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Empowering Your Front Lines

Plug the holes in your customer service by identifying staff leaks, hiring employees who fit in with your facility and training staff members to expect more from themselves.

A member sees a flyer and asks at the front desk about personal training. A potential member calls to inquire about membership options. A member calls to reserve court time. Each of these situations has many possible outcomes. The worst? The front desk staffer doesn't know the answers, fails to find out the answer, or doesn't collect the customer's name and number - and the opportunity is lost. In these transactions, what acute losses could you suffer? Consider the median fee for personal training packages, your joining fee and monthly rate, or the hourly price for court time. What long-term losses could be incurred by errors? What revenue may have been lost on a potential long-term personal training client, an annually renewing membership or the upgrade from an exercise membership to a tennis membership? Additionally, what negative word-of-mouth would you receive because of such poor customer service? It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to get customers in the door, yet it can take just one bad incident to lose them.

Your business is people

You are not in the fitness business - you are in the people business, providing fitness services. Front desk staff, or customer service officers (CSO), are your front lines, and are either an asset or a liability, depending on how you hire, train and empower them to do their jobs. Do you know how any of the above scenarios would be handled at your facility? Finding out can be an eye opener. Though you can supervise your staff, no one can be there 24/7. To get an idea about your current state of customer service, regularly schedule secret shoppers and callers who will log records of calls made, and gauge employee responses to scripted inquires. This will allow you to compare what is actually happening to what you want to happen. The next step is to respond to the information you glean. As a manager, these spot checks should be a planned part of evaluating how well your current training process is working.

Eliminating Customer Service Leaks

1. Assess service strengths and weaknesses - Enlist the services of secret shoppers - Create training programs that plug the holes 2. Hire the right people - Value personality over knowledge - Look for smiles instead of attractiveness 3. Train for success - Communicate "who" employees need to be - Treat staff as your customers - Train for likability, as well as knowledge - Empower staff with the ability to problem-solve 4. Create an experience - See your fitness center through a customer's eyes - Notice your customers - Acknowledge inconveniences, like waiting - Follow through on every request or concern - Go out of the way to make a difference

First, find the leaks

Customer service problems most likely occur with new or part-time employees. They simply don't have the experience or practice. The more full-timers you have on staff, the better you can train, retain and compensate them. Yes, it may cost you more in wages, but, in the end, it may provide more gains. Take note of the Nordstrom philosophy of customer service. This popular department store instructs employees to make it right for customers in creative, sometimes costly, ways. The message is, you will not make a buck on everything today. But, after the bigger waves and ripples are over, long-term relationships are built. Do you allow your staff to read magazines or books, surf online or paint their nails while at the front desk? Do you allow them to chat among themselves in front of members? Is there a TV in the lobby that distracts staff members from making eye contact with each and every person? Analyze these behaviors to help you provide the level of customer service that supports your mission. Does your current service take you closer or further from your goal?

Then, prevent them

Hire for fit with your team, not talent, advises Tim Sanders, author of The Likeability Factor and Love is the Killer App. Knowledge is important, but commitment to service is paramount. You can't train enthusiasm or social skills. How does an applicant fit in with your culture and your mission? Also, think twice before you hire for appearance. Sanders, a leadership coach for Yahoo!, reports that, although attractiveness influences likability, research has proven that the number of times a day a person smiles affects it much more. Do your customer service representatives have the ability and desire to remember names? Are they friendly, happy and upbeat? If you, as manager, are notified that someone is waiting to cancel their membership, tone of voice can be important to you and how you respond to the situation. Not every task is pleasant, but getting the message about it doesn't have to be a downer, too. Once you've determined how you want situations handled, and that you have the right person for the job, set up a solutions-based training system. Define the best choices of action and, if those don't work, determine other options. The idea is not to limit employees to one reaction, but to suggest possible responses to situations with choices that are a fit for the challenge at hand. Reinforce that you won't be with your CSOs every minute of the day, and that they need to know that a "make it right" attitude wins. In other words, hire great people and get out of their way.

Training Systems and Solutions

Personal training inquiries If a member asks about personal training in person or by phone: 1. Find an available membership or personal training staff person to meet with the customer. -or- Take the name and number of the person inquiring, and let him/her know that the personal training director or a membership manager will call back as soon as possible. Ask about their goals and what prompted their interest. Find out why they want to start now. 2. Call the personal training director or manager; leave the appropriate contact information and any pertinent details. 3. Follow up with the interested person yourself within 48 hours to make sure that they had their questions answered. Look through their eyes 1. Imagine you are overweight and intimated by coming in the front door. You finally work up the courage to come into the facility and, when you walk in, you see two attractive young women giggling over a private joke at the front desk. How welcome do you feel? 2. You are any potential member, and you come into the fitness center for the first time and ask the front desk staffer about membership prices. You are then asked if you have an appointment. Would you feel embarrassed for not calling first, or annoyed that you didn't know you had to? 3. You are already a member. You come in for your workout, and the front desk staffer is watching the television across the lobby. He says "hello" without making eye contact as you arrive. How friendly do you perceive him to be?

People pay for service

People are willing to pay for great customer service. Lexus and Nordstrom, icons in the business world, serve as examples. Even knowing they are paying for it, customers "wow" at receiving extra gifts and occasional surprises. Car owners purchase a $60,000 vehicle, receive a dozen roses from the dealership in thanks, and are impressed. Customers pay $200 for a hair color and cut, and still delight in a complimentary travel-sized shampoo and conditioner when they leave. Remember, it's all about long-term relationships. People are no longer loyal to brands; they are loyal to enjoyable experiences that make them feel good. Following wages and equipment, a business' biggest expense is often advertising or marketing. Spending marketing dollars to attract customers does no good if poor customer service can't keep them. This suggests that the budget for employee training should be equal to or greater than the advertising budget. Consider Starbucks, whose Green Apron Book describes the culture by which Starbucks partners (its word for employees) should live and serve. Starbucks doesn't need to advertise; it is widely recognized, and customers want to repeat the experience they have there. Your fitness center should mean to your target market what Starbucks means to coffee drinkers. Provide the solutions, positive experience and human touch that people will drive across town to experience. People could buy a $1 cup of coffee at a convenience store, but 35 million customers a week go the extra mile for the Starbucks experience instead.

Create new customer service expectations

When training employees, be mindful that they may not know what good customer service is. In this fast-paced, convenience-based society, many staff members will have established their idea of customer service from someone standing behind a counter punching in their order, or delivering the pizza to the front door. To lift these low expectations, provide specific suggestions and literal examples of good customer service. At the same time, be wary of creating a list of "standard operating procedures." The industry standard for service is so low, you may all too easily reach your goal. "Standard" is average, and to provide good customer service, your fitness facility should be well above average. Customers don't mind waiting if the wait is acknowledged. They don't mind not getting a final answer if they know that you haven't forgotten about checking on their question. Follow-up calls to alert customers that you are working on a solution for their problem go a long way. However, rapid but incorrect responses do more harm than good. Train employees by giving them a good customer experience themselves. Change the way you address them. Don't call childcare staff "babysitters"; they are Child Care Experts, just as Starbucks hires "partners," not employees. Inform employees how they fit into the overall mission. Acknowledge staff members the way you want them to acknowledge customers. Send flowers for birthdays or on the anniversary of their hire date. Take time to make eye contact and say hello to them while you work. Encourage them to have fun at work, while keeping the customer before anything else. A fun environment spills over. Happy, well-trained employees make happy customers.
Michelli, J.A. The Starbucks Experience. McGraw-Hill: New York, N.Y., 2007.
Pine, J.B., and J.H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, Mass., 1999.
Sanders, T. The Likeability Factor. Crown Publishing: New York, N.Y., 2005.
Sanders, T. Love is the Killer App. Three Rivers Press: New York, N.Y., 2002.

Front Desk Design

By Guy Brown Photos courtesy of Fabiano Designs The design of the front desk has a huge impact on a fitness center's operational performance and image. Establishing what purpose your front desk area will serve is the first step in design. Graham Allen, president of Total Fitness Solutions Inc., says that front desk functions can include check-in, administration, membership sales, towel service and personal training, in addition to ancillary sales such as merchandising, pro-shop and beverage bar. After its purpose, the next step is to factor in the prominence of the front desk in shaping a visitor's first impression of your facility. "It's the first point of personal contact, and [it] should be non-intimidating," says Allen. Rounded curves versus straight angles serve this purpose best, although he adds that, with modern products, any shape done correctly can be aesthetically pleasing. Rudy Fabiano, president of Fabiano Designs, Montclair, N.J., says the optimal shape varies with design, location, programming, space, logos and, above all, traffic flow. Using circular or organic shapes creates a smooth flow and a softer look. Rectilinear shapes tend to be more conservative and work well in most situations. "A good rule of thumb is to use simple lines that are not overly designed," he says. The front desk has an orientation role, and needs to efficiently channel members through the facility. Fabiano says that if the front desk is too far from the entrance, you need to define the pathway for visitors. He also warns not to locate the front desk too close to the entrance, as it gives a "clinical" feel. Determining the appropriate size of the front desk area also needs attention. "The front desk has to be visually proportionate to the space," says Fabiano. It should take into account the size of the fitness center, and the number of members who move through at a given time. Space should also be provided for social interaction, along with a privacy area for discreet handling of any sensitive issues that may arise at the entrance. Fabiano emphasizes the importance of spaciousness. "You want to create a spatial experience for the people who are entering the facility," he says. "You are creating the defining moment for the facility."

Image link

The front desk presents an opportunity to communicate your fitness center's image and standards. Fabiano says that this role is important: "The initial view upon entering the club is of the front desk, and should always incorporate the logo, whether it be in frosted glass, laser cut metals or even mosaic tiles." High-quality materials that tie in with the theme and feel of the facility should be used to create a positive first impression. The front desk can be the busiest area of your fitness center, and needs to be designed accordingly to be efficient. Adequate storage needs to be provided in places where it is close at hand, while also keeping surfaces clutter-free. This conveys professionalism and cleanliness. Fabiano says that user-friendly storage spaces can help ensure a well-organized desk, even during times of high volume and staff changeovers. The front desk is also likely to be at the heart of the club's IT infrastructure. Commonly, it hosts computers, scanners, security monitoring, modems and phones, and even entertainment system controls. As such, Allen says that the front desk should be well-wired and properly circuited. He also suggests using "hands-free" phone systems and wireless products, where appropriate, to further reduce clutter.

Materials and finishes

As the busiest area of a fitness center, materials need to be durable and easy to clean. "You will want the same floor surface to flow from the front desk area through the rest of the club," says Fabiano, "so it is necessary to choose something that is not only durable, but also attractive." He says porcelain tiles are a great option, with a variety of color choices, low price point and low maintenance. Another choice is polished concrete, which is almost maintenance-free. Consideration should also be paid to reception staff. "Apply an overlay or inlay of a softer material behind the desk where the staff member may be standing for long periods of time," he says. Allen says that flooring should also be conducive with your weather situations, including UV. If carpet is used in this area, you can look for recycled products (made from things like plastic bottles). An advantage of carpet tiles is that they allow replacement of those that get worn or stained. The front desk area should exemplify the fitness center's commitment to quality. "Surfaces that prospective members touch need to be of high quality, feel good to the touch and pleasing to the eye," says Fabiano. Examples include natural stone, resins or decorative glass. He adds that it is best to avoid overbearing or loud color schemes. A well-designed front desk area can resonate your facility's image and enhance operating performance. But get it right first time. "Once the front desk is installed, it is very disruptive to change it," says Allen, "so planning is key."
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