Leslie Nolen leads The Radial Group, which provides sales, marketing and business planning know-how for health and wellness businesses. Subscribe to free weekly business tips at http://www.radialgroup.com.

When we work with health clubs on business strategies, we always ask what motivates their customers to buy from them. The answers usually sound like these:

“We’ve reinvented the fitness experience.”

“We’ve got cutting-edge equipment based on Complicated Scientific Principle No. 4 to maximize their training.”

Or our all-time favorite, “We provide world-class service.”

What’s wrong with these answers? They’re your words, not your customers’ words. Frankly, they mean very little. And they certainly don’t reflect what your potential member is really thinking. That gap is especially troubling during tough times when customers are cautious about investing in a club membership.

Use these eight questions to reveal your potential members’ decision-making process:

1. Why do members switch to your club from a competitor?

Think about what you’ve actually heard from them. Don’t rely on your own opinions or those of your staff unless they’re validated by specific comments or feedback you’ve heard from paying members. It’s also worth asking around among colleagues, family members, neighbors, friends and others who may be willing to share the good and bad of their experiences with other clubs.

2. Why did they originally choose the competitor rather than your club?

The knee-jerk response is often price, yet few buying decisions in the health and wellness arena are really made strictly based on price. After all, most health and wellness services are discretionary. People will afford your products and services if and when they want to. It’s up to you to make sure they want your club.

3. Does your business send subtle messages that turn off prospects?

For example, a national retailer’s clothing catalog describes some garments as having a “relaxed fit” while others have a “feminine fit.” That description will undoubtedly offend more than a few female customers, since it implies that women who prefer a looser fit are less feminine than those who prefer a more snug fit.

4. What annoys your potential customers most about buying health and wellness services?

Think about the gripes and complaints you’ve heard. Then ask yourself how you can turn these to your advantage. For example, a common complaint from therapeutic massage clients is the cost of massage sessions. “Massage memberships” change the rules of the game by offering a much lower per-session price in exchange for a predictable level of monthly business that lets you optimize staffing levels.

5. What are competitors doing especially well?

Decide whether you need to adopt some of your competitors’ practices or respond by emphasizing other special attributes of your business. If you decide to emulate some of their practices, pick and choose what you adopt. A common mistake is to try to mimic everything a competitor does. Often that means your business becomes a pale imitation of your competitor—and loses what could have made it distinctive.

6. Where are your competitors especially vulnerable?

Help prospects focus on these areas while avoiding unattractive criticism of another club or fitness center. For example, perhaps your staff is exceptionally well-qualified. Consider developing a one-pager that explains the importance of licensure and certification. Include key questions about staff qualifications that consumers should ask every health club before they make a final decision.

7. What are the actual words used by real customers about your club’s features and benefits?

First, make a list of what members say. For each word or phrase, explicitly ask yourself whether this is a word you’ve actually heard from customers, or whether it’s really a word you like to use to describe your fitness center or health club. If it is the latter, strike it off the list.

Then compare this “hot button” list to your sales and marketing materials and the talking points your staff uses with prospects. Make sure you’re using the words that resonate with your customers and are not just marketing gobbledygook.

8. How do your customers justify or rationalize the decision to buy services from you?

Most health and wellness services are discretionary. List the top five reasons that happy customers give for buying your services. Your marketing materials, including your Web site, should clearly communicate how your services accomplish these objectives.

Create sales and marketing initiatives that capitalize on these insights, and you’ll be well on the way to creating new membership momentum—even in a tough economy.