As we near the end of the summer, we start the much-anticipated fall season, which for most clubs is the start of their sales' peak season. Traditionally, we have been a seasonal business in most parts of the country, relying heavily on membership revenues that have always increased in the fall and winter months. Over the years, many club owners have looked upon the summer months as a time when they make few sales and just try to hang on until September, when the revenue starts flowing in again. The past three to four years have taught us that although January is still a strong sales month, it is no longer the month that will give you 30 percent to 40 percent of your yearly sales.

In June, I wrote that one way to effectively compete in the environment of commoditization is to differentiate yourself as a club, rather than as just a gym. To compete against other clubs, you need to be a better provider of services — and you must let people know you are better. You and your team must make people feel comfortable, appreciated and cared for.

Recently, I saw first-hand if clubs are learning to differentiate themselves, make their potential customers feel comfortable or apply a new mode of business operations to their businesses. In four markets across the country, my clients asked me to look at their competition. I shopped eight to 10 clubs in each market. In most clubs, I expected to see good business systems and friendly, caring staff that wanted to show me how great (and different) they were from everyone else.

Instead, I was surprised and somewhat shocked. In each market, only two to three clubs even asked me to fill out any information. The other clubs must either have too many members or they are simply missing an understanding or execution of basic business and sales practices.

Most of the people at the clubs I shopped asked only two questions, including “How are you?” By comparison, I teach all of my clients to ask every prospect at least 20 to 25 questions. If you are trying to find out how you can help someone and make them feel comfortable, it takes more than a well-equipped club and some nice finishes. Usually, you need to ask the customer questions that show you care.

I have always taught our clients that they must meet three challenges to be successful. The first is having the right business and sales systems in place, the right staff in place and, as Jim Collins says in his book “Good to Great,” the right people in the right seats on the bus. The second challenge is to get the non-exerciser out of the house and into our clubs, something that Curves did when they first entered the marketplace. The third challenge is competing with the club down the street. You must be aware of what they are doing even though you can't change it.

Most of the staff at the clubs I shopped seemed indifferent, and only a few individuals seemed to show genuine enthusiasm. The majority of the enthusiastic individuals worked in older clubs that were not updated and were in most need of newer equipment or a coat of paint. Could it be that many of our newer clubs' front-line receptionists and sales staff take the customer for granted and think that their newer clubs will sell themselves?

Although I found rude people at three of the 27 clubs I shopped, most of the people I spoke with just seemed indifferent. As a customer, it wasn't a bad experience. Some people just seemed to be going through the motions rather than trying to make a difference to me.

So with my experience in mind, do you still think the only problem clubs face today is competition from the new club down the street?

Ed Tock is a partner in Sales Makers, a marketing and sales training consulting firm that has worked with more than 1,000 clubs and won the IHRSA Associate of the Year award. He can be reached at 800-428-3334 or eddie@sales-makers.com.