Pat Rigsby is the co-owner of several businesses in the fitness industry, including the Fitness Consulting Group. He also serves as an industry consultant focusing on the development of profitable personal training departments. To learn how you can improve your club’s retention, referrals and profitability, sign up for Rigsby’s free newsletter and get his three free business building reports at www.fitnessmarketingmachine.com. Rigsby can be reached at pat@fitnessconsultingroup.com.

As club owners, we all want more referrals. People who come into your club based on referrals from current members are the easiest prospects to sell. They also are more likely to refer others, and they’ll stay longer and pay more while they’re members.

Unfortunately, getting your members to give referrals isn’t as easy as it used to be. In the past, all you had to do was offer a prize to members if they referred friends and they would line up to send you new members. But not anymore.

That doesn’t mean that referrals are no longer important. You can still be a referral-driven business, but you need to set the stage to make that happen. Referrals can be broken down into two categories: incentivized and inspired.

Inspired referrals are the viral payoff for giving your members a high-quality facility and an extraordinary experience. Inspired referrals will come by ensuring your staff members treat everyone like close personal friends, keeping the equipment clean and in good working order, and making your members feel like your club is their home away from home. In fact, a great club that excels in those areas alone can build a great membership base with a fraction of the marketing cost typically associated with business growth.

Incentivized referrals, which come from joint ventures, contests and rewards, can give your business a great boost, too, especially while you’re still positioning yourself as the premier club in your community. But in general, you can’t expect to build a business solely from incentivized referrals. Unfortunately, most of the talk about referral marketing focuses on incentivized referrals and the short-lived fireworks they can provide. Don’t get caught up in the hype and think that alone will carry you.

Instead, focus on providing extraordinary service and an extraordinary member experience so you can get inspired referrals. Once you have started to improve in those areas, you can add incentivized referral programs in any of the following ways:

1. Point-of-sale referrals
2. Contests
3. Rewards
4. Gift certificates/gift cards
5. Bring-a-friend days

Just remember that when you “bribe” your members (let’s be honest, that’s what you’re doing here), you can create a rather unsavory dynamic between your members and their friends. Take care with how you do this. Incentivized referrals often result in your members pressuring their friends and relatives. That harms their relationships with their friends and family and will thus eventually harm their relationship with you.

It starts with how you promote the referral programs. You don’t want to make them too “pitchy.” Instead, offer referral programs that are fun and don’t make the member feel pressured—no one likes that. We all like to believe that we are doing things of our own free will. This is why the emphasis should be on a fun, natural and easy experience.