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Ego-Surfing for Improved Service

You can find complaints, and praise, about fitness facilities all over the Internet - possibly even yours. It's time to start ego surfing - and to take action.

Many people research fitness centers online before joining a gym. Especially when people move, they will browse the Internet for fitness centers in their area. Reviews will come up on the search engine, including complaints. After doing my own search, I found complaints such as, "Staff can be apathetic and uninterested"; "I have to give an appalling three month's notice before leaving"; "The club does not respect older customers. During five years with the club, there was only one occasion when an instructor approached me to suggest how I could modify my exercises." This is valuable intelligence for a prospective member, but also for you when it comes to correcting your fitness center's performance. Opportunities for self-expression on the Internet flourish. Consider the countless blogs, personal websites and public sites like YouTube and MySpace. There are a lot of opportunities for people to rant about your fitness center, and, while it may only be a solitary page in the several billion on the Internet, the marvels of search engines means anyone can find it. As one online complainant said, "You don't have to look very long on the Internet to find a lot of complaints about my gym." There are some websites dedicated to consumer interests, which include complaints about fitness facilities. Take a look at www.consumeraffairs.com/health_clubs/clubs.htm and www.my3cents.com and www.complaints.com for a sampling. Unfortunately, in most cases, there is no option for the club to provide a response, clarification or corrective action taken alongside an Internet-posted complaint. The complaint just sits there in cyberspace, with the facility looking like it is too apathetic to respond. When mining online feedback, you need to factor in that a comment may not be representative of the norm or reality. But you should carry out due diligence, to be sure. Also, look for trends - common themes with complaints would indicate a persistent failing that requires corrective action.

Feedback channels

So, what can you do? In short, make sure your business is run properly to eliminate causes of complaints. But, above all, give members opportunities to express themselves to you directly, rather than taking complaints to the web for a public venting session. Informally, through chats with members, find out what is bothering members. On your website, make it easy for members to send in comments (anonymously, if they'd like). And, put some top-level accountability on email comments by including the name of the manager and a direct email address, rather than the unspecific, ubiquitous info@yourclub.com. You can also conduct periodic formal surveys and offer comment boxes in your facility.
Give members opportunities to express themselves to you directly, rather than taking them to the web.
In the event that a member wishes to cancel their membership, find out their reasons for leaving. If you know why a member is dissatisfied, you can do something about it. Even the greatest fitness centers may not measure up to customer expectations all the time. However, the reason those facilities are the greatest is that they are able to turn complaints around. A complaint is an opportunity to show how great your service really is.

Source of intelligence

Finding comments online about your fitness center is good, but useful intelligence emerges on members' typical concerns and where all facilities slip up when you look at the feedback for other clubs, too. Online rants and raves are a wonderful source of business feedback, improvement and enlightenment. Spend even 15 minutes on a search engine and, if you don't find complaints about your own facility, you may find complaints about another one that can prove enlightening about potential problems and opportunities in your own facility. Finding fitness center complaints or kudos doesn't take long with a good search engine. Pick your favorite search site and type in the name of your club. Then try inputting search string variations such as "Club Name" plus "complain*." If you are unfamiliar with searching, the asterisk (*) with "complain" should deliver results with "complaint," "complains," "complaining," etc. By refining your search technique, you should be able to quickly locate any damaging rants and heart-warming praise posted online.

The complaints

Overwhelmingly, the most common type of complaint I found on U.S. web pages concerned membership contracts. Online complaints indicate members feel that they were deceived, did not receive fair value from their membership, or had the hassle of a laborious cancellation process, the latter often when a member had moved away from the area. The complaints that follow were all found on the Internet. Names and locations have been changed, and content edited for clarity. After each complaint, there is a short commentary on what a fitness center could learn from this to raise performance levels. Lack of cleanliness. "On numerous occasions, this gym has had janitorial/public health issues. The showers are so filthy it is not only appalling, but a possible OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] issue, and definitely a public health concern. The walls, fixtures and curtains are slimy and stained, and there is gum on the floor and hair in drains. I asked if they even have a janitor, and the front desk [staff member] didn't know for sure. I haven't seen a cleaning person there, day or night. I have complained to them numerous times, to no avail. It always falls on deaf ears, and I'm tired of this." Two issues arise from this complaint. One: the need to tackle cleanliness, and how locker room cleanliness affects member satisfaction, and represents a serious health risk. Two: the lack of responsiveness to a member's complaint. If one member has reported the cleanliness issue, you can assume several others did not go to that effort and simply left. Every complaint represents the tip of the iceberg. Cancellation obstruction. "For six years I was a content member of ShockingGym. After moving out of state, I called to cancel my membership. On day one, I was told I would receive a cancellation form by fax. It never came. On day two, I was again told I would receive a cancellation form by fax. It never came. When I called again, I was told it was against policy to correspond by fax. Then I was told I could send someone to the gym to cancel for me, but they then said this was inappropriate. It was easier for me to transfer funds to purchase a home and to cancel insurance, both of which I did by fax, than to cancel a stupid gym membership. Oh, I was also told that the manager was too busy to be bothered with my issue." Difficulty in cancelling memberships is a frequent complaint. While most fitness centers have robust contracts to protect their revenue, giving misinformation on how to cancel, and not providing access to management, is self-defeating. The cancellation process should be clearly detailed. And, always bear future referral business in mind. When members move away from an area, they will still retain friends and business contacts. Through word-of-mouth either in the real or virtual world, they will either recommend or discourage others from joining. Getting it all wrong. "ShockingGym simply wants you to sign up, take your initiation fee and credit card number, and, after locking in your 12-month fees, they can easily trash you. Their customer service is poor; the facilities were only clean initially; thereafter, machines were not maintained properly, and locker rooms lack sanitation. The recumbent bikes smelled of stale sweat. I canceled my membership and requested a refund of the remaining two months, which I never got. They are just money-grabbers. 'Customer service' are alien words to this club. The way I was treated so badly left me discouraged and distraught, and I hesitate to join another health club again." The cancellation issue again, cleanliness also - but the most worrying point is that this person is now jaded about the entire industry. Deceptive sales. "My company has 35 employees. I wanted to offer them an opportunity to go to the gym as a company benefit. My secretary contacted ShockingGym, and was told they would be happy to offer the company membership. Then I learned they went to each individual employee and had them sign a one-year contract. One of my employees did not have a credit card to give them, so the gym representative told him that he would not be obligated until he gave them a card number. The employee did not give them a card number, and has never been to the gym, but now they are threatening him with a collection agency. What was intended to be a nice thing for my employees has turned into a nightmare for us all." Whether the fitness center was being deliberately deceptive, or it was poor communication, the net effect is a bitter aftertaste. All the employees of this company, and likely their friends and family, will, from now on, spread the bad word about this facility. More contractual headaches. "ShockingGym has an outrageous contract. It states that no verbal agreements count, and that no one can get out of the year's contract unless they are permanently disabled or move at least 25 miles away. Also, the contract automatically renews at the end of a year. The contract must be voided within 30 days of signing, but actually ... it has to be voided 30 days before the first charge date a month into the official membership, and this includes a free trial that was more than 30 days long. They tell many lies, all in the name of getting a person to sign the contract, and then act like they said nothing. The manager said everything between the salesperson and the potential customer is just personal, and doesn't represent the gym in any way. These people are like a concrete wall. If you have a similar experience, please file your complaint with the Better Business Bureau, and your state's Attorney General's Office. They need all the complaints they can get before they can help everyone on a larger scale." Contractual hassles upset members. However, besides the word-of-mouth damage that disgruntled members can do, as this complaint illustrates, they can take complaints to another level via consumer protection organizations. Identity theft. "I went in for a one-week free trial, and then was sent a bill in the mail saying they would charge my credit card monthly for a membership. I never signed anything, requested a membership or gave them any payment information. My name was on a false account with someone else's credit card. This other person had been using the membership in my name. No one has returned my calls or emails, and all have been very rude and unprofessional." While pointing out administrative weaknesses and poor responsiveness, this complaint also points to the risks of identity theft in health clubs. Check your procedures to ensure people are who they say they are. Punctuality. "I joined ShockingGym because it was closer to my home - even though I belonged to another gym, which was a bit too far for my morning workouts after moving. ShockingGym is supposed to open at 5 a.m. but, several times, it has opened late. Also, it is overpriced. I would rather go to a lesser-known gym that is of the same quality but at least opens on time." If your facility offers early morning workouts, make sure it consistently sticks to those hours, and that staff members understand the importance of punctuality.
If managers sort out a problem effectively, they can regain a member's loyalty.
Lack of follow-through. "I went to the nearby ShockingGym and talked to a sales executive. I was hesitant about signing up due to the high costs, as I am a high school student. I knew I would leave after four months, so I specifically asked if that was possible - he said I could leave after a minimum of three months. So, I submitted my cancellation form after three months, only to realize that he had secretly put a one-year obligation date. I was told by the manager that he was already fired for deceiving other customers likewise. I can't believe how the business manipulated and abused me." In this case, the facility appears to have taken corrective action in firing the sales executive, but the ex-member's experience still tarnishes the business as a whole. A service recovery initiative, such as a free month membership, could have transformed the student's opinion of the fitness center, earning positive, instead of negative, word-of-mouth in the future. How to lose money. "My wife and I took the tour as we were looking to join a gym. We have a three-year-old, and the gym offered free childcare during our workout, which was the big selling point. Now, after nine months of free childcare, they want to charge an additional $10 per month for it. We signed a two-year contract thinking that it meant they had to stick to their end of the bargain. Not so. We complained and were told to call the corporate office. We called and had to leave a message. They returned the call after two weeks and stated that, in the contract, it says that they can change their policies. You don't have to look very long on the Internet to find a lot of complaints about ShockingGym. I plan on completing my end of the bargain, and then we're changing gyms, and sending a certified letter telling them so." Hundreds of dollars has walked out of the door with this member in exchange for $10 per month in childcare revenue, and poor response to their concerns. This complaint also highlights that people do research clubs on the Internet. Poor service. "I had to sign a contract of obligation for 12 months. The parking was poor, the gym was overcrowded and you had to wait for machines. When I asked about how to use the machines, I was told to get a personal trainer. After six months, I gave up and quit going." An overcrowded facility at least indicates it's popular, but a club needs to monitor this or it will soon reach a tipping point and droves of members will leave. The fitness center could offer incentives to encourage members to use the club during off-peak times. As for personal training, any facility should be willing to at least provide advice on the basics of using a piece of equipment. Cleanliness and attitude. "I have been a member for three years, and was fairly satisfied until recently. Over the past month, I have seen the level of service and cleanliness at this facility drop at an astounding rate. Wanting to give the staff a chance to make things right, I called the club two days in a row, and each time was met with a negative attitude. I personally know of three members who have decided to register a complaint with our local health department, as well as to no longer come to this center. Aside from the negative attitude of the staff, the locker rooms are dirty and unsafe. I am afraid to go barefoot in this area for fear that I might catch a fungus. I will not even shower or dress in this area since that would mean having to touch the faucets and feel the slime on the floors. I spoke with the manager in charge, who said the facility would be cleaned and the problem resolved by the time I came in the next day. To my dismay, the place was filthier than the day before." Aside from the seriousness of several people registering a complaint with the local health department, this complaint also points to how members can coalesce into complaint networks that can reinforce bolder action. This member noted a change in what was being delivered - an "astounding" drop in service and cleanliness. So, the facility had been doing okay until something in the operation changed. Cleanliness must be monitored by senior management. In this complaint, the manager apparently took ineffective action; but, if a manager or staff steps up to the plate and sorts a problem out effectively, he/she can regain the member's loyalty (and membership dues).

Get it right the first time

These complaints tell stories about fitness centers that have failed at some level to meet customer expectations. With the eternal presence of content on the Internet, and little prospect of correcting these web entries, fitness facilities have even more incentive to make sure that they get service and product delivery right the first time. Excellent service recovery and multiple feedback channels for members to voice any grievances can further help to reinforce your good standing and to protect your future business.
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