The product of a health club business is the member's experience, just like the product of a restaurant is not only the food but also the overall experience. Say this in a group of club owners and operators, and most will agree.

Ask this same group if they deliver an excellent, average or poor member experience, and I bet at least 80 percent will say “excellent.” However, I bet that 80 percent of their members would say “poor to average.”

This indicates a gap in the owner's strategy and the ability to deliver on it. If your strategy includes the intent to delight your members, then you need to design your business to deliver it. This requires more than telling staff to be nice and say “hello” and “goodbye.” Whether you are a full-service, multi-sport club or a low-cost, fitness-only facility, you have no excuse for poor service.

Great customer service that builds loyalty begins with two rules: create no unpleasant surprises and create lots of pleasant surprises. If you can avoid any of the former and create several of the latter, members will have an excellent experience. Many businesses fail at this because policies are set and the staff is trained, primarily, to protect and benefit the company, not the customers.

The member experience is defined by the member, not by the operator. Club operators create policies and strategies, launch initiatives and train the staff. The effects of those decisions will be positive, neutral or negative for members, but only members can make that determination.

How many policies and procedures are created with an individual member's experience in mind? Members' club experiences are disrupted by policies that make no sense to them, cost them money or even make them angry. Then, the frontline staff is left to mutter the most aggravating words in customer-service history: “That's our policy.” Members don't care if that is your policy — they want to know how your policies are designed to bring them value.

It is important to differentiate between the intent of a policy, process or procedure, and the feeling that the policy, process or procedure creates for a member. Intent means nothing. Feeling is everything. Design your systems with the end feelings of the member in mind.

In addition to burdening frontline staff with too many company-centric policies and procedures, the time spent training staff to enforce those policies becomes disproportionate to the time spent teaching values, connectivity, complaint resolution and delivering pleasant surprises.

I would go one step further and argue that an over-regulated service environment with disempowered staff does not attract the best employees. In my experience, service environments that allow the frontline staff the authority and, in fact, the directive to do whatever it takes to make members happy will attract employees that love helping people.

A key word (albeit a grossly misused word) is “empower.” I say misused because many who claim to have empowered their frontline employees have done no such thing. They give them the power to say “no” but not the power to say “yes.” If you truly empower your service staff to deliver great service, you bestow on them the authority to say “yes” as well as “no.”

Years ago, we did an experiment with our front desk staff in an effort to improve our member service. We empowered them to do whatever it took to make members happy. Next, we told them that they had to ask for manager permission to tell a member “no.” We cringed and waited for them to give everything away. They didn't.

Four things happened: members were happier, the staff was happier, they did a great job and we discovered their limits of comfort when they asked us for permission to tell a member “no.”

If your strategy is differentiation and not commoditization, then this method of staff empowerment could point you in the right direction. Few club operators have the courage and the patience to deliver on a true customer-centric care strategy. Chances are, you will be the only one in your market offering this type of service, and that is true differentiation.

BIO

Blair McHaney is CEO of Confluence Fitness Partners Inc., which does business as Gold's Gym of the Wenatchee Valley in Wenatchee, WA. He also is president of the Gold's Gym Franchisee Association.