Why Health Club Members Are Not Always Right

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The customer is always right." How many times have you said this to your staff - or when you were the customer, felt this yourself?

You think you can make this person happy? (Image © drbimages/iStockphoto.com)You think you can make this person happy? (Image © drbimages/iStockphoto.com)

"The customer is always right." How many times have you said this to your staff - or when you were the customer, felt this yourself?

We understand that people who espouse the notion that "the customer is always right" don't believe it literally. Nobody is always right. What they are saying is that your attitude and mindset when dealing with customers should be that customers come first and that they should be made happy.

The problem is that our customers are frequently downright wrong. Even worse, in a health club environment, they aren't just "customers," but "members" who feel that their membership contract and regular patronage entitle them to more time and attention than they might receive at a typical retail establishment. After all, as American Express made people believe, "membership has its privileges."

Our members expect all kinds of privileges, and they are not bashful about asking for them. Here are some common requests:

"I know you can't change the group fitness schedule based on everyone's personal needs, but can you start the 5 p.m. class at 5:15 so I can make it on time?"

"Can you warm up the pool by a couple of degrees before I come in to swim?"

"I am going to be late for cycling class tonight. Can you put a towel on a bike to reserve one for me?"

If your mindset is that "the customer is always right," then you've got a problem when faced with these kinds of requests. Are you really going to change the group fitness schedule for one person? Are you going to alter the laws of physics so that you can warm up your pool - ours is 55,000 gallons - in just a few minutes? Are you going to start reserving bikes whenever someone asks?

We hope you won't even try to do such things, because the customer is not always right. In fact, we'd argue that in health club settings, the customer is usually wrong - or at least misinformed or unrealistic. But, whether the customer is right or wrong doesn't matter. It's the customer's perception that matters, and what you must do is acknowledge it.

Say it with us: The customer's perception must be acknowledged.

Not acknowledging a complaint, observation or request is counterproductive and suicidal, because we need our customers. They pay our bills and hopefully encourage their friends and family to become customers, too. But that doesn't mean you can make everyone happy. Indeed, we'd argue that trying to make everyone happy is also suicidal. What you must do is hear the feedback or suggestion or complaint, and consider it. You should also consider the source, and then decide how you want to react, if at all.

We don't change the group fitness schedule for one person. That's a fact, but we explain it more pleasantly than "no." It's not possible to warm a pool in just a few minutes, so we discuss why the pool is kept at its particular temperature. We can't magically make more bikes appear in cycling class, but we can add bikes and/or more class times if demand warrants.

Trying to understand the customer's perception is much more valuable than trying to make them happy or to treat them as if they are "right." We've had moms freak out in our lobby when our childcare room was full, preventing them from getting their kids in. The ensuing screaming and cursing was so out of bounds with the reality of the moment that it helped us coin a phrase for our staff: "It's never about babysitting." We use this phrase whenever a member's reaction is so far over the top that there's no way this person is complaining about whatever has just happened at our club. What this person is really doing is letting off steam about something else that has gone wrong in his or her life. All of that screaming is meant for someone else he or she knows, not you or your staff. Our job is to acknowledge his or her perception, get the situation under control, address the concern and find helpful solutions so the aggrieved member doesn't have this problem again. (Did the mom know she could call a week in advance to schedule her child?)

But there is no way to justify such behavior and paint it as "right." Doing so would undermine our staff's morale and performance. As owners, we can't imagine trying to convince our staff that the screaming lady in the lobby was "right."

Supporting your staff and having realistic expectations for what they can and cannot do on behalf of your members is vitally important. It's important because we have hundreds of people who visit our clubs every day who are happy with what we offer and how we take care of them. While we want to acknowledge complaints and complainers, we do not want to have our staff's collective energy sucked out by one or two people, which could impact the interactions they have with the other 99 percent of our members.

Imagine starting your day with a chronic complainer. You know who these people are. They have something nasty to say about everything. Maybe they weren't hugged enough as children, and your facility is the only place where they can be a big shot. When that person arrives, the impact on your staff can be dramatic. Maybe yesterday's complaint was trash still in the locker room from the night before. Maybe today the parking lot wasn't plowed to his or her satisfaction after a snowstorm. Maybe tomorrow another member will be on that person's favorite treadmill. You can't allow a chronic complainer to demoralize your staff and put a dark cloud over your employees. Instruct your staff to acknowledge what is important (were the locker rooms really not clean?) but not to get involved with the drama that chronic complainers hope to create. Life is just too short.

Even worse are the incurably miserable. They don't just want to complain and be heard. They want to take it to another level and drag you down. We had members in late 2010 who spent two weeks - two weeks! - reliving a single morning when our group fitness instructor was late. They couldn't let it go, and they used that incident as a reason to air grievance after grievance. When we finally had enough - after apologizing, and assuring everyone that we had taken steps to prevent it from happening again - we offered to cancel their memberships on the spot. There was nothing "right" in their behavior. We heard them. We responded. We corrected. But at some point, enough is enough.

We instruct our staff that the most important thing we can do when faced with an issue from a member is to focus on what we can do for that member. If a member can't seem to arrive early enough to get into cycling class, we might offer up a free personal training session to introduce that person to alternative workouts. If our locker rooms really weren't cleaned properly, we will assure the member, quite sincerely, that we will investigate the circumstances and see to it that the locker room is kept to the proper standards. We want our members to know that when they have feedback, requests or complaints, we respond appropriately. We want them to know that they have been heard and that we take them seriously.

We hear them. We acknowledge them. It doesn't mean we can or will do what they want us to do. It doesn't mean we're going to assume they are right.

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