Give your members the absolute best service!

At my former gym, I never thought about customer service. Aside from my group cycling instructors, who would smile at me (but never knew my name), the nice young man who played opera music as he checked members in was the only club employee who acknowledged me.

Then there was the matter of towels. I always had to remember to bring a towel to my group cycling class. And once somebody walked off with my towels while I was showering, and another member (a stranger) got me two more towels which were kept in the main lobby.

On my first day at my new club, I rushed into group cycling class, towel in hand, only to find that each bicycle had a clean white towel folded across the handlebars. After class, my instructor approached me in the locker room, asked me my name, how long I had been taking group cycling, and what I thought of the class. She also said she got the feeling I had found the music too loud. (I did and it was.)

I chatted with her as I fumbled with my locker combination. When I was unable to remember the combination after 10 minutes, she immediately went for the clippers. Naturally, I remembered the combination during her absence and, mortified, apologized for my ineptness upon her return. No problem, she said and smiled. (Oh, and there were stacks of freshly laundered white towels in the locker room.)

"This," I said to myself, "is what great customer service is all about."

And, says Sandy Coffman, president of Programming for Profit, in Bradenton, Fla., it is a concept that too few clubs embrace. Poor customer service, she claims, is "epidemic in the business industry right now, which is why it's epidemic in our business in particular." And that's not smart because good service can give clubs a distinct competitive edge.

In this day and age, Coffman notes, most clubs have state-of-the-art equipment and educated staff members. Even location and price are no longer deciding factors for would-be members. What makes the difference in why people choose one club or another? According to Coffman, "it really comes down to a matter of value and service."

Here are some guidelines for making sure your customers get the right kind of service:

* Practice what you preach. At Supreme Health & Fitness, in Ma-dison, Wis., managers "try to lead by example," says club owner Howie Grigg. He and his partner are "on the frontlines as much as possible interacting with customers either at the front desk or on the fitness floor or even teaching racquetball. The staff tries to emulate that."

* Make service a priority on the floor. At Supreme, floor staff is readily available to answer questions to make sure members are doing what they should be doing, says Grigg. But Supreme goes the extra mile: Since the market for personal training in Madison is a small one, Supreme makes its trainers (who are full-time and salaried) available to everyone for free. Sure there are people who sign up for one-on-one training, but members can meet with a trainer every few weeks for an evaluation, gratis, explains Grigg.

"Membership retention is one of our biggest focuses," he says. "If you can keep someone enjoying his workout program, it makes all the difference in the world in keeping him as a member."

* Emphasize spontaneous fun. If a member is having a birthday, treat everybody in class to a free yogurt or drink, offers Coffman. Or a staffer can take around a helium balloon and have people sign their names for the birthday celebrant.

"The marketing capabilities of such a fun event instigated by a staff member would certainly set the cultural tone that yells, 'service,' to everyone. Service has got to be overt, out there and visible so that members talk about it."

* Make sure your front desk is well versed in the art of customer service. "Every front-desk person should know how to give some kind of specific hello or acknowledge a member they haven't met before," says Coffman. "I don't want to hear they can't do it because they're too busy. If a front-desk person can't do three things at one time, the wrong person has been hired."

* Empower your staff. Coffman says that often a staff member in one department can't help a member who has a question about another part of the club. "The answer is generally, 'I don't work there' or 'I don't know anything about that area,'" says Coffman. "No staff person should have to say, 'That isn't my job. I can't handle it.' Every staff person should be able to give a positive answer even if he or she doesn't have the exact answer." For instance: "I know where I can find the answer, and I'll get back to you within the hour."

* Teach staff how to use the telephone. The telephone is a huge form of customer service in that it helps you maintain contact with new members who aren't yet involved or older members who have stopped being involved. But the customer service isn't in calling a member and asking, "Why aren't you coming? What can we do for you?"

"If the member knew, he'd be telling you," says Coffman. "We've got to be able to call a member and assess within a minute what type of person he is, asking the right questions and being able to process the information we're getting back."

The questions you ask will depend upon the response you get. For example, suppose you are calling a member who hasn't been in the club recently. Ask the person what she does when she comes to the club. If she says she generally uses the treadmill, ask her how she likes it. If she gives the impression that she's bored, suggest she join a group exercise class. Or ask her if she's familiar with other types of equipment and if she'd like to set up an appointment with someone who can show her how to use new machines.

* Offer amenities to members if possible. Supreme Health & Fitness does what no other club in its area does: It provides members with free towels. On hand in the locker room are basic toiletries such as deodorant, hair spray, shampoo and shaving cream. Supreme also provides a locker-key service.

"We try to do little things," says Grigg. "In our marketplace, there are facilities that are five times larger than we are. Services like these separate us from the warehouse-type facilities."

* Give sales training to every staff person. "We are all selling our product on a continual basis," says Coffman. "Once we develop a rapport with our communication skills and build a trust with the member, the next step in customer service is giving members the education they need about their fitness program and selling them into a program that is going to benefit them healthwise."

* Demand consistency. "Customer service training is usually given as a project and is considered so simple that everybody should get it the first time," says Coffman. "The problem is everyone takes it for granted and it usually gets diluted within a week or two."

Every staff meeting-be it weekly or biweekly-should include role-playing exercises in customer service, according to Coffman. The exercises can be as simple as how to greet people, how to make a correction or how to handle a telephone call.

"These principles have got to be taught to every department and not just to the front desk," says Coffman.


Customer Service 101

What does it take to make your members feel they matter? At Supreme Health & Fitness, in Madison, Wis., employees are given a handbook that spells out the club's customer service philosophy. Here are some examples of what is expected of staff:

1. Strive to know each member's name and use it regularly. It is a member's favorite word.

2. Always try to establish eye contact with people. Have a smile on your face.

3. If you see a member or co-worker struggling, help her out.

4. If for some reason you can't give a member what she wants, try to explain why in terms she will understand and agree with. For example, say the member is upset because she can't get a space at the noon group cycling class. You can sympathize with how the member feels, then say: "I'm sure you understand that because of the size of our studio, we can't accommodate more people. Is there anyway you can get here a little earlier to reserve a spot? If not, we do have another class after work that you may want to consider. The instructor is great." Or: "Wednesday seems to be a very popular day for the class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there is usually a slot available." Or: "Have you thought about trying our body-sculpting class instead? It's great and gives you an amazing workout."

5. Simple things like being the first to say "hello" or "goodbye" or "have a nice day" make a big difference.

6. Be an empathetic listener and respond positively. Members don't want excuses. They want help with problems.

7. Follow through on everything you say and promise to do for members.

8. A customer's perception is always right for him.

9. Members are not work interruptions. They are the purpose of our work.

10. Members should be totally satisfied regardless of why they came in.

- C.W.