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The Cost of Business as Usual

Common business practices at fitness centers are bringing the whole industry down.

For the last few months, I've discussed issues that prevent most of the U.S. population from being members of fitness centers. In my last column, I discussed the negative effect of running fitness centers as hobbies, rather than as businesses. So, what is the flip side of this problem? What about the problem of fitness centers that so sophisticated and financially savvy, they sour all but the most committed members?

Everyone is a good prospect?

Do fitness centers have to sell "bad" memberships? I define a bad membership as one when the salesperson knows the new member is not a good fit for the facility. You know this when, for instance, you don't provide the level of service this particular prospect will surely need, or when this prospect goes away every winter but you fail to mention that you don't have a freeze policy. I'm not talking about un-ethical sales practices; I'm talking about really good sales people doing their jobs. But, at what cost?

How much damage do we do, as an industry, when we close that poor guy who walked in the door who had no idea what he was in for? When you execute your Sales 101 techniques (make them say "no" three times, don't let them walk out the door without joining) knowing that this prospect really wanted to just look around and learn a little more about your facility, you are harming your business. I know that you have countless success stories of people you motivated to join and who now are fit, healthy and happy individuals. But, c'mon. Don't deny that you've thought countless times, "We're never going to see this person after two weeks."

That wouldn't be so bad, except ...

Pushing a sale wouldn't always be so bad, except that, most often, fitness centers make it next to impossible to quit. Annual contracts with no freeze or cancellation policies don't make people feel much better than the lifetime contracts of yesteryear. Fitness facilities somehow get away with this sort of business arrangement, but imagine how you would react if your kid's karate school required a one-year commitment. You doubt your child will stick with karate, so why would you feel good about agreeing to a year up-front?

Since you know that most people don't stick with their exercise routines, and most fitness centers have annual attrition rates of at least 30 percent (I believe it's much higher, but under-reported), can't this sales system be adjusted? Maybe someday, people might join again if they have a good experience the first time, and even say good things to their friends about your facility.

And, the service is lousy ...

This is unscientific, but I think most fitness centers provide lousy service. I say this unashamedly. At my clubs, we focus an inordinate amount of time and energy on trying to provide outstanding service. Even with this policy, some days we stink at it, at least to my standards. Too many of us aren't even trying. Too many still have disinterested high school students at their front desks, and too many have so few qualified trainers on the workout floors that members are hard-pressed to find anyone to help them. Employees cost money, and we know that the members who need the most help are the least likely to stick with their memberships, so why would we invest in them? Because, maybe if you did, these members would stick around instead of quitting, and maybe even spread the word about your great service.

But it's not always your fault

The public has brought some of this on themselves. Every January or swimsuit season, too many people think that joining a fitness center will be their "magic pill." We tell them what they want to hear, and we take their money, which they are happy to fork over. We lock them into a contract, and maybe even give them a few sessions with a trainer to get them started. Then, inevitably, the magic pill wasn't so magic, and the investment in time and effort is too much for them. Another unsuccessful member goes away, and a shiny, new, optimistic member arrives in his or her place. The cycle goes merrily along.

If "business as usual" practices don't change at fitness centers, neither will membership numbers. So, you don't have to wonder why only 14 percent of the U.S. population is a member of a fitness center.

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