Making, and keeping, your members happy

One time, during peak hours, my former club posted a sign-up sheet so people could reserve 20-minute slots on popular pieces of cardio equipment. One woman was on the treadmill and when her 20 minutes expired, she stepped off. But, the next person on the list-who also happened to be the last person-had left the room for a minute. So the treadmill user crossed out the other woman's name, wrote in hers and hopped back on the machine. When the second woman returned, she demanded her turn. Of course, the reply was that she was nowhere to be found when her slot opened up and so had forfeited her turn. Tempers flared, voices were raised, staff members intervened and security was called.

It is amazing that more such altercations don't happen in a club environment-an environment where time-deprived, stressed-out people may have to wait their turn, popular classes may be "sold out," people may scatter their belongings around the locker room with little disregard for others, and Gen-Xers and baby boomers vie for weights. Fortunately, such occurrences are rare. But because you never know when tempers can turn ugly-and because it's just good business-you must keep your members happy.

"The bottom line is that if you want to be successful, as with any product, people need to be satisfied with their purchase," says Doug Ribley, director of Fitness & Wellness at Akron General Health System, in Akron, Ohio. "If people feel like they're not getting value, they most likely won't stick around." And he adds, "It is about four times more expensive to promote and gain a new member than it is to retain an existing member."

But how do you make sure your members are satisfied? It's not a mystery. "The key to keeping members happy is to maintain a good line of communication between membership and staff," Ribley recommends.

"We try to bring people in and make sure they stay," he continues. "In order to do that, there needs to be an environment where people are happy. They don't want to come in and have a stressful experience. They want to come in and have their expectations met and exceeded."

Here he offers pointers for doing just that:

* Analyze your market before you open. How can you avoid an altercation like the one that occurred in my old gym? Build a facility that meets your market demand, advises Ribley. Buy the right number of treadmills, bicycles and other pieces of equipment. "There are area ratios related to market size and facility size in terms of how much equipment you should have," he says. "By doing your homework, you won't have a problem."

* Give people correct information about your facility up front. "Often when people don't have the appropriate expectations, it's because they weren't given correct information when they joined," Ribley notes. "We emphasize making sure we're very accurate and thorough, have everything in writing when people join, and we review it. When we do this, we don't have many problems at the back end."

* Track utilization. Most facilities have a check-in procedure that records member visits, enabling you to pinpoint people who don't come in at all or who haven't been in during the past 30, 60 or 90 days. "We identify 'zero users' anticipating that the next step is that they are going to cancel," Ribley says. "For whatever reason, they're unhappy."

According to Ribley, these people are called once a quarter. "But rather than say, 'Hey, we understand you're not using the club,' we tell them about upcoming programs and services that are available, we encourage them to come in and schedule their fitness reassessment." During that conversation, the caller tries to identify why the individual hasn't been in. This approach works, notes Ribley, because "it shows we care."

* Do regular direct mailings. Three times a year Ribley's facility sends out a stamped, self-addressed survey to the entire membership. The results are tabulated by a local university. "We get a report on everything: member satisfaction with programs, hours of operation, cleanliness of the facility, friendliness of the staff," Ribley reports. On the survey there's a box a member can check if he wants a written reply; there's also an area where he can write comments.

* Empower your employees to set things right. Every employee at Ribley's facility is empowered to "spend up to $50-no questions asked-to correct a situation so a member won't leave the club frustrated," Ribley explains. For example, if somebody is upset because a class is filled or because she can't get on the treadmill, the Akron staffer could basically give her, say, a $10 credit in the sport shop.

* Teach your employees how to respond to unhappy members. At Akron General Health System, each employee receives a full day of intense training called Sensitive Plus. According to Ribley, every staff member should go through some kind of service training within the first 30 days of starting employment-or before he starts. But it shouldn't stop there. "Such training needs to be part of your culture and you need to revisit and practice the theories in order for it to be effective," Ribley says.

* Be a good listener. "The best way to handle a disgruntled member is to listen," Ribley says. "We find that even if we can't change a situation, if we're empathetic and show a sincere interest in listening and trying to understand why a member is frustrated, usually the member will settle down and become reasonable."

* Take the upset member or members to a private area-somewhere that is not in full view of the entire membership. Conducting a heated discussion in a public area "does a disservice to the rest of the members who are trying to have a relaxing afternoon or evening," Ribley points out.