If you were to look at the most recent statistics, which show continued growth in membership sales and new club openings, perhaps you would think that the fitness industry is somehow insulated by current economic and world events. In fact, there is some truth to that belief. Past history has shown that, compared to many other industries, the fitness and entertainment sectors aren't as effected by a slowing economy. Because people may feel more reluctant to make a home, auto or vacation purchase, they find other ways to treat themselves while staying closer to home. Going out to dinner, the movies and the theater more frequently; spending more time at the country or health club and getting some pampering by way of spa services are just some of the ways to treat oneself.

However, talk to club operators around the country and you will find that, in fact, many are beginning to see changing sales traffic patterns — namely an increasing difficulty in getting prospects to walk through the club doors, and a reluctance on some people's part to make a contractual commitment to joining, citing job uncertainty as the reason. The end result of both of these factors is fewer sales.

When economic conditions create a difficult market, all businesses must respond quickly to weather the storm. One way is to cut the expense side by streamlining employee hours, reviewing all day-to-day operational costs and delaying non-vital capital improvements. Such tightening of expenses, however, only can go so far. The other way to respond is by closely evaluating the revenue-generating aspects of the business. For health clubs (even those with good non-dues revenue), this means a thorough evaluation of the sales department in an effort to uncover ways to boost membership sales.

Certainly the actual skill level of each salesperson on the club's team should be evaluated to ensure they are performing the necessary components to “close the sale.” This, however, is really something that should be done constantly, not just in tough business times. As most industries know, staff development and training is not only critical to overall performance but also for employee retention, which is a huge factor in a club salespersons' success level.

Aside from looking at standard sales skills, one area that many clubs fail to evaluate is the amount of education that is provided to all prospects during the sales process. I'm not referring to discussions about club facilities or services, but rather educational information about health and fitness that impacts a prospect in a way that makes them feel more compelled to want to exercise — not simply join the club. Because this concept of “educating” a prospect at this level might be so new for some readers, let's take a moment to explain the reasoning behind such an approach.

THE BEHAVIORAL CHANGE PROCESS & SELLING

When prospects visit a club, they have a certain level of interest. Most people don't wake up one morning and think to themselves, “You know, I feel so good about myself and my body that perhaps I'll go join a health club.” No, what usually happens is something has motivated that person to consider starting an exercise program. Researchers who study behavioral change know that an individual goes through six distinct phases when creating any new behavior.

First is pre-contemplation, which is the phase when the individual doesn't recognize the need to change. Second is contemplation, which is when the person begins to think, “Maybe I should consider starting an exercise program.” The third stage is a significant step, called preparation, when the person moves from thinking they should change to saying “I will.” Interestingly enough, the preparation stage has a large spectrum as it relates to the time an individual moves to the next stage. For instance, some people will stay in the preparation stage for months or years while others move along much more quickly. Fourth is the action stage. This is when the individual begins his or her new behavior; therefore, they join the club. Upon taking action the person immediately moves to the fifth stage, which is maintenance. Maintenance is the period of time when an individual has to consciously work at sticking to their new behavior. An individual might never leave the maintenance phase, regardless of how much they like the results. The last phase is called termination, and this is when an individual has completely integrated his or her behavior so it is no longer an effort. For instance, when going on vacation, the person inquires what type of exercise facilities the hotel or local area has.

Although fitness departments have traditionally used this behavioral change model to help new members create long-lasting habits, the applications for the sales process are profound. Good salespeople recognize that when prospects walk through a club's doors they could be in any one of three stages: contemplation, preparation or action. If a prospect is in action, the sale is relatively easy, assuming the club meets his or her needs and the salesperson does a good job. If, on the other hand, the prospect is in either contemplation or preparation, the sale becomes more challenging.

What behavioral specialists have uncovered is that two primary things influence our movement down the six steps of change. The first is a significant emotional experience (SEE), which refers to an event or happening that literally rattles the person to change. Some examples of SEEs would be a doctor's visit that uncovered medical problems, a family member who suffers a disease or deadly health condition or perhaps something more superficial like not fitting into last summer's shorts. All of these things usually create negative or scary emotions in an individual, often motivating them to change. Unfortunately, except through advertising efforts, businesses are not in control of creating SEEs.

The second thing that influences change — that can be controlled by businesses — is education. Specifically, when an individual learns about a new product or service at a deep level, fully appreciating its nuances and impact, a buying decision can be influenced. For example, you go to the store with the intention of buying a new computer. You have a certain budget in mind but after spending an hour and a half with an associate who was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, you decide to spend more because he helped you identify a future need that would be met by spending just a little more now. Not only do you walk away happy with your purchase, but you are grateful to the salesperson because he has in essence saved you money in the long run.

ADD EDUCATION TO THE PROCESS

Throughout my years as a sales consultant in the fitness industry, I have worked with a handful of clubs that were committed to the process of educating prospects on a variety of fitness topics. These educational components — such as fully understanding the three aspects of a fitness program — were integrated into the qualifying and touring process, resulting in a higher closing percentage and a better-than-average retention rate. The theory behind this is that if people appreciate what and why they are doing something they will be more apt to stick with the activity. This theory holds even more truth today because with the amount of mixed and confusing messages regarding health and fitness, most consumers are confused. By helping them weed through the myths and realities, they will feel better about making a decision.

At all HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS Weight Loss & Lifestyle Centers, adding education to the sales process is the backbone of our presentation strategy. As the famous retailer, Cy Simms advocated, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Because we embrace this belief, each prospect is given a complete body composition analysis early in the sales process.

More important, an entire educational consultation is done with the person so he or she understands what each part of the analysis means to them, how the human body changes over time and how the process of healthy weight loss occurs. This presentation is done with an attractive, color flip chart as well as appropriate visual props to make the interaction interesting, compelling and realistic. Between the educational process, the qualifying, touring and membership presentation, most tours take an hour — minimum.

Some may argue that a fitness club tour shouldn't take that long, but my experience when mystery-shopping hundreds of clubs nationwide is that salespeople don't take enough time — the average tour lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The result of such short tours is almost always a focus on the physical features of the club. Unfortunately, for an individual in either contemplation or preparation, this type of tour does nothing to help move them toward the action stage. And, if a prospect is brought to the membership presentation stage without being in the latter stages of preparation, they won't feel comfortable buying, and if they do buy they often feel pressured. Of course, anyone in the fitness industry for a length of time knows how low the “be-back” ratio of missed guests is; it's terrible because the prospect leaves and has time to justify in his or her mind why he or she made a good decision not to buy.

YOUR NEXT STEP

Let's assume for a moment that you are attracted to the concept of adding education to the sales process at your club. The next question becomes how. Below is a general plan of action for you to follow, knowing that at each step you must take into consideration the sophistication, knowledge and desire of your current sales team.

  • Bring your sales team together and discuss the theory behind the behavioral change process, helping them to understand the general concept as well as its implications for the sales process. You may want to bring in outside resources to gain credibility. Dr. James Prochaska and Dr. James Annessi have written extensively on the topic.

  • Once everyone embraces the concept, brainstorm on fitness information and insights that the sales team thinks could have a significant impact on how a prospect views the importance of fitness. Create a list of as many ideas as possible, being careful to not belittle any thought or suggestion. One way to help the team answer this question is to ask, “What information makes prospects go ‘Wow, I didn't know that?’” (Body composition, health risks, how one loses weight, heart rate training, etc.) Of course, another good source for this step would be personal trainers or individuals from the fitness department.

  • After establishing the list, have the team prioritize each idea in descending order of its potential for the “wow” factor. There will always be disagreement on this. Just go with the majority, letting everyone know that the top three to five topics will all be given attention.

  • Once the list has been finalized, the real work begins. Take one topic at a time and delegate the research fairly among the entire team. Find information on each topic and begin writing an outline of a presentation. Power Point is great but remember that the specific information must be captured in paragraph format if salespeople are going to learn the correct information.

  • After the writing is complete, circulate among other departments and members to find out if what has been written makes sense to someone who knows nothing about the topic. This is very important.

  • Once you have a final version of the writing, get back together with the team to brainstorm what visual effects and tools should be used to best convey this information. Be mindful of where this information should be presented to the prospect, i.e. qualifying, touring. Also, take into consideration realistic expectations for cost — fully anticipating that additional edits and modifications will almost always be done for a full 30 days after the tool begins to get used. This is normal and healthy.

  • Begin using these new sales tools (one at a time) and be certain to measure your closing rate, both first time visitors as well as be-backs because adding such information to your sales process often increases the return rate.

  • Continually evaluate and create new items, being mindful of new health and fitness information being released by credible sources like the Surgeon General, the Center for Disease Control or medical associations.

  • THE FEW, THE PROUD… THE COMMITTED

    This is not an easy process. In fact, the reason that only a handful of the more than 300 clubs I have worked with use it is because it takes a lot of time, energy and commitment to put such tools in place. For those clubs willing to make the effort, the payoff is tremendous. Not only will you sell more memberships, you will probably positively affect your club's retention rate and do both those things in a time when economic uncertainty makes succeeding in business more challenging.