In Our Defense

The media portrays fitness facilities as dens of thievery and bad business practices. I beg to differ.

I have often used this column to criticize our industry regarding its contract and billing practices. Consumers have legitimate complaints with many fitness centers regarding contract fine print, unreasonable cancellation policies and the unethical means by which some facilities extend members' payments.

Still, fitness centers endure articles every year in major publications that discuss tactics to break membership contracts, and then Consumer Reports shows up and confirms that we do a lousy job of earning and keeping the trust of the general public. Yup, I get it. I'll stand up on a soap box and shout it. I'll rally with facility owners and industry pundits who agree that we need to do a better job.

But, may I say something in defense of us all? Maybe some of our members are just too stupid - can I call them stupid? - to follow simple instructions, or so childish that they want what they want regardless of what they agreed to when they joined.

The best (of the worst) excuses

I have to deal with this type of member every month. My fitness centers have a simple and benign cancellation policy: We require written notice of a cancellation request at least 14 days prior to the next billing date. We'll even take an email! Members can cancel at any time after their first three months of membership.

Even though it's a simple policy, we have trained our staff to underline it in our paperwork, and ask members to initial it. Many people are in such a rush to join that we have to slow them down and make them understand how they will (for sure) one day want to terminate their membership. We could not be more up-front about it.

Well, maybe we need to be. Here are some of my favorite excuses from over the years, along with my evil thoughts (which I can never share with the member).

"Someone on your staff said they'd cancel me." Really? One of our staff members took it upon themselves to completely change our cancellation policy for you?

"I should be able to cancel whenever I want because I haven't used the club in over a year." When your cell phone company lets you cancel their contract whenever you'd like because you're just not using your phone enough, please let me know.

"I got this letter from a collections company, but I canceled months ago." We have nothing in your file showing you canceled, and I've sent you a letter and called every month for the last three months telling you that your payments bounced. You didn't get any of those letters or calls, nor did we ever get a letter from you canceling, but magically the letter from the collections agency made it through the U.S. mail and got your attention?

"I couldn't cancel because the club was closed." This was an excuse dreamed up by a member who claimed that because we were closed due to a power outage (our whole area was out for a week due to a winter storm), he could not cancel his membership in time to avoid his last billing. Obviously, he had never heard of the U.S. mail, nor the idea of people reading email from anywhere except their office computers (which was odd since he was a computer consultant). He cursed at my staff and me before taking his fight to the Attorney General (A.G.). After weeks of dealing with the A.G., I finally agreed to refund him half of his last month's fees. We did it only because the A.G., after agreeing we were correct and that this guy was a royal pain, asked us to help him make this problem go away.

And there are more. "My computer told me the email address to send my cancellation to was wrong." (Wow, smart computer.) "I never agreed to your cancellation policy. ... Oh, are those my initials?"; "You don't have to make an exception for everyone - just for me. I won't tell."

When the member isn't right

The next time you see an article on how fitness centers can't be trusted, how we make it too difficult to cancel, how we keep billing people after they have canceled, consider for just a minute that maybe, just maybe, the customer isn't always right. Even when you run your business the right way, there are always some people who will try to take advantage of you because we are, after all, just a bunch of thieving health clubs.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fitness Management magazine.
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