your chance of resolving a complaint is best when the customer is in front of you. Although it is not in most people's nature to be confrontational, it is important for you to deal with complaints "head on" and not retreat.
There is a saying that the customer is always right. I believe this is true, except for certain circumstances. I believe the customer is wrong when he is disruptive to other members, violent or excessively rude to your staff, or he is doing something that could cause harm to himself or others. Staff should be properly trained to understand these issues and how to respond appropriately. However, in almost every case, the customer should be given the benefit of the doubt, and you should take corrective action to resolve his concerns immediately.
When a customer is wrong, use tact when discussing the matter with him. The best way to handle this type of situation is to educate the customer.
You should display sympathy to his concerns yet state your position firmly. Understand that, in most instances, you will gain the customer's respect by responding to his complaint and dealing with the issue immediately. However, you will need to tell the customer that his request will not be dealt with as he would like. Explain to him the reasons why his request cannot be honored, but at the same time be considerate to him and thank him for bringing his concern to your attention.
In most cases, I have found that if you handle the situation in this manner, the customer will leave the conversation satisfied, and he will agree to abide by your response. But there will be times when the customer is not satisfied with your response, and he will continue to cause disruption. He may even react violently.
Should this happen, you must be firm. You may have no other remedy but to ask the customer to leave the club. This may even mean terminating his membership. Let's face it: These types of troublemaking members are better off at your competitor's club. The disruption or harm they cause is damaging to your business.
Frank Guengerich is vice president and regional manager for the Sport and Health Company located in McLean, Va. He oversees four clubs with more than 15,000 members.