Keeping your finger on the pulse of member satisfaction is essential for every organization. What better way to keep that pulse beating than by performing annual membership surveys?

Unfortunately, most clubs do not perform member surveys at all, let alone do them on an annual basis, says Rick Caro, owner of Management Vision and its sister company, Club Market Vision, which designs membership surveys for health clubs. However, Caro says clubs should perform annual membership surveys at the same time of year (preferably not the holiday season or the slowest or busiest time of the year) for comparative purposes.

A regular schedule for membership surveys leads to a wealth of comparative data. It also could signal where a club needs to perform a mini survey on an area that members noted on the membership survey was an area of concern to them.

Clubs that perform membership surveys often do them poorly, says Caro, usually because they develop, conduct and interpret the survey on their own or with a company that doesn't have experience in the health club industry. A poorly conducted survey can lead to misleading or biased answers and the implementation of wrong solutions.

The purpose of surveys and research is to gain a return like any other return on investment, says Caro. So, if the club ownership and management cannot take clear and decisive action as a result of the survey, then the research effort was wasted, he says.

“Part of the reason you do a survey is not just to get a calibration of how you are doing, but to anticipate what you could be doing,” says Caro. That could include gauging members' interest in program direction, new tenant services, and plant thrust.“

Unless a club owner has had success in developing surveys in the past, then the best bet is to hire a professional to design the survey. A club expert who is well versed in market surveys can create a report from the survey results and provide implementable recommendations for the club.

“This is an investment of time, effort and money,” says Elliott Brown, principal at Elliott Brown & Associates, a San Francisco-based company that designs customer and employee surveys. “Don't do it if you aren't going to do it right.”

SURVEY METHODS

A club owner can use several different methods of survey delivery: telephone, mail, e-mail, or Web site. In Caro's opinion, the best method for members is mailed surveys with possible in-club follow up if not enough members return their survey.

Mailed surveys often are more welcomed than phone surveys. They can offer the anonymity respondents may need to more comfortably offer criticisms. Mailed surveys allow the entire chosen population an opportunity to respond to the survey while phone surveys generally require a smaller sample.

Written surveys also allow for greater complexity in the questions because the recipients can respond at their convenience, giving them more time to answer if needed. In addition, a mailed survey prevents possible distortion by the interviewer who might ask leading questions or change the words a bit when performing a phone survey.

On the down side, mailed surveys could yield a low response rate and the surveyor has no control over who responds. In addition, it may be more difficult to get people to respond to open-ended questions.

“On the phone you ask them the question and they respond,” says Brown. “On paper, far fewer are going to take the time to write in an answer. Similarly, they can choose which questions to respond to.”

Telephone surveys, while generally the most expensive to conduct because they require trained individuals to make the calls, often can yield the greatest response rate, says Brown. Phone surveys also could provide a better sample of membership since the club is selecting whom to call rather than letting the member decide whether to complete the survey. However, Caro points out that the number of questions that can be asked in a phone survey is limited because it's tough to keep an individual on the phone for long. In addition, phone surveys offer an individual's immediate response rather than the contemplated response a member may give to a mailed survey.

With the federal and several state no call lists, telephone surveys are becoming more difficult to perform.

“People are really, really unhappy with telemarketers now,” Brown says. “As a result, telephone surveys have to be done very carefully.”

Brown generally mails the customer a postcard a week in advance telling them that they will be receiving a call on a certain day.

“That way when we do call them, most of them are aware that they were going to be called and they don't react like we are telemarketers,” says Brown.

Phone surveys are best if done anonymously and if not aimed at existing members, Caro says. Because phone surveys are normally anonymous, the club doesn't get the PR benefit by doing an anonymous survey.

E-mail can be the cheapest way to survey members, particularly if surveying a large number of people. The problem with e-mailed surveys is that the responses are limited to only those members with e-mail and only to the members whose e-mail addresses the club possesses.

“That may or may not be a problem,” says Brown. “The question is always…are there other characteristics of those who don't have e-mail that would make them a separate segment of your customer base?”

For example, Brown recently completed a credit union survey analysis that found that 30 percent of the respondents 65 years old and older had used the credit union's Web site while 70 percent of customers 18 to 24 years old had used the Web site. For that reason, an older member demographic might not be the best demographic to reach via e-mailed surveys.

Offering a Web site link is another way to allow people to provide feedback, says Brown, but this method allows little control over who responds to the survey and could leave out individuals without access to the Internet.

However, Brown suggests giving members as many ways as possible to communicate.

“What it is about is getting information that is going to help you provide a satisfying experience to your members so that they will stay and bring in referral business,” says Brown.

With that communication comes responsibility.

“When you start to measure satisfaction by providing a means for people to communicate, you raise their expectation that you are going to take them seriously and do something about it,” says Brown. That doesn't mean that every time a customer has a complaint the club owner should jump to change something, but it does mean acknowledging the suggestion and informing the member about the response — even if it is to reject that suggestion.

“That's the cheapest way to bring in new business,” says Brown. “If you can keep your members happy, they are going to be the ones to bring in the business for you.”

ASK IT IN THE RIGHT WAY

Even though a club owner may hire a professional to design, perform and analyze the survey, that club owner still must understand the basics about survey design and implementation. Here are some tips about what to look for in a good survey.

  • Keep surveys short. Many surveys should take no more than five to seven minutes to complete, says Brown. Others can take as long as 12 to 15 minutes. If a survey takes longer than 15 minutes, the club owner should consider offering an incentive.

    “You are going to the trouble and expense, so you might as well get as much useful, actionable information as you can,” says Brown. Asking questions that allow you to gather essential information rather than just interesting information means you can take action to fix a problem or make something better.

  • Use a variety of question types. A survey generally includes several types of questions. Some of the questions may be statements with which members mark their agreement or disagreement on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree or excellent to poor. The survey may also include questions about services that members may have used, such as spa services. If they've used those services, they can rate their satisfaction level. If they haven't used them, they can skip the question.

    At the end of each section, an open-ended question can allow a member to expand on that area. Some companies prefer to list at the end of the survey open-ended questions, such as what do you feel we do well, what suggestions do you have that would improve your level of satisfaction, and what additional comments do you have. If you list a lot of open-ended questions in a row, people will stall and won't fill out the survey.

  • Ask the right questions. Sometimes, a club might ask the wrong questions. For example, the question “Why did you join the club?” may be a useful question except that the person may have joined the club 10 years ago and the answer may not be relevant today, says Caro. Instead, the question should be redrafted to ask, “Why do you think most members join the club today?”

  • Ask the questions in the right order. Surveys should ask informational questions first. That way when the member gets to the open-ended questions, they have invested enough time and effort in the survey that they'll be more likely to finish it.

    “When you ask general questions about background or behavior first, it's less threatening,” says Caro. “If you ask them right off to criticize, they are less likely to answer. If you ask that last, they've already invested time in the survey so they are more likely to actually fill that in.”

  • Offer responses with gradation options. Few questions can be answered with a yes or no. For example, if you ask, “Do you think the front desk is satisfactory?” most people would answer, “Kind of.” You should have a six-point scale starting at excellent and going down to poor. You should also have a follow-up question to find out where the area is lacking.

  • Get a good sample size. The sample size for a survey should be no less than 20 percent, Caro says. If you don't get 20 percent on the first try, then pass out the surveys at the club at different times and at different areas of the club. Caro also suggests printing the mailed surveys on different colored paper than the surveys handed out in the club. The two colors will differentiate between in-house handouts an mailed surveys, which will help confirm that the staff did not fill out surveys or influence surveys while handing them out.

  • Offer a mail-back option on printed pieces. Mailed surveys should allow for two types of returns: a drop box within the facility and a return envelope. The mailing option ensures infrequent club attendees or lapsed members aren't excluded from the results.

  • Give members a deadline for returning the survey. If you don't give a deadline, chances are members won't see urgency in returning the survey and they'll never “get around” to filling it out.

  • Offer an incentive. An incentive can help boost your response rate, particularly if your survey is a little long.

  • Time the survey right. Clubs should avoid performing membership surveys during slow months, during the heaviest part of the busy season and during a holiday period.

  • Use the club's newsletter or Web site to alert members about the surveys. Club owners should use their communication vehicles to inform members about the survey prior to its mailing and the results afterward. Club owners also should address any steps that are being taken as a result of the survey findings.

  • Use survey results constructively. While surveys may point out weaknesses in some areas, the results should be used to make changes not to badger staff about their performance. If need be, staff retraining may need to occur or systems may need to change.

  • THE 10 MOST COMMON MISTAKES CLUBS MAKE IN MEMBER SURVEY RESEARCH

  • Created by non-professional but well-meaning club personnel.
  • Improper questions leading to biased or erroneous conclusions.
  • Lack of relevant questions focusing on current issues important to members.
  • Inadequate sample size — not clear what the results really represent.
  • Inadequate variety of respondents so conclusions may be based on biased results.
  • Distributing surveys in a manner that encourages members to provide favorable view of club or to praise staff.
  • Inappropriate timing of survey (when club is most or least busy) so that results are not representative of “business as usual.”
  • Predominance of rating scale, checklist-type questions without the proper balance of open-ended questions that provide more powerful “volunteered” responses.
  • Analysis of results by non-professional (even if the survey is well-designed with adequate sample and numbers of responses), so that there is no comparison with club norms and no real in-depth interpretation.
  • Haphazard scheduling of survey so that it is not done at the same time every year.
  • List compiled by Management Vision Inc.

    ONLINE EXPERTS

    In this day and age, survey “experts” can be found by using high-tech methods. WOW! Work Out World logs onto Surveymonkey.com to help design its surveys using online question options. The Web service also tabulates the results. The cost is $20 a month for unlimited surveying, says Stephen P. Roma, chief executive WOW!zer at WOW!, of Brick, NJ.

    WOW! conducts a survey on a quarterly basis. (Managers and secret shoppers also conduct twice weekly perception and cleanliness surveys). The survey has nine questions with subcategories under several of the questions. WOW! e-mails the quarterly survey to members to gather their opinions about five areas of the club: front desk, housekeeping, group fitness, personal training and customer service. Members rate these areas based on friendliness, professionalism and efficiency.

    WOW! began performing the quarterly survey about a year and a half ago.

    “It became a necessity,” says Roma. At one time WOW! consisted of three clubs, which meant it was easier to keep tabs on member satisfaction by talking to members. However, the group has expanded to seven clubs, and Roma felt a survey was the best way to go.

    The results have been used to justify a few changes, particularly the hiring of a housekeeping manager for the group and a housekeeper in each club. Also, comments about worn carpet led the club to change the carpeting to rubber flooring.

    Not everyone is a fan of online survey services. Rick Caro owner of Management Vision and its sister company, membership survey company Club Market Vision, says that online survey companies such as this can't offer club owners the analysis and recommendations that they need to put together actionable plans.

    However, Roma says this type of survey works for his clubs as a way to gather members' perceptions.

    “It is the perception of the member,” Roma says. “It may not be reality, but it is their perception of reality.”