No good deed goes unpunished. Said differently, we’ve decided that at times we provide customer service that is too good.
We don’t mean that arrogantly. What we mean is that we can’t care about things that aren’t important to the majority of our customers. It’s just too hard, and it takes a toll on us financially, professionally and emotionally.
Certainly, there are lots of things that we do that our members don’t properly appreciate, but we still do them. For example, we require only 14 days advance notice for a member to cancel. Most health clubs have 30-day lead times, and our state allows us 45 days. When we have members who complain about that 14-day requirement, we want to say, “You don’t know how good you have it.” But we don’t. The members who do appreciate it are those who have joined — and quit — other gyms. They get it. The fact that others don’t is okay. We still think it’s the right way for us to run our business.
We used to give out free towels to everyone who came in to work out. We started with full-size towels that could be used on the workout floor or for showering. Then we went to hand-size towels that were good for workouts. But when the recession hit and we had to cut costs, our towel service was the first thing to go, and we realized we should have dispensed with it long before. Why? Because our members didn’t really care. Nobody joined because we had free towel service, and we always knew that nobody would quit if we stopped offering it.
Striking the balance between providing the level of service that we require — which we consider to be a high bar to clear — without creating unrealistic expectations and setting ourselves up for problems seems to have become a constant effort.
Dealing with winter storms brings this balance into play every year. The safety of our staff is always our paramount concern when a storm rolls in. Can they get to work safely? Can they get home safely? Secondary to that is making sure that we can get our parking lots and sidewalks clear and safe. If we rush to open the clubs, we can be faced with days or weeks of limited parking availability, ice patches and overall mess. So, do we rush to get the facilities open to satisfy those few die-hards who will come in regardless of the weather, or do we stay closed long enough to create a long-lasting, safer environment? The third factor is overall customer satisfaction. Our members expect us to be open during our advertised hours and we want to honor that whenever possible.
This year, we’ve decided to err on the side of our sanity and safety, even more so than in past years. We always get our facilities open and available as soon as we can, but we’re now defining “soon” a bit differently than we used to. We normally open our clubs at 6 a.m. during the week. If we receive a 10-inch snowstorm overnight and manage to open by 6 a.m., we’ve set a level of expectation for five or 10 people who care that we can’t or won’t necessarily meet in the future. When too few people care, it’s best to set the bar lower and “train” members to expect a late opening. Maybe 8 a.m.? Maybe 10 a.m.? We’d rather lower the expectation — when few people care — and over-perform than over-promise and under-deliver.
Lowering expectations is especially important when it comes to dealing with individual customer service issues. We recently spoke with a fitness director who said she was regularly buying small pieces of fitness equipment to satisfy a difficult member. She’d buy a handle here, a kettlebell or medicine ball there. She didn’t need those things for her facility, but making these purchases basically shut the guy up. We told her she was crazy. Even when we agree that a given purchase suggested by a member is warranted, we never make the purchase immediately. We buy the item in a few weeks or a month. Otherwise, the demanding member won’t appreciate the gesture and will come to expect you to say “How high?” when he or she says “Jump.”
Favors at the front desk are especially problematic. For example, our managers are authorized to waive our daily fees if they think it’s appropriate. Maybe there’s a long-time member who has a houseguest for a few days. Maybe there’s a former member who wants to drop in. The problem is when people think that they should receive such treatment at all times — and then become unpleasant with our other staff members when that manager isn’t around. So, something we did to be nice and to take care of that “friend” is then shoved back in our face, becoming a negative customer service experience. This has happened to us frequently enough that we’ve told our managers to be rather stingy with such favors. After all, if we do things by the book and treat everyone the same, then we can’t get in trouble. Plus, the downside of angering that “friend” is worse than the upside of doing him or her a favor, so why bother taking the risk?
When a large number of members are potentially impacted, we act accordingly. We add classes to our group fitness schedule regularly. We’ve restructured our small-group training in 2014 to accommodate member requests for more flexibility in attending sessions. We made major equipment purchases in recent years. The list goes on and on. We are proud of those decisions, and we make sure our staff is, too, because they are the ones on the front lines who have to deal with the individuals or the small cliques that might not be happy.
And you can never make everyone happy. Ninety-nine percent of our members were thrilled with the new fitness equipment that we brought in last year, but one member made snotty comments every time he walked by the front desk about the new equipment being “physiologically incorrect.” Really, professor? We offered him training sessions so he could get comfortable on the new equipment. We tried being positive, asking him to try again since “everyone seems really happy with it.” Eventually, we told our staff to stop talking to him about it. He would complain while walking out, and we’d simply say, “Have a nice day!”
When too few members care to complain about something, all your response does is set you up to disappoint them in the future. Isn’t that a sad statement on the condition of the American consumer? We think it is. We truly believe that too few people today — our members among them — truly appreciate when a business has gone above and beyond for them. It also seems that people have lost the ability to appreciate a one-time thing or anything that’s a favor. Many people seem to believe that if something happens once, then they are owed that same treatment going forward.
Going above and beyond — when we really don’t have to — no longer seems wise.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Majority Rules."