Your customer database: you use it every day to update class schedules, to check in members and record the hours that your employees work. You know your database is necessary to running your club, but do you use it as effectively as you can? Maybe you don't even have a database system at your club. If you don't, chances are you're missing out on an important tool for the success of your business.

Using a customer database is almost necessary to run a successful company, whether it's in a flower shop or a health club. Databases can be used for many functions, from checking in members, to making point-of-sale transactions, to keeping track of member attendance, to inventory management.

The national sales director for a billing and processing company that makes database software for clubs says that keeping a database can help a club predict future success.

According to him, the purpose of a database is to give the owner control and accurate information. The database and software are tools so managers know what's happening with their accounts. How well they use those tools shows how well they can predict the future.

By using a database, owners can track and monitor the effectiveness of their services, the marketing they do to get new members and the sales they do at their club. It also helps clubs plan for the future.

The national sales director also says that databases are one of the most underutilized tools in the health club industry. If you use your database to plan for the future, you can make marketing and billing decisions that won't cause problems.

Following are tips for starting a database and making the most of the database you already have.

Creating your database

When creating your database, you have to identify what the goals of your database will be, says Barbara Lewis-MarQuant, president of MarQuant Analytics, a company that helps clubs “mine” their databases for data that will provide increased revenue.

“For example, is the goal to increase the number of members, or the amount each member pays?” Lewis-MarQuant asks. “Second, the club needs to identify the specific data it will capture, including member demographics, member interests in ancillary services, prospects that tried the club, but did not join, etc.”

Finally, the club needs to decide what kind of database it would like to create: stand-alone or integrated software. Stand-alone software requires a club to decide how the software will work with the system already used in the club. With integrated software, the company that sells the software often also does billing and software backup for each client. For example, Matthew Wagner, owner of the Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville, TX, uses one company's integrated software, but the club does the billing in-house and its own backup.

Make sure and find out what is included in your standalone and integrated software packages before you decide to buy, because software is expensive. Prices can range from $200 for standalone software to $15,000 for a complex integrated system. Even though this may seem pricey, it's worth every penny to most club managers.

“Technology today is relatively cost effective,” says Ed Eschwitzky, a marketing and business consultant for the Make a Difference company. He helps the Sierra Fitness Club in Tucson, AZ manage its database system.

“Staying in touch with one's members is an investment, rather than a cost. The ‘proof in the pudding’ is in membership renewals, increased memberships from and outside the database and incremental sales of merchandise and services.”

Managing your database

After you create your database, you have to keep it updated in order for it to be effective. Many database software companies recommend monthly updates of the database. Clubs can e-mail members on a monthly or quarterly basis to update their information. The billing company can also update information if a bill comes back with change of address information.

Staff time spent on data entry to update the database ranges, depending on how often you update and how many members you have. At the Sierra Fitness Club, the president or managers update the database, and each may spend a few hours a month doing data entry. Most of this work is done while they are working at the club's front desk.

Another important part of keeping your database updated is frequently backing up the information. Without frequent backup, a disaster could occur. Imagine a bolt of lightning from a thunderstorm knocking out the power in your club, possibly ruining your hard drive. Without a form of backup, this data would be lost forever, ruining your business.

Using your database to communicate

A primary use for a database is to communicate with your members. You can use your database to send birthday cards to members or to inform them of club events in a weekly newsletter. It can also be used to give members information, such as holiday operating hours, class schedules, health and fitness tips, invitations to lectures and member events.

The Nautilus Health Center uses its database to greet customers on a computer when they swipe their check-in cards. This computer screen also gives them important messages from the club, as well as a birthday greeting on their birthday.

Finding new members with your database

Another use for your database is increasing the size of your membership. Databases can be used to contact current members who frequently refer friends to your club. The database can keep track of these referrals, and follow-up on them after they come in for a tour or use a visitor pass at your club.

Retaining members with your database

Retention of members can be difficult when they only come to the gym once a week, or once every other week. To prevent this problem, you can use your database to keep them coming to your club regularly. You can start a non-attendance list based on attendance information from your database. The database will show you who is not showing up and whose attendance is decreasing so you can call them to touch base.

There are other creative ways to use your database to its fullest extent. The Sierra Fitness Health Club is working with Eschwitzky to start contests for members, and give them discounts on outside products, such as plane tickets and hotel reservations.

Using these tips, you can create and make the most of your database by connecting with your members regularly, obtaining information from them that helps increase membership and retain members by getting in touch with them and reminding them of their fitness goals. You will find that the information in your database is precious, and that a database is a necessary tool to helping your club succeed.