The health club industry has come of age. In its infancy, many clubs hawked their facilities like an especially unsavory used car salesman trying to make quota. As a result, the industry's image suffered, creating a negative impression that still lingers in some consumers' minds. Luckily, most clubs have grown wiser and employ smart, well thought out tours designed to close the deal without harassing the customer. High-pressure sales tactics, while sometimes an effective sales tool, do little for customer retention and are, in part, responsible for high attrition rates in the industry as a whole.

The ingredients for an effective club tour vary slightly from club to club — you will want to bring your own unique flavor and seasoning to the pot — but the basic stock will never change. Some improvisation will occur to reflect the needs of each customer, but the basic melody, if you will, remains strong throughout.

“From the time [the perspective member] walks in, to the time [he or she] makes a purchasing decision the club tour is the time for the sale to happen,” explains Casey Conrad, president of Communications Consultants (Wakefield, R.I.) and Healthy Inspirations, an international chain of weight-loss centers. “The sale doesn't happen when I sit down and ask for the money.”

According to Gary Polic, the national sales director for Tennis Corp. of America (TCA) in Chicago, the basic components of their tour/sales process includes several steps, including greeting the customer and doing a needs analysis, to the tour itself and finally closing the sale.

Of all these elements, it is the needs analysis that is most imperative, according to Polic. If a sales person does not effectively analyze the needs of the client, then the chances of a signed contract materializing at the end of the tour are no longer in your favor. “When it comes to the needs analysis, it's important to do three things,” he says. “Isolate all objections by asking qualifying (open-ended) questions, overcome all objections by benefit closing and tie down the sale by assumptively closing that objection.”

An example of a needs analysis at work is evident in the following scenario: A middle-aged woman comes into the club and meets with her sales representative, who sits down with her and asks about her medical background, personal fitness history, and family life. He finds out that the woman has three children, two of whom are under the age of 8. The woman has belonged to previous health clubs, but left because of the lack of childcare. Right away, the sales rep pinpoints childcare as an important highlight of the forthcoming tour. By telling (and showing) her about the club's own onsite child care facility, he can then assumptively close her objection by proving to her that lack of child care will not be an objection at this facility.

After discovering what it is that the client wants from a fitness facility through the needs analysis, it's important for the sales rep to reflect this information back to the client.

“You know what the prospect needs but a lot of times they don't,” explains Jim Smith, president of Peak Performance Systems, a consulting company out of Bellevue, Wash. “As a health club professional, you are quite familiar with fitness and the ins and outs of a club and what may seem obvious to you may not be so obvious to your client.”

Smith realized the power of information first-hand when years ago he went to buy his first VCR, a piece of equipment that he knew little about at the time. “The sales person sat down with me and started asking me questions. ‘Do you have a camcorder? Do you anticipate buying a camcorder? Do you like to watch sports and maybe you would want to watch instant replay in slow motion?’ ‘Do you want to watch movies in stereo?’” Smith recounts. Then, after listening to the replies, the sales person concluded his needs analysis with the following, “Based on what you're saying, it sounds like stereo is important but slow motion is not.” After Smith agreed to the statement, the sales person narrowed down his options of VCRs to a couple of models that reflected his needs, leading to Smith buying his first VCR.

How does this relate to the club tour? Simply put, after you listen to the clients' needs and reflect those needs back to them, “Then you want to make them a promise that your club can achieve what their goals are and back that up with a little bit of proof,” Smith says. Proof can come in the form of members that have similar backgrounds or experiences as the client, and who successfully met their goals at the club. “This is important because it sort of whets their appetite for the tour.”

On Tour

The tour itself is modified to fit the prospect's needs and should utilize props and people wherever possible. Perhaps you determined that your client wants to lose some weight during your needs analysis. So once the tour is underway, the sales person may want to introduce the client to the on-site dietician. Perhaps, if there is time, the dietician could perform a body composition test and analyze just how much body fat the client needs to lose. Right away the club's credibility is established and can help the client set goals when they join. The next step would be to introduce him to a personal trainer who can explain to the client how he can lose those pounds. “You definitely need to make the person comfortable,” says Katherine Dominguez, the membership sales representative for the New Orleans Athletic Club. “One of the easiest things to do is to get other people involved.”

Other “props” include class schedules, the equipment itself, brochures and more. If the client is new to exercise, let them try out a machine or two so they can get a feel for the club.

“The tour is very individualized. If the person already has a routine and knows what they want, I take them in exactly where they need to go,” Dominguez explains. “If someone else comes in who's never been in the gym before, I take baby steps with that person.”

You'll also want to avoid giving the standard “museum tour,” which is where the sales rep just walks the person through the club and points out features, and make it more personal.

“You need to translate everything into benefits for them,” says Smith referring to both logical and emotional benefits that come with the membership. “And the real key to successful selling is emotional [benefits].”

Imagine walking a potential member through the club and pointing out a stairclimber, telling the person that aerobic exercise burns calories and therefore would help him or her lose weight. Logical? Yes. Personal and enticing? Not really. An emotional benefit, on the other hand, would be a benefit targeted to that person's needs. If during the needs analysis, you determined that the person had just finished going through a divorce and was looking to get back into dating again and wanted to lose 10 pounds to regain his self-confidence you could do it this way, according to Smith. “This aerobics class will help you burn a lot of calories,” he says in his sample script. “As you get back on the dating scene, you're going to look and feel great.” A feature that impacts the person's life will have much more selling value than a general list of features standard to any club.

Trial and Error

Following the club tour is the right time to bring up the offer of club trial period and the price presentation. Talking pricing and membership specifics can distract the client during the tour, taking away from the TK of the club.

When you do finally talk memberships, Smith advises offering a trial membership as well as the ability to cancel their membership for any reason before a certain period of time. “Personally I think it's a very smart thing to do and clubs that don't do it, should do it,” states Smith. “One of the biggest advantages [of the trial period] is it's an extremely effective way to close people without pressuring them.

“And then you close with a trial closing question: ‘How does that sound?’ And 19 out of 20 people are going to say ‘great!’” he continues, in which case you go ahead and try and close the deal with a new membership. “And a great way to close without pressuring is assumptive selling,” Smith says.

If the person still has objections, you then try and meet them, without the hard sell. The most common objection is the “I have to think about it” objection. That's where the trial period comes in handy again. “No problem and that's exactly why we have our 15-day money back guarantee,” says Smith, offering a mock script. “Because we know the best way to decide about a club is to try it out.”

And if first you don't succeed, as the old adage advises, try, try again. “Set up a professional follow up with a date and time,” Polic says. “There's no high pressure so it's a no pressure sale.”

So remember, the next time one of your sales associates takes a potential member on a tour, that low pressure may be a key to high sales.

Four Tour Mistakes

Casey Conrad, president of Communications Consultants in Wakefield, R.I., offers the following scenarios for the most common mistakes clubs make when conducting a tour.

  1. No Needs Analysis. “It is a prerequisite to the tour,” insists Conrad.
  2. The “Disney Tour” or “Museum Tour.” “They walk you around like some damn tour escort and it's just, ‘Blah, blah blah. We got this. We got that,’” Conrad says. The client's typical response she likens to a “bobbing head doll.” They just nod their head up and down but they don't feel any emotional impact to join a club and never get to express their own wants and needs. “The sales person is just talking at them [not to them],” she explains.
  3. The Repeat Tour. This is when a sales rep gives the same tour the same way to every client, no matter what the client's background and interests. The tour should be customized to each individual. You find out how to customize the tour during the needs analysis.
  4. The Loners Tour. Ideally, the potential member should get to interact with other employees, personal trainers and members to help break the ice and start the beginning of a relationship between the client and the club. By not interacting with anyone at the club, the client will not feel like he is becoming “part” of anything.

Virtual Tour

How useful are online tours of your club?

You've spent thousands of dollars getting your club Web presence and you've put up a veritable slideshow of every area of your club into Cyberspace. But is all your time and effort doing you more harm than good?

Yes, says Casey Conrad, president of the Wakefield, R.I.-based Communications Consultants. “It's a double-edged sword. The more visuals you provide a customer online the more apt they are to call you up and say, ‘I just need your prices because I've seen your club online.’” she says. “I'm old-fashioned. I don't like discussing memberships over the phone. The Web site should be a call to action to come in for a club tour.”

Gary Polic, the national sales director for Tennis Corp. of America (TCA) in Chicago, counters that every market is different and you'll want to test it out for yourself. “See what works for you,” he says. “If you have all the information on [the Web site] and you're not getting calls, switch it up.”

However, make sure you track your numbers, he warns, so that you can quantify what you're doing.

“If you're not tracking it, you'll never know [how you're doing] and you'll waste your money,” he says. “Once you hit the home run, stick to it until it doesn't work anymore. That's one of the common mistakes people make. They find something that works and then they switch it.

“So don't stop doing what works!” Polic adds.

The Hard Sell

What's your opinion on high-pressure sales tactics? Tell us all about it. Send your mail to Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. E-mail: jagoglia@primediabusiness.com. Fax: (610) 238-0992.