Let's take it as a given that most consumers assume that the process of buying a health club membership will be sales-intensive. Our entire industry has been painted as having high-pressure, lock-people-in-a-cubicle-until-they-sign methods, and consumers enter most clubs with their guard up, waiting for the hard sell.

What we find remarkable about that impression is how wrong it is. We are an industry dominated by independent clubs, small studios, single-storefront franchise operators and not-for-profits. As a group, you could not have a more incompetent, ineffective group of businesses trying to sell something. Most of us can barely get out of our own way and should feel lucky when someone makes it through all of our bumbling and fumbling to actually join.

The problem in our industry isn't that we have too many high-pressure, gold-chain-wearing, how-do-I-sell-you-this-membership-today Rico Suave salespeople. Our problem is that we don't have enough people who are trained to competently and effectively listen to prospects, match the prospects' needs to the facility's services and create truly win/win relationships. This is when the word "sales" is at its finest — when the act of a consumer making a purchase is really an extension of excellent service.

Our industry stinks at that. But, it's not for lack of trying or lack of personnel.

 

SELLING IS A GOOD THING
Almost every club has a person or a department in charge of sales. They might call these people "Member Services" or "Customer Relations," but their job is to sell. The problem is that they and their managers are so desperate not to be considered salespeople that they don't arm themselves with the most basic and reliable techniques and strategies to actually sell memberships.

Selling memberships is a very good thing. We need to be proud of that — yes, we want to sell memberships. People who buy what we are selling improve their lives, and we get to make a living from that. So let's keep our chins up.

We've been at not-for-profits where lovely but unqualified retirees volunteer their time to greet prospects and do tours. We've been at small independents where high school kids work the front desk and shove price sheets in front of visitors. We've walked into massive recreation centers that take 45 minutes to tour because the staff has been told that they must show every nook and cranny of every part of the facility. Then they wondered why prospects walked out without joining. (A simple observation — "Your prospects have lives that they need to get back to" — seemed baffling.)

And you could walk into one of our clubs right now and have a horrible experience. Just three days before we wrote this, we heard that one of our new staff members, when faced with a walk-in prospect who asked about prices, responded by handing out our price sheet and saying, "So long." The new staff member has trained for weeks, which included role-playing and shadowing senior staff, and yet, this happened.

SALES WITHOUT SALES PEOPLE
So, yes, it's a process and there is a learning curve and it requires ongoing commitment, training and retraining. But, your business depends on your ability to sell without salespeople. So, what in the world can you do?

1. Learn traditional sales techniques for yourself. If you are in charge, you need to study real, honest-to-goodness sales techniques. Read Zig Ziglar. Go to seminars. Visit clubs that are known for high-pressure sales. You'll learn things. You'll observe how they will ask lots of questions of their prospects that they will then echo right back in order to close the sale. "You told me that you can't keep up with your kids anymore. Do you really need to check with your spouse before you join? Let's get you started today." You'll notice that they won't ask, "Would you like to schedule an appointment with a trainer?" Instead, you'll hear them say, "We have appointments available at these three times. Which should I schedule you for?" Some of the techniques you learn could be appropriate for you to use in your facility.

2. Ask relevant questions. Most health club tours are a menu of features that a staff person rattles off. Train your staff to be conversational and to ask appropriate, simple questions that help create a dialogue and a bit of a relationship. (See "Our Top 5 Sales Questions.")

3. Listen more than you talk. This can be difficult with some prospects, but selling is a lot like dating. On a date, most people love to talk about themselves, and they think the person who is listening must be fascinated by them. Encourage your prospects to talk, and listen to what they are saying. Your staff must of course be trained to address the most common concerns — payment schedule options, personal information security, club dress code — that your prospects will typically bring to your facility.

4. Script everything you can. If you do not write scripts on what to say and how to say it, your staff will do it — whatever "it" is — wrong. Start with how to greet someone (come around the desk, extend your hand, look the visitor in the eye, and say, "My name is..."). Then move on to common answers to common questions. This is time-consuming and painful, but vital.

5. Role play, role play, role play. Scripting only works if you force your staff to practice. Role-playing is one of the most awful things to do to anyone in a professional setting, but it will build camaraderie among your staff (they will bond over the mutual loathing and laughter) and allow them to make their mistakes and get comfortable in a safe environment.

6. Ask people to join. If your staff members learn only one salesy question, please make it, "Would you like to join today?" It's not an attempt at closing. It's an invitation to join. If they are proud of where they work, they should be proud to make that invitation.

Your trainers — or Member Services or Customer Relations people — do not need to be turned into Super Salespeople, and they will balk if they think that's what you are trying to do. Your goal should be to make them better at this vitally important function called "sales" and to arm them with tools that will make them more at ease. After all, you are already asking them to perform this role. You owe it to them and to your business to give them a legitimate chance to succeed at it.

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Rob Bishop and Barry Klein are owners of Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pa.