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Listen to Members, Stay True to Facility

Listening to your members is important, but so is staying true to what's best for your facility.

I had an email exchange recently with a facility owner who rather poignantly captured the challenges and frustrations of owning a fitness center. Her facility was struggling, and she was stuck between the rock-and-hard-place of member expectations and economic reality. Her members wanted more equipment, but they wouldn't pay more. They wanted more classes and to have those classes offered when they - each of them - could attend. She felt like she was giving more and more, while the members appreciated her efforts less and less.

Happiness: A false promise

One of the hardest realities for new facility owners, and even experienced independent club operators, is that they truly can't make everybody happy. It's not a cliché. They can't, and they shouldn't even try. Perhaps just as importantly, facility owners need to proudly stand up for their decisions with thoughtful and appropriate feedback. That feedback needs to be provided to both staff and members, so that everyone knows you are really in charge. Like animals in the jungle, members smell weakness - and owners who show it can be eaten alive.

It's a difficult lesson to learn, and it's at odds with the spirit that so many owners have when they open their fitness centers. Owners want to believe that they can make everybody happy. It's one of the promises of owning your own facility - there's no corporate bureaucracy, and no barriers to personalized customer service, so why shouldn't everyone be happy? Sadly, it's a false promise.

Striking a balance

At my fitness centers, we now do a much better job of addressing members' requests than we used to, but I'm sure some members would disagree. A few years ago, a simple comment in the suggestion box saying there weren't enough Step classes would cause our group fitness director to pore over the schedule to find a way to accommodate the request. If two weightlifters asked about heavier dumbbells, we'd find a way to get them. If one person used the rower, we'd keep repairing it. Now, not so much.

It's not that we don't listen, because we appreciate feedback. But we are unquestionably a better fitness center and a better business by having solid plans, and not wavering with every suggestion or complaint. We strike a balance between what's best for the majority of the members, and what we can afford in terms of time and money. Does that leave some members disappointed? Absolutely.

Issues come up every day. Our pool is too hot, our pool is too cold. We need to change a class time or format. We need new weight equipment. We need more mirrors. Babysitting is too crowded. We open too late. We close too early. You name it, I hear it and (thanks to email!) read it every day. We discuss and analyze all of it, but we don't go too crazy. We also explain things to our staff and members so they understand our decisions, at least as much as they need to.

Dispassionate and clear

One recent decision that bothered several members was the cancellation of a group cycle class that was back-to-back with the next cycle class. We always knew we'd remove the class when we had more cycles, and we were up-front with the members: "More bikes are coming, so the schedule will change." But, of course, taking the class away left some members frustrated. Members complained about "budget cuts," (we spent a few thousand dollars on the additional cycles) and got a bit nasty. My response was dispassionate and clear: a) this was a schedule we had planned for; b) if there was enough demand for two classes, then we'd return to two classes. They may not have liked the answer, but we had thought the issue through well in advance, and we were not going to change our plan in a knee-jerk manner. The controversy ended just fine, with the majority of cyclists taking the second class when the drama died down.

Training our staff has been an important part of keeping the peace. One of my favorite issues is with our pool temperature. It's not the people who complain that it's too warm or too cold; rather, it's the people who believe that the pool is warmer or colder than it was the day before, which it never is. We've trained our staff to explain that the air and water temperatures are constant in our pool area. When the member bites back, we simply smile and explain it again: "No, I'm sorry, we can't warm it or cool it by a couple of degrees when you are here."

When you are confident in what you offer, and you have reasons for your decisions, you should proudly focus on what you are doing for your members and your business. Too many members get too many owners in a twist over what isn't happening at their fitness centers. My best advice to anyone stuck between this rock and a hard place is to stop trying to make everybody happy. You're not going to succeed.

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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