Dr. Wendy Williamson is a nationally sought-after speaker in the areas of general personal training education, medical exercise services and post-rehabilitation. She was recognized by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in 2005 and 2006 as one of the top three personal trainers in the nation. A contributing author of the 2008 Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist — ACE Training Textbook, Williamson routinely writes and reviews national certification testing criteria for personal trainers. She has an extensive track record in teaching and curriculum development and is the owner of Williamson Fitness Consulting. Williamson continues to provide "hands on" post-rehabilitation training at Genesis Health Clubs in Wichita, KS.

Simply stated, customer service means servicing the customer. What sets your company apart from your competitor? Does your staff and your facility adequately address all of your members' needs and expectations?

A 2001 study by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that customers terminate their memberships for four primary reasons:

  1. Sixty-seven percent leave because of the club's or employees' attitude of indifference.
  2. Thirteen percent leave because of dissatisfaction with the product and/or service.
  3. Ten percent leave for other reasons that include moving, death, etc.
  4. Nine percent leave because of competitors.

These numbers show that 81 percent of the reason members leave fitness facilities is preventable. The loss of revenue due to poor customer service is staggering. If fitness facility owners collectively improve the customer satisfaction level by ensuring that employees proactively connect with members and provide extraordinary service, members will stay and renew their memberships. Plus, they will refer friends and business associates, according to Bob Esquerre, owner of Esquerre Fitness Group Inc., Boca Raton, FL.

The fitness industry is in the business of making a credible return-on-investment. It is crucial to fully integrate new members into the facility, keep existing members and get member referrals, says Esquerre.

Where should this begin? It begins with the management team. Keep in mind that members are a business asset, and the staff also is a business asset. Personal trainers, group fitness professionals and other staff professionals are assets for the business. Managers must realize there should be collective engagement. Service should be referred and encouraged by each professional group to another. The member experience is the most crucial component of a happy member, according to Esquerre.

Service yields results every day. Maintaining member relationships is critical whether it is between the member and employee or even among members. In fact, clubs with strong member-to-member connections have higher retention than clubs with weak member-to-member connections, according to the 2004 book "Guide to Membership Retention: Industry Lessons On What—and What Not—To Do," by John McCarthy, who was the executive director of IHRSA at that time.

Management must lead and learn. In 2007, the fitness facility rate of attrition was about 30 percent. Why? Fitness facilities over promised, and employees under delivered, according to IHRSA's 2007 "Profiles of Success: The Annual Industry Survey of the Health and Fitness Club Industry." Staff must be committed to growing the membership asset while creating a positive membership experience.

However, Harvey Mackay, motivational speaker, syndicated columnist and author of "Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive," says that satisfied customers are just not good enough. If a company wants a booming business, they must supersede satisfied customers and create "raving fans." Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, authors of the 1993 book "Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service," say that to create raving fans you need three key principals:

  1. Decide the vision or what you want.
  2. Discover what the customer wants.
  3. Deliver, plus one percent.

So not only must you deliver what the customer wants, you and your staff need to deliver above and beyond member expectations.

Have you provided customer service training to your staff? Are you recruiting, not just hiring, people with emotional intelligence (EI) skill sets? EI is the art and science of personal and intrapersonal effectiveness. Furthermore, it is the ability to process emotional information, particularly as it involves the perception, assimilation, understanding and management of emotions.

Connecting with members' emotions can offer a huge financial benefit. Establishing strong emotional connections with your members can mean the difference between creating rational advocates—members who merely talk about your company—and emotional advocates—those who talk about it passionately, according to John Fleming and Jim Asplund, authors of the 2008 book "Customer Satisfaction Is Not Enough."

Excellent customer service may never be perfect, but that is something for which to strive. Timothy Bonomo, author of "Customer Service: Aiming for Excellence," states that observing and meeting the customers' needs is important, as is determining their reaction when service is provided. Simply stated: everyday extraordinary service equals extraordinary results everyday.

Bonomo writes, "Our job is to be sensitive to all of the circumstances that a customer might have occurring and to be prepared to try any techniques to satisfy the customer." However, fitness club owners and professionals should anticipate problems, rather than have to defend a problem.

Listening is another fabulous skill. Regardless of the issue or problem, meeting the member on the same page with empathy is absolutely critical, Bonomo says. Often, members don't want quick solutions; they want understanding of the original problem. Losing a member for lack of attention to detail is unnecessary and costly. Addressing the needs or problem solving in a timely manner retains memberships.

Retaining a member is much more cost effective than initiating a new membership. According to IHRSA, member acquisition costs are high and rising, thus making membership retention more important every year.

Servicing customers and providing a positive experience in multiple ways begins with teamwork in fitness management. For some, it is innate, but for others it is not. Regardless, creating raving fans and tuning in to EI can create a return on investment, positive member experiences and a secure industry for years to come.