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Save Situations

When members disappear, it takes a delicate touch to bring them back.

She's an accountant. Except for March and April, when she's putting in 12-hour days doing people's taxes, she makes working out a priority. You see her three or four times a week, usually in the late morning, and if you happen to be at the front desk when she's on her way out, you usually ask her about her workout. "See you later," you might say.

But you might not see her again. Maybe she took a new job, or moved to a new house. Maybe she got bored with her yoga class. Maybe she took ill and got thrown off her exercise routine.

She might have called and spoken to someone at the desk about discontinuing her membership, but it's possible that even though you haven't seen her, you're still collecting her monthly dues directly from her Visa card.Maybe you should give her a call.

Fitness center owners face this issue on a regular basis, but it doesn't get any easier to handle. Consider this: The dormant account is a sleeping giant. That accountant might return to a regular schedule on her own six months down the line. Or, upon getting your call, she might cancel.

"A lot of times, you don't know if you want to awaken that beast," says Pat Necerato, manager of retention for WOW! Work Out World, a chain of clubs based largely in the Northeast. "It's the catch-22 of retention. A lot of clubs don't want to contact those people because it reminds them they're not using their memberships."

Great music is often defined by the silences between the notes. Similarly, great marketing (a category that includes making saves) can be defined by what's not said. Jimmy Page, general manager of the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium, Md., puts two people in charge of contacting dormant members, and says hewing to a careful script saves the club 10 or 12 memberships every month. As a result, the club's retention rate has risen from 67 to 74 percent in the past year.

"We have an entire system of what we say and how we say it," Page says. "We don't say, 'We miss you, where've you been?' Because it just reinforces the fact that they're paying for nothing. The script now goes something like, 'I noticed on your initial paperwork when you joined, you said you were interested in x, and I wanted you to know we have a class on Wednesday and would love to invite you in for it. I'll be here, ask for me.' We have found that the more calls we make like that -- proposing alternatives and solutions and scheduling them for appointments or another assessment -- the lower our attrition rate goes."

MAC personnel call any member who hasn't been in for three weeks, as well as non-regular users (those who come to the club less than once a week).

Work Out World's prescription is three-pronged: an e-mail sequence, an offline mailing campaign and telemarketing. Necerato says in each case, the object is simply to jog, as it were, the member's memory.

"I've recorded 52 messages that I send out every week to 10 days to inactive members," Necerato says. "Not one of those messages talks about them not using the club, and many have nothing to do with working out. It might be a reminder: 'Hey, summer's coming, so make sure you're careful about not leaving pets in the car.' Sometimes we make announcements of changes in hours, or changes in the program schedule, just to let them know. It's an indirect approach, keeping them engaged but not letting them feel they're paying for something they're not using."

Brent Tatum, director of sales at Xtreme Total Health & Fitness in Tampa, Fla., says his club's billing department sends out e-mails every 60 days to inactive members, and doesn't mince words. "It says, 'We haven't seen you in a while. When's the next time you're stopping in?' Usually that works to get people in. Most gyms avoid that, but most of our members use their memberships. The bigger chains tend to grab people who get hooked on the commercial, hooked on the gadgets, then all of a sudden they don't want to use the club anymore."

Similarly, Super Fitness Centers Inc. in Quincy, Mass. (a small chain with four other locations), doesn't stick to the script. General manager Nick Richardson says the club sends out perfunctory letters "encouraging them to come back," but as more of a performance-training center (the club offers free personal training) the more preferable form of contact is phone calls from trainers.

"The personal touch is our best tool," Richardson says. "We aim for an atmosphere where if you need help you can always get help, so we have trainers reach members before things get to that point."

Clubs that are most successful at notching saves tend to be the ones infused with a sales culture, where every connection between staff member and club member helps ensure that the club member keeps coming back. But Necerato, like many club professionals, is a realist about the challenge involved.

"Every member is going to cancel," he says. "Retention is really about postponing that as long as possible."Necerato used to try to decode the various communications in an attempt to understand why certain members stopped coming. Was it something we did? What could we have done differently? But, he says, "You don't know the real reason they stopped, or what's going on in their lives. You'll just drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out."

Over time, Necerato has figured out that no more than 5 percent of ex-customers have left for another club because they had a bad experience at his place. Another 10 to 20 percent, he says, moved out of the neighborhood or left a nearby job. The other 75 to 85 percent, he says, "have the common denominator of procrastination."

"People just go up and down emotionally in terms of exercise," Necerato says. "They impulsively cancel their membership, and basically use whatever possible excuse they can use at the time to ease their conscience about it. You're never going to be able to adapt your club to suit them, or re-motivate them to exercise. When they're done working out, they're done; they don't want to pay for it anymore. And then, weeks or months later, they're ready to work out again. They may not come back to us, but they come back to exercise, that's for sure."

Many members who respond to his gentle reminders with a cancellation call say they just can't justify paying for something they're not using. Necerato's fine with that.

"There's no way you're going to get those people to change their mind," he says, "so you just say, 'OK, let them cancel.' If you hit them with the right deal in a few months, they'll be back."

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