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How Staff Attrition Affects Member Attrition

Good employees can have an effect on whether members are happy and keep coming back. So, be sure your facility has the right staff in place and, once there, that you keep them motivated and satisfied.

Losing key staff members costs a fitness center dearly. Not only are there recruitment and training costs, but the relationship network between the facility and its members that underpins retention can be damaged. By keeping a close eye on staff attrition, fitness centers can ensure that they retain their key people and a higher proportion of members.

Shawn Stewart, service manager of Gainesville Health and Fitness Center (GHFC), Gainesville, Fla., says there is definitely a correlation between a facility's ability to retain key members of staff/management and membership retention. "Service starts with how a company treats its employees," Stewart says. "If you have low staff turnover, then you are going to have membership retention."

Each staff member is the product of a substantial investment in time and money. "So costs increase with each employee departure," says Bob Norwood, manager of health and fitness operations for The Summit Fitness Center, Kalispell, Mont. For instance, The Summit's orientation program for new staff takes up to 12 hours, and must be completed before someone starts work. Then there is a honeymoon period of up to a year, during which the employee gets into the groove of how the facility operates.

The effect on members

When key staff members leave, the fitness center can lose its operating rhythm. "Things have a tendency to slip through the cracks," says Norwood. With the loss of a key member of management or a supervisor, staff morale, appearance and facility cleanliness may all suffer. However, Norwood says retaining members and retaining staff and management are two different things. "If you have good staff, they are going to keep members - staff who are friendly and willing to get to know members will keep members better," he explains. "However, we have never seen a decline in membership when one key person leaves."


Cost of Staff Turnover

Fitness On The Move's Sam Gordon lists some costs associated with high turnover of staff:
  • Training costs
  • Certifications (if they are paid for by the employer)
  • Loss of revenue due to lack of performance
  • Loss of revenue for double staffing during training times
  • Loss of revenue while searching for a replacement
  • Projecting a less-than-desirable image to members


Gallup Consulting's 12-Question Survey

Gallup Consulting published research proving that engaged employees are more productive employees. Gallup's research identified 12 questions that measure employee engagement. You can pose these same questions to each employee to determine job satisfaction.
  1. Do I know what's expected of me?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work?
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received praise and recognition for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel that my work is important?
  9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the past six months, have I talked to someone about my progress?
  12. Do I have the opportunity to learn and grow at work?
Published in First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Whether formal or not, fitness centers are also social networks, and losing key employees affects the network as a whole. "People certainly get attached to each other. Members have a way of training employees to know what they want and expect, and a constant changing could lead to members' frustration," says Charlie Hauser, general manager of Wilmington Athletic Club, Wilmington, N.C. However, he adds that it needs to be looked at more by employee type - group exercise instructors and personal trainers coming and going has more impact on retention than the cleaning or maintenance staff.

The circumstances of the departure also have ramifications. "If a person leaves after several years but on good terms, it can have a bittersweet result," says Sam Gordon, membership director of Fitness On The Move, Ft. Meyers, Fla. "While members may miss seeing that person, if they have moved on for positive reasons, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. If, on the other hand, someone leaves on less than good terms, it can be detrimental to the facility. If the members perceive that the employee was treated wrongly by management, it will reflect negatively on the club."

Retention connection

Members want to be part of a positive, friendly environment. "[It's] the 'Cheers' feeling, where everybody knows your name," says Gordon. "A pleasant face upon entering the club, and ... familiarity with the staff ... will keep them coming back. Let's face it, equipment is basically the same in most facilities, and an instructor or trainer who has a loyal following is going to keep those loyal to them, regardless of where they teach or train. In effect, the relationship between staff/management and members is the only thing most successful clubs have that is unique to their facility."

GHFC's retention philosophy hinges on two components: results and relationships. "If you can get members the results they are looking for and the relationships, they will be loyal to you," says Stewart.

Relationships must be on the right footing. "It is critical to have key management having healthy, professional relationships," says Hauser. "I want to stress professional. It is easy in this industry for relationships to become unholy alliances, used as leverage for certain types of people to always get their way around the club."

Tackling staff attrition

Fitness managers need to determine the causes of high staff turnover and address them, so that good people are attracted to the facility and stay with it. Stewart says that GHFC tries to avoid allowing staff turnover to get to a point where it is high. "You don't wait for a bad accident before putting a stop light up," he says. He refers to the book First, Break All the Rules, in which Gallup Consulting published research proving that engaged employees are more productive employees. Gallup's research identified 12 questions that measure employee engagement (see Gallup Consulting's 12-Question Survey). GHFC poses these same questions to each employee at least twice a semester to determine satisfaction.

Hauser says high staff turnover should be cause for some introspection. He suggests posing the following questions:
  • Are we sending the correct message when looking for help?
  • Is our pay scale in line with the wages in the area?
  • Is our hiring process thorough?
  • Is there a personality issue between staff members and their direct supervisors?
Gordon also urges the evaluation of hiring, interviewing and training procedures. Is the facility hiring employees out of desperation, or to best fill a position? Is it hiring people who just want to make money, or people who have a true passion for the business of helping people? Getting the right people in the first place is critical.

Naturally, remuneration also needs attention. "You need to do a market evaluation of your salaries, within your region and locality," says Norwood. The Summit carries out a market evaluation of salaries every two years to ensure they remain competitive.

Staff satisfaction

Satisfied employees make for satisfied members. "We provide the atmosphere that is pro-employee," says Stewart. It starts with the 12 questions, so staff members always have a voice. There are rewards for longevity, and a system called Eagles of the Moment, through which members can recognize good staff performance.

Good communication makes satisfaction possible. "At Wilmington Athletic Club, [we] keep employees informed," says Hauser. "Letting them know what's going on behind the scenes, what are the elements in the decision-making process. This inclusion makes people feel that they are part of the process."

Training and development also make a valuable contribution to employee satisfaction. "Without proper training, employees are bound to become frustrated, and that is frequently displayed to the members," says Gordon. "Mistakes are going to happen, and, while most are minor, some may not be. Without proper training, the employee may not know how to handle certain situations, which reflects on the management as a lack of interest or neglect, and reflects poorly on the club."

Stewart supports the training and development message: "Once you hire the right people, you have to continuously train them." GHFC has a seminar program called Kaizan (in line with the Japanese term for continuous improvement). "It is a personal development seminar that makes them better people," Stewart explains. It includes skills such as managing finances and budgeting, stress and time management, and leadership skills.

Gauging satisfaction

It is reasonable to conclude that if staff attrition rates are high, staff members are not satisfied. But, how can fitness managers gauge levels of satisfaction earlier, before the horse has bolted? "In a nutshell, if they do their job well and are happy," says Gordon, they are most likely satisfied. It will reflect in their friendliness to other staff, management and members, and their willingness to go the extra mile.

The Summit Fitness Center, Kallispell, Mont., has an orientation program for new staff that takes up to 12 hours (above), and conducts a market evaluation of salaries every two years to ensure that employees like Margie Herman and Kathy Neumann, who work in the accounting department, are paid competitively with other facilities in the area (below).
At GHFC, determining employee satisfaction goes back to the 12 questions, and going over them regularly with a supervisor. There are monthly performance reports, and then corresponding remuneration every six months.

Norwood calls for open lines of communication. He says this includes the need to be aware of personal lives, as they do affect employee morale and attitude. The Summit offers employees confidential counseling services, so they have the opportunity to talk with someone outside of work, and also offers free legal advice.

Hauser also gives employees a responsible mechanism through which levels of satisfaction can be discussed and evaluated. "An open door policy (without a history of retribution) is critical," he says. "But also have regular meetings and debriefings through your chain of command."

Reenergizing

Most employees, at one time or another, will lose some of their job motivation. Ignored, a once invaluable human resource will grow increasingly disgruntled and either drag your business performance down or leave. Yet these employees can often be reenergized. "We will sit down and have a heart-to-heart," says Norwood. Pose questions such as, is this what you really want to do? Is there something else in the facility you could do? "There might be other positions that can motivate them more," Norwood says. "Alternatively, there may be something in their duties they do not understand, so a little retraining can resolve the problem."

Gordon says Fitness On The Move reenergizes employees by providing them with the opportunity to get involved in other aspects of the fitness center. For example, allow staff the freedom to develop their own programs/ideas and become a part of a project or team. Encourage them to find new ways to increase their income by creating new profit centers or increasing productivity in another area. And, give all employees recognition when a job is well done.

Stewart says GHFC works hard to make sure employees do not get demotivated, but it does happen. "One thing [is], be there for them," he suggests. "Take a personal interest in them as people first. The biggest reason people get demotivated is when they feel they cannot grow anymore." Stewart says they try to grow employees personally and reward them for their ideas.

Flight risks

Some high performing staff and management may be identified as "flight risks" - i.e., they are likely to leave the company or industry altogether, unless management intervenes in a positive manner. Norwood says let such flight risks know the benefits of staying with the job, and find out whether they are happy or not in it. If they are leaving because they were unhappy, the facility needs to take action to ensure the satisfaction at least increases for other employees.

Hauser also urges probing the reasons why an employee wishes to leave. "Is it a weakness or perceived weakness in your organization that can be fixed?" he asks. "Or is it an unreasonable expectation?" Hauser says it could boil down to pay and benefits. "If that is a solution, it has to be addressed across the entire organization."

Gordon says you need to determine how best to obtain their loyalty. "If it is a financial situation, an increase in compensation may be required, or an increase in benefits," he suggests. "If it is a situation where the person feels they have climbed as far as they can on the corporate ladder ..., it may be best to let them go. It is sometimes better to cut your losses and focus on replacing that person with someone with new energy and a higher motivation."

Superstar employees can help any facility to flourish. There will always be a handful of staff or team members who make an extra special contribution to success. They need to be looked after. Hauser says employees who always give 100 percent deserve special treatment. However, Norwood warns against special privileges: "They need to follow rules, like anybody else."

If fitness managers take care of their employees and succeed in inspiring and enabling their continued high performance, they can look forward to hitting their membership retention targets.
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