Change All of Your Sales Practices…Now

This may sound a bit extreme (particularly since this is running in a column on sales), but generally speaking, our industry does a terrible job of selling our product. Commercial health clubs have the latest and greatest equipment/technology, cool group exercise classes and beautifully designed facilities, yet we sell like we are hawking used cars or aluminum siding.

Now before you get all upset and offended by this article, I realize there are many clubs out there that employ a professional sales staff who treat customers very well. However, the health club business is still by and large more interested in selling contracts and collecting on them than effecting a healthy way of life for our customers. And the public we are trying to reach is well aware of it.

How many of you get up in the morning and say, “Gee, I would love to go out to a used-car lot today and deal with a salesperson!” Or maybe, “Gosh, I hope someone knocks on the door today and tries to sell me some siding!” Why do we subject potential customers to sales practices that we ourselves try to avoid? When we lose sight of what our customers want, we limit our chances of long-term success.

The health club industry has to get something very basic through its thick skull: Member retention should be built on its ability to create program adherence and club usage. It should not be built on a salesperson's ability to execute a multi-year legal document requiring a monthly payment or a lawyer's ability to create fine print that allows clubs to renew someone's contract automatically after it expires. If we don't clean up some of these sleazy practices, legislation will be created to clean our house for us. It is already happening in several states as consumers (our customers) get more fed up with our sales techniques.

Not only should the industry re-examine how it sells memberships, it should also reconsider how much it charges. Why do we diminish the value of our product by drastically discounting it if it is purchased via a long-term contract? And consider the contracts themselves. The 87 percent of Americans who are not our customers want lifestyle enhancement and health, but we want to sell them a contract. We'll never grow the industry that way.

We also won't grow the industry through our current budgeting process. How much money does your club spend on advertising, sales commissions and marketing? Here's a better question: What would your retention numbers look like if you took this same money and hired an educated, professional fitness staff, trained them to put your members on a fitness program, and encouraged these members to stay motivated by charting their progress and giving them positive reinforcement for coming to your club?

We would retain our members for much longer periods of time if we refocused our energy on helping them to use our facilities. Instead, we focus on sticking them with a legal document that frequently ends up with a collection agency. Nothing builds loyalty and retention like a contract hanging over our members' heads!

This industry needs to change its common sales practices. Your club can break the mold by trying a few of the techniques our club uses to make the joining process more customer-friendly.

  • Don't let sales staff's hours affect when your prospective members can join. You would be surprised at how effective front desk staff, fitness staff, childcare staff and your department managers are at giving tours and signing people up. It's not rocket science!

  • Get rid of the contracts. Your customers will love you for it, and if you're looking for something to differentiate your club from your competitors, this will do it. Besides, contracts make us complacent. Giving your customers the option of firing you every month will keep your club cleaner and in better repair, and your staff more helpful and friendlier.

  • Implement a new member orientation system that requires members to work with a staff trainer over a period of months to establish a fitness program. Then follow up with members to make sure they are using the club and are getting results from their program. Program adherence is the key to retention.

  • Don't pay sales commissions. Instead pay your staff trainers a retention bonus based upon the case load of members they carry who actually use the club and receive regular contact. Excellent software programs are available to aid this process.

  • Publish your prices and hold firm. Don't negotiate with members and cheapen your product. Give your rates over the phone, post them on your Web site and keep them uniform with no exceptions. Prospects will appreciate the open sharing of your price structure.

A nice country gentleman who set up his business down the road from our club had a theory on how customers should be treated. He preached relentlessly that customers are bosses who have the option of firing us every time they do or do not enter our business. His name is Sam Walton, and today Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world's largest retailer with sales exceeding $200 billion.

We can treat our members like customers or like contracts and collection items. It is our choice.

Bob Shoulders and his wife, Katherine, own and manage the Fayetteville Athletic Club (FAC) in northwest Arkansas. FAC is a 60,000-square-foot, multipurpose club with more than 5,000 members. He can be contacted at (501) 587-0500.