Sharpening/motivating your front-desk staff

Let's face it. Working the front desk of a fitness center is a semi-thankless job, and not the best-paying either.

Now before you get upset with me for saying that, think about this: While your front-desk staff may receive praise from you, they also receive most of the member complaints. Furthermore, they have to greet all the members, handle the phone, answer member questions, maybe fold towels (I hate folding my own laundry), clean and much more, all for not a whole lot of money.

With a job like that, front-desk staff can suffer from poor morale. So how do you keep your employees sharp and motivated so they're not playing computer games, chitchatting on the phone with friends or finding a new job?

Here are some suggestions from industry experts to help you keep the front-desk job fun and challenging.

* Lead by example. "[My partner and I] never ask our staff to do anything that we wouldn't do ourselves, like cleaning," says Cindy Johnson, owner of Hometown Health & Fitness in Indianola, Iowa. "They see our motivation and our dedication to the job."

* Create a comfortable yet challenging work environment. Johnson believes that if you offer employees a comfortable work atmosphere that is not intimidating, employees will want to stay. "We give our staff direction, and we let them learn on their own. We don't want to watch every move they make, so we stand back and let them do their job. We help out when they have questions," explains Johnson.

* Hold monthly training meetings. Paula Potter, manager of Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., finds holding monthly training sessions on customer service very valuable. But to make it fun and interesting for her staff, she does it in the form of games such as Jeopardy!. She also breaks employees into teams. This promotes teamwork and friendships, which builds a stronger staff and garners job loyalty. "We try to promote that [staff] have fun on the job," explains Potter. "If we can provide a fun environment and they are enjoying the job, it will rub off on the customers."

* Show your appreciation. Set up a small appreciation fund for your front desk every trimester. It's a budget that you can use to buy little things for your staff, like stickers, movie passes, greeting cards, etc. Potter has done this at her club, and it has been very successful. "By doing this, our staff [feels] appreciated all the time. We've also started doing our performance reviews three time a year which helps to continually motivate the employees," she notes. "And the feedback we give is very positive and helps to motivate them."

* Provide incentives. Johnson gives her staff free memberships and apparel discounts. And Potter allows her front-desk staff to take part in new programs free-of-charge. "We find that it's good marketing because they know about the program and can tell members about them," she notes.

* Empower your staff. "We empower our front-desk staff to handle situations," emphasizes Potter. "This gives them a sense of being part of the team." To help empower her staff, she has an emergency kit at the front desk which the staff has excess to. It contains all sorts of tools, such as guest passes, tennis balls and gift certificates, to help appease unhappy members. "We empower them to deal with a member right away," she adds.

* Have them dress to impress. To help her front-desk staff feel like professionals and part of a team, and to help the members see them as professionals, Potter has them wear uniforms. The uniform consists of a polo shirt and black pants or shorts. But to throw in some fun, the staff is allowed to dress up for the holidays.