Sometimes you just have to tell your complaining customers to find another club.

Not long ago, we were served with what you could call a class-action suit. The work of one aggrieved member claiming to speak for many others, it came via e-mail rather than the courts - which was good, because frankly, we wouldn't want to see our fitness instructor who overslept and missed the member's group-cycling class up on the stand, begging for mercy.

You can afford to joke when the court is virtual.

We took her criticisms - which, in person and in the lengthy e-mail that followed, embraced more than one conspiracy theory and encompassed everything from our scheduling practices to unclean fitness equipment - with the utmost seriousness. We listened. We apologized. What we didn't do was capitulate. We let her have her say, we responded (we thought, appropriately), and then we told her she might be happier elsewhere.

The customer is not always right.

We get this sort of all-over-the-place "feedback" (to put it charitably) all the time. About two months prior to the no-show instructor rant, we received a complaint from a member who found a discarded Band-Aid in the shower. Beginning with that one dripping-wet bandage, her e-mail indictment eventually encompassed the overall state of the showers, the condition of the group-ex bikes and the towels that we use to wipe down the equipment. To make matters worse, she was an infectious-disease expert with our largest corporate client, and she forwarded her e-mail to several layers of her company's management because she felt they should know about her worries.

How do you argue with an infectious-disease expert about your club's cleanliness? You tell her she might be happier finding a bubble to work out in.

At least, that's what we suggest. Our belief is that "the customer's perspective must be addressed." And that's what we did with this month's disgruntled member. Here's an abbreviated and slightly edited version of our actual 2,600-word e-mail reply:

Hello Disgruntled Member,

We are in receipt of your e-mail and appreciate you taking the time to outline your concerns and those of "many other" members. We understand that you reviewed these issues with our general manager last week, as well, and we trust that our responses will be consistent with what he has already discussed with you.

We appreciate the collective frustration that was felt last Monday when our instructor overslept. This was not acceptable and the instructor understands that it cannot occur again. However, we believe adequate apologies have been provided by our GM, by the instructor (that day via e-mail to several members, and in person at her next class) and by our front-desk person who was working at the time.

As for your comment that we do not care about our members nor treat them with respect - we find that inappropriate and insulting. If we didn't care, our GM would not have met with you, and our instructor would not have apologized. We would not be responding to you here, and this issue would not have taken up far more time than it has warranted. The bottom line is that an employee made a mistake and didn't show up for work. It's unacceptable and if it happens again, changes will have to be made. But, some perspective is in order. It was an hour's worth of exercise, in a facility with plenty of other things to do. It was not the end of the world.

[Four hundred words answering five distinct complaints have been edited out for reasons of maintaining our, and your, sanity.]

The bottom line for most of these issues, Disgruntled Member, is pretty simple. There are no conspiracies. There are no hidden agendas. To the degree that you and other members may feel irreparably insulted and ignored, we are happy for the rest of this month to bypass our normal cancellation policy and allow any of you to break your contracts immediately. It does us no good to have unhappy members. We do our best every day and will continue to do so, but we learned a long time ago that we can't make everyone happy; nor is it worth it for us to try.

You are welcome to speak with us at any time about these or any other issues. However, we must ask that you no longer discuss any of these issues with members of our staff. The environment on the morning in question last week, as described by every staff member, was extremely disruptive. Our instructors are not there to be beaten up with complaints, and complaints do not qualify as feedback or valid suggestions. Our instructors - the very people who are trying to help you have outstanding workouts and enjoy your experience - are on pins and needles, and they do not deserve that.

We're simply trying to run the best facility we can afford to run, while managing the all-too-human issues that we face every day. We are happy to receive all legitimate feedback and questions, but at the same time the behaviors that are creating a toxic environment at an otherwise pleasant facility have got to end. If that means you or any other members would like to cancel your memberships this month and see if you will be happier elsewhere, we are happy to accommodate that.

Sincerely, Rob and Barry

As news of our e-mail response made the rounds, we heard that we were being called "unprofessional," which we equated with not telling our disgruntled members what they wanted to hear. We were fine with that. We had acknowledged those things that we agreed with or could address (suggestions made about the types of classes we should offer and the length of classes, to cite two examples), while strongly correcting falsehoods and letting it be known that we would not tolerate insults. We had made it clear that we were not concerned about members leaving and, indeed, we had invited them to do so.

It accomplished what we had hoped - it disarmed the rabble. We soon followed up with an invitation for the members to meet with us, and a handful did. The tone was, unsurprisingly, cordial and professional. While they hoped a few things could be addressed, everyone loved the facility and instructors, and nobody felt disrespected or wanted to quit. We made it clear to them that they were always welcome to provide valid and thoughtful feedback, and we wanted them to provide it directly to us, because there was no need for the sort of explosion of issues that caused so much disruption. It was fine, we all said through our smiles - it was all fine.

Our virtual class-action suit was settled. It was not Customer Service 101, but sometimes, enough is enough.

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I say "right on!".....thanks for sharing!
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Ugh!! It's about time someone wrote on this. Some people are amazed when I tell a member that "maybe our facility isn't right for your needs, and should consider other facilities". They ask me, did you really just tell them to go somewhere else? Absolutely. I have to deal with a long list of people who have individual complaints on a daily basis. In return, I developed a "Formal Complaint Form". My theory is, if it's serious enough to complain about and a legittimate complaint or concern, then they will take the time to fill it out. I do respond to these, and they have cut down the complaints that I recieve. People love to complain, and if you keep lisetning, they just keep complaining. It seems hard for people to understand that I can't just do something for you, I need to do what is better for everyone. I could go on and on but, I hope that everyone finally steps up and says, "The customer is not always right, the customer is misinformed"
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I agree completely that sometimes you need to suggest a member go someplace else, or even insist they go someplace else, but .. The fact that you said you get this kind of all over the place feedback all the time might be cause for some concern, once in a while ok, not all the time. Also, stating the instance witl the late instructor was not the end of the world, is very true but it could be percieved that way to members. Maybe that should not have been put in print. Also the fact that we can't make everybody happy,, nor is it worth it to try, ugh! I would for sure have kept that one to myself!!
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BEAT THEM TO THE COMPLAINT None of us take great joy in hearing someone come up and complain about something. Members that complain are really telling you they want to do business with us, they just want it right - I think that is fair enough. In fact, members complaining about things do not bother me near us much as us not "beating them" to the complaint. We know the things folk's mention time and time and time again. These things are talked about constantly in meetings; there are countless checklists (many being ignored)…. And you walk by them dozens of times a day. No matter what your position is at the club, personal trainer, group exercise, child care, maintenance, or management, on duty or off, if you see something empty, broke, messy, do not ignore it and then complain about the complaints - fill it, fix it or clean it - no one has ever died from doing any of those things. I have watched dozens of employees walk from the parking area (that is if you are parking in the correct area) to work and pass the same trash without picking it up, - not your job - fine - that means someone that cares has to do it and those are the same people that typically are the ones that are trying to come up with earnest ways to increase YOUR income but can't get that done if we can't get more help with the basics. So pick up towels & trash (you are wondering - why doesn't maintenance do all this? Answer: it is a constant - I have yet to predict when the next piece of trash may fall or something will become empty though we do try). Close locker doors, fill soaps, tissues & toilet paper, empty towel bins, and fill coolers. Most good club operators rarely ask anyone to do anything they will not do, or have not done - Most have cleaned more toilets then many of us have sat on. If you find something broke or dirty let someone know - create a culture that faithfully demonstrates time & time again, if we know about it something is done about it. If this sounds like complaining consider what I said earlier - I am compelled to do business with my members and get this - my staff. So next staff meeting ask your front desk personnel to list the top ten complaints that consistently come from your members. Address each one of them, resolve what you can, provide proactive ammunition for the others, DO NOT JUST SIT IN YOUR OFFICE AND COMPLAIN ABOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION. Foster an environment that acknowledges effort and solutions and "BEAT THEM TO THE COMPLAINT".
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We are what I would say is probably a unique situation- but there really isn't any competition or option for them to go to- sometimes I wish they had a choice so I wouldn't be "stuck" with them. I know, I guess I should be grateful.
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Your complaint and response sheds a lot of light on the fact that there are some members that complain about everything all of the time; then, there are those who do fill out member service forms with constructive criticism, praise, or ideas they may have. Anyone in the service industry appreciates being informed of ideas, a new or better way to provide service and constructive criticism...something that is within our power to fix or improve upon. Thank you so much for sharing this with us all.
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Thank you, thank you for this article! It is about time someone had the backbone to do what was described in the article AND share it. I have said for years, the customer is not always right but the custumer is always the customer. Of course I understand that customers are the reason we have a job but that does not give them the right to disrespect, belittle, yell at and attack people. As a manager, I am happy to hear and address any complaint especially if it will make my facility operate more efficeintly, effectively and safely but no one likes a chronic complainer, especially when the complaint is not valid. Thank you again!!!!
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Wow. It amazes me that clubs sign up anyone with a heartbeat then complain about the people THEY signed up. If you can't screen the daily complainers then take some classes to help you. There is nothing more important to us than our members. We take customer service to the next level...customer satisfaction. We don't get emotional and tell our members to leave, we signed them up!! I think you should ask yourself why you are getting so many complaints. Maybe it is your emotional responses to legitmate concerns. The fact that you don't see an instructor not showing up for work as a minor issue is probably why you get so many complaints. Suck it up...you brought them aboard.
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I agree with Henry on most levels. However there are times, when it is for the good of other members, you have to and should recommend to a disruptive member that they should find another club. Believe me we hardly ever do this and never do it based on emotion. It is always discussed with the entire management team to get input.
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Customers who complain about something are much more likely to stay a customer. You really need to take notice about what people are complaining about because it may be something that will cause or is causing people to leave silently. In fact, a random sample of customers should be surveyed to get an accurate account of what people are happy or mad about. I'm not saying a manager should get hung up on any single customer but he or she should be concerned that the one customer's view isn't indicative of others' opinions. And I'm not a gym expert but I wouldn't be satisfied with the condition of my gym unless an army of infectious disease experts gave it their blessing. If that band-aid were in the shower for more than an hour I would seriously consider cancelling my membership.