After approximately 18 months of declining membership and revenue, I realized that our club was in serious trouble. As identified in this space last month, we had two big issues: poor customer service (we weren't as good as we used to be) and a seeming invisibility in our marketplace.
To solve our customer service issue, I began by talking to other business owners about how they train their staff members to provide great service. The people I talked to all have certain things in common: they have an ongoing plan to train (and train and train) in every aspect of the business; they encourage their staff to have fun at work; and most of all, they have open lines of communication between owners, managers and employees so that everyone is on the same page. Problems or issues are addressed immediately — what was the problem, what could we have done better, and do we need to follow up with that customer?
I set up a meeting with the entire staff. When the meeting started, I explained that I had recently gotten feedback that our customer service level wasn't what it used to be. I told them that I was to blame for the problems we were having. I am ultimately responsible for setting the tone for everything we do, and I hadn't been doing what needed to be done. I emphasized that sometimes we do a great job but at other times we fall short, and that's the hard part — applying the same level of service we give the first person through the door in the morning to the 100th person through the door later that day.
I said that we were going to have more meetings, by department, to share information and best practices with each other. Every staff member was going to be evaluated more often — not to criticize, but to improve skills.
Everyone wants to get better at their job. I told the staff that as we improve the club, we'll find ways to compensate the staff for excellent work. If a group fitness instructor consistently has more than 25 people in class, we want to reward the instructor for that. If a personal trainer has clients who continue to work with them because they are getting great results, we want to reward that trainer.
Most of all, I want them to enjoy their jobs. If they have ways to improve the member experience, we want to hear it.
"I asked the staff to be open-minded and to accept criticism in order to improve. I had to be willing to do the same."
The task of increasing our visibility in the marketplace was a bigger problem for me to solve — but sometimes you get lucky. A close friend mentioned that he had a friend who was a consultant in the fitness business. Perhaps she could help me.
I hesitated at first. After all, I had done some consulting over the years, so why would I need a consultant? Truth is, I was out of ideas. I needed help. At our big meeting, I had asked the staff to be open-minded and to accept criticism in order to improve. I had to be willing to do the same.
Maria Parrella-Turco, a New Jersey-based fitness industry consultant and club turnaround specialist, made a trip to visit with me and to see the club. I was immediately struck by her knowledge of seemingly every aspect of our industry. I've run our club for more than 20 years, but when I talked to her I felt like I was just starting out.
She is one of those people who is at once friendly, outgoing and intimidating. She has a no-nonsense personality and loves her work — save the chitchat for later. She truly believes our industry has the capacity to change people's lives, and it's our obligation to help them.
Maria asked a lot of questions about our club's history, services and member demographics. She liked the improvements we were making in customer service and then simply said, "Here's where our industry is right now and here is what you need to do to grow this club."
She had a plan, and we were going to implement it. We developed a tiered membership approach that allowed customers to choose the services they wanted — from a low-priced "entry" membership, all the way up to a high-priced "personal training" membership.
Membership growth year-to-date compared to 2016
Customer wants and needs
This new pricing system requires our membership staff to change the way we do tours and answer the phone. Everything has to be centered on the question, "What does this customer want and need?" We had to ask them about their goals, what they like and don't like, and what their previous exercise experiences were like.
We had always made some effort to get to know our customers, but now we were formalizing the process. How can we know what membership a person needs if we don't know what they like to do and what their goals are?
We set up a consultation for every new member, allowing us to get more details about goals and then show members what types of workouts will help them reach those goals. If they want to lose weight but are easily bored walking on the treadmill, we want them burning calories in a fun and exciting group fitness class, and we tell them which classes are best for them.
These consultations also allow us the opportunity to market additional services to all new members. If they express an interest in the pool but don't know how to swim, we offer swim lessons. If they have belonged to a club before but had trouble getting there consistently, we discuss using a personal trainer to increase accountability in order to get better results.
All of that required a lot of staff training, so we arranged for Maria to spend time with each department. She was in charge. I went through training along with the rest of the staff members. They needed to see that we were committed to doing things differently, and I had to be the first one on board.
I also had to start looking at different metrics for our business. I had to be looking forward. What is next month's marketing plan? How can I best train the staff to maximize the customer experience related to a certain promotion? Then, how many calls did we get, how many memberships did we sell, and how can we do better next month?
New members in January, double the number from January 2016
We started working with Maria last December, and in January sent out our first-ever direct mail piece (U.S. mail, not email) that advertised our new lower-priced options. It got a huge response, adding 100 new members, or double the total from January 2016.
The strange but wonderful thing is, very few of these new members actually purchased the lower-priced membership. A low price may have been why they called, but once we started talking to them about their goals and how to get results, they wanted more out of their membership.
Every month since then has been similar. We have stayed focused on building value in our club and on helping our members get results, and membership continues to grow at a pace 25 percent ahead of last year.
It took time for me to admit that I needed help, but working with Maria really has turned our club around. Our success has boosted enthusiasm throughout the entire staff. The club is full of new members and renewed energy. It hasn't been easy, but operating the club has become fun again.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Our pivotal 2017, Part II: Sales-and-service reboot" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.