When Should You Conduct A Member Survey?

By Brian McBain
July 10, 2006

Brian McBain is president of Club MarketVision Inc., a market research company over the last 15 years focused on the club industry that conducts customized member surveys, focus groups and former member surveys in addition to marketing plans and consulting. He can be reached at 480-361-8263.

The quick and easy answer to the question of when should a club conduct a member survey, of course, is whenever you want to know what members are really thinking. In reality, there are many answers to this question. Here are a couple of the more important ones.

1. When it’s important to know whether or not the club is getting better at creating satisfied members. A satisfied member is a member who is more likely to stay a member. Nothing is more disconcerting to the sales staff than to see members quitting or not renewing faster than they can sign up new ones. “We work like dogs,” they say, “to get new members and you can’t keep them. We’re doing our part. How about you doing yours?” In the worst of all possible worlds, the word begins to spread that the club promises everything but delivers nothing. So unless clubs know that members are not satisfied, they will assume everything is alright and do nothing about it, or worse, they’ll lower prices assuming that that will stem the tide of defections.A satisfied member will recommend the club to friends. A very satisfied member will actively recommend the club to friends. A deliriously happy member will proseletize for the club. It sounds like an ad we’ve all heard, “A satisfied customer is our best salesman.” In fact, it’s true and it costs you nothing. If just 25 percent your members actively recommended your club to friends and associates, you could slash your marketing budget to almost zero. In many of our member surveys we find that, on average, members say they know three to four friends who could be members of their club; yet an average of more than 70 percent, on average have not contacted the club to bring in a friend as a guest. The math is truly frightening — or heartening— depending on your point of view.A satisfied member will purchase more non-dues-covered goods and services. This is almost a no-brainer. If more members buy more merchandise in the pro shop, smoothie drinks or additional fee-based special classes and personal training, it’s a win for the club and a win for the member.Increasing member satisfaction is an effective basis for judging and rewarding employee performance. Many of our client clubs do exactly this. They base any increased compensation on changes in performance noted in their annual member surveys. Department heads and employees anxiously await the results of the annual member survey to see not only how their departments have improved but, equally importantly, to get ideas for improving their departments for the next year. In fact, some clubs hold informal contests among departments to see how many of the members’ written suggestions they can implement — many such suggestions require little or no cost. 2.When a club is considering a major renovation or expansion. To inject new life into a club, to attract and accommodate new members or simply to retain old ones, some clubs believe that spending a lot of money on an expansion or a major renovation will be needed. In many cases that will be effective. But what to do? Do we really have to spend that kind of money? Are we sure that it will do the trick? To answer these questions, we have suggested that clubs “float trial balloons” in their member surveys.

For example, a large multi-sport club was considering creating an outdoor water park addition. The addition would feature a beach-entry pool, a large slide, other water-powered amusements and so on. When we asked members about it, they rejected the idea out of hand. The most commonly written comment was that they wanted fewer kids — not more — around the club and didn’t want the club to take on an “amusement park” personality.

Moreover, what members were really concerned about was the cleanliness and condition of the locker rooms, and they wanted more help on the fitness floor. They wanted the club to designate a member of the fitness staff (or a personal trainer) to walk the fitness floor and offer encouragement and help with the proper use of equipment. For far less capital investment than creating an outdoor water park, the club had answers to their slipping retention.

3.When competition is entering the marketplace. To be sure, when a new club makes it known that they are going to enter the market, you will lose members. However, the question becomes, how to minimize the loss? Better still, how do we limit the loss to those members most able to be lured by cheaper prices? And while we are at it, how do we make our club more attractive to new members in the community whose interest may be peaked by the flurry of publicity surrounding a new entrant?

One of our client clubs was faced with a competitive incursion and conducted a member survey. The most striking finding was that members had a very low opinion of the club’s price/value equation. The survey highlighted a number of things the club could do to change member’s perceptions of the club’s price relative to its perceived value.

We recommended that the club tell members what changes the club had made in the past year in its physical plant and its programs and services and that the club regularly tell members what changes the club would be making in the future. We recommended that they made sure members knew about staff changes and staff qualifications in the newsletter and on the Web site. We also suggested that the club build value into the membership by occasionally providing fruit with a “Take One” sign at the front desk or that they do a deal with a local bottled water company to provide free bottles of water on occasion.

As a result of implementing these and other recommendations aimed at building membership value, the club minimized the impact of the new competitive club and, better still, members’ ratings of the club on price/value rose considerably — to acceptable levels achieved by other similar clubs in our database — on the next year’s member survey.

Many clubs find themselves in a kind of malaise where retention is slipping steadily, new member sales are lagging and the club just seems to be in a rut. On the surface there is nothing really wrong, but if things were to continue, there would be problems. In these circumstances the clubs need a “tune-up” and mid-course corrections before minor irritations become bona fide challenges.

Member surveys give clubs an excellent diagnostic evaluation of most of the important aspects of a club’s health and well-being. These surveys provide members’ evaluations of the physical plant such as the amount and quality of fitness equipment, the club’s upkeep and cleanliness and overall appearance and appeal. Member surveys provide penetrating insights into staff effectiveness including management, fitness staff, reception staff, program and service staff, personal trainers and maintenance staff. They give an incisive read on the club’s important services and programs from pool-related programs to group fitness programs to Pilates and Yoga programs.

With survey findings in hand, clubs are equipped to make major changes and minor course corrections to get the club back on track to success and profitability.

Much of what a club needs to do to fix problems and improve on their strengths is to communicate more effectively with their members. Members need to know that they are not being taken for granted and that what they think and feel is important to the club. And there is no better two-way communication tool than a member survey.

Clubs that get the most value from their member surveys take the time and trouble to merchandise the findings back to their members and to implement as many member suggestions as possible. They do it on a “We asked, you told us, here’s what we are doing about it” basis.