Suggestions to turn your voicemail into another marketing tool.

Recently, an Internet blogger named Paul English received a tremendous amount of media attention by creating something called the IVR Cheat Sheet. "IVR" stands for something many people consider one of the most annoying inventions ever : interactive voice response. This is the voicemail center you enter when calling a company that supposedly considers you a valued customer. English's Cheat Sheet (found at www.paulenglish.com/ivr/) provides frustrated consumers with ways to bypass these computers and actually speak to a real human being at numerous large corporations (including Bank of America, American Express and Citicard) and a number of government agencies (Federal Trade Commission and the section of the Department of Education handling student loans).

You may not have an IVR system at your fitness center, but perhaps you do have voicemail. If you do, unless you're careful, you're paying for something that is driving potential customers to your competition, and leaving them with a negative impression of your facility when they call.

A necessary evil

If you can't hire a live human being to answer every call in a friendly, helpful way, at least avoid the typical message, which sounds something like this: "We're sorry we can't answer your call. We're either on the phone or away from our desk. Please leave a message, and we'll call you back as soon as possible."

Your marketing has done its job, and someone is excited about joining your fitness center. Maybe the caller even views this as a potentially life-changing experience. Then comes this message. Do you think this caller cares whether you're on the phone or not at your desk? Of course not! If you're really lucky, they'll call back. If you're only a little lucky, they'll forget their transformation thing altogether and go back to lying on the couch. If Lady Luck has turned her back on you, that caller will dial your competition.

So now you're saying, "I can't sit there all day and answer the phone. I've got a facility to run, and I can't afford to hire another person just to answer the phone." Not to worry. Here are some suggestions to turn your annoying, customer-repelling voicemail into another marketing tool.

Add a fitness or nutrition tip

One way to get customers to accept voicemail is if something is in it for them. A tip of the day is something just for them, and can create word-of-mouth buzz that says this fitness center cares about giving value even to those who aren't yet members. You can assign the task of finding the daily tips to members of your staff on a rotating basis, which adds the additional benefit of helping them stay up to speed on current research.

Start with a motivational quote

A motivational quote can be another value-add for the caller that says, "This isn't just a fitness center, it's a life-change center." Select quotes that provide segues into new programming, or special events that will bring new visitors into the facility.

Make them laugh

People buy from those they like, and there's no quicker way to make people like you and have a positive association with your facility than to make them laugh. How about something like, "I'd love to talk to you, but I got a little carried away in our yoga class. The chiropractor says I shouldn't be a human pretzel for more than another few hours, so please leave a message, and I'll call you back right away."

Ask a quiz questions

It's the reason "Jeopardy" has been popular for more than three decades- people love a brain teaser, and they will love your message if you offer new ones weekly.

Use a member testimonial

Imagine how powerful it would be if your voicemail started out, "Hi, this is Mary Smith. I just had to tell you how excited I am about the 30 pounds I lost over the last year here at XYZ Fitness Center. I can't believe it! Plus, it was fun! Please let the terrific staff here help you achieve your goals." Just make sure it's a real testimonial. You don't want to be the subject of a consumer exposé, or, even worse, an investigation by the authorities for fraudulent advertising.

REFERENCES Gitomer, J. The Little Red Book of Selling. Bard Publishing: Austin, Texas, 2005.