No, this is not another run-of-the-mill article about how indispensable customer service is to the success of your fitness facility. It is, however, an article regarding creativity in customer service. Not excellent customer service, not superior customer service, but rather novel customer service. Innovation in customer service is as important as innovation in the programs, equipment and events you offer your members. As members’ needs evolve, it is important for you to adjust accordingly in order to survive.

It is a fact of business life that one of the primary determinants of success or failure is how you treat members. If your programs, equipment and staff responsiveness exceed expectations, your clients will be satisfied and remain long-term members. On the other hand, if there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, you will have a dissatisfied customer who will quickly walk out your door and right into one of the many other gym options available. Furthermore, the ramifications of an unhappy customer extend far beyond one person. Satisfied members tell between two and four people about their positive experiences, while dissatisfied members tell 10–20 others (Gerson 1990).

The bottom line is that without your members you have no business. Implementing creative touches in your customer service will significantly affect the happiness (and retention) of your members. The following four key areas can make a big difference: adding a personal touch, focusing on internal customer service, communicating constantly and showing appreciation.

Adding a Personal Touch

Automated telephone systems, websites and other forms of impersonal customer service are becoming increasingly common in today’s digital age and can make certain transactions more efficient and cost-effective. However, they remove the personal touch and cannot take the place of individual attention to the customer. Therefore, maintaining regular one-on-one interactions with members in other ways is crucial. Such interactions are vital because they develop a relationship of loyalty and trust between your business and your members. Personal interactions build a true connection to your business.

“Set up a monthly 10-minute face-to-face conversation with each member to go over his or her goals and the progress that has been made,” suggests Dan Coughlin, author of The Management 500. “When they receive unique value, members will want to stay and will tell other people about how you have helped them achieve their desired outcomes. Providing equipment and classes is important, but if you can directly help people achieve their objectives, that’s even more valuable.”

Another way to provide a personal touch is to offer a variety of pricing options for people who want to participate at your facility but have budgetary limitations. There are many individuals who want the benefits of a health club membership but cannot afford the dues. So, why not step up your customer service to these potential members by offering several membership options so that almost anyone can participate?

A great example of this approach is implemented by Gold’s Gym of Bozeman, Montana. To get new members through the door at any price point, they offer an array of membership types:

  • month-to-month membership with no commitment
  • student membership
  • reduced-rate corporate membership
  • reduced-rate senior citizen membership
  • punch cards good for 10 or 20 visits

All membership types include full use of all facilities.

Focusing on Internal Customer Service

To provide excellent customer service to members, your employees first need to experience it themselves. Excellent customer service applies to your customers but is equally important within your organization (Harrison 2006). When you work hard to retain staff, your members see familiar faces and build relationships with your employees and your business.

Internal customer service is about your staff members and departments working effectively together. Employees at every level can build bridges between departments (i.e., sales, legal, marketing, personal training). This can be achieved through cross-training, joint picnics or parties, and day-to-day niceties.

Both individual and departmental success depends on how staff members treat one another and how important they feel within your organization. If each employee feels appreciated and crucial to the overall success of the facility, then positive morale will exist and your staff will be more productive. On the flip side, if staff are not regularly recognized for their efforts and don’t feel that their contributions are essential to the success of the business, then you are left with unhappy employees who are rarely team players.

The key is to recognize that employees and departments who are rewarded for a job well done will repeat the act. Reward staff with consistent tokens of appreciation (e.g., gift cards, movie tickets), dedicate a section of your monthly newsletter to highlighting a particular department or staff member, or consider offering occasional spot bonuses for exceptional work.

Communicating Constantly

Communication is essential in any strong relationship, but particularly between your club and your members. It involves promptly communicating any changes in facility policies, management or class schedules and allowing members to voice their opinions openly as well.

Whenever you need to make a change in your facility, whether it affects equipment, staff or programs, tell members immediately and explain why the business changes are good for them, not why you needed to do it for your business. Members don’t care about what’s good for you; they care about what’s good for them. After all, they’re the ones paying (Rhodes 2007).

Equally important, allow members opportunities to voice their opinions about your facility’s policies, classes and staff. Let any member express a complaint or suggestion fully before you jump in. Then respond (rather than react) with a neutral statement, free of emotion, and make sure the member feels heard. This issue might have been raised before, but not by this member on this day. To ensure the member feels understood, maintain eye contact and speak in a professional and polite tone at all times. Rather than saying no in response to a request you know you can’t grant, respond with, “Let me see what I can do,” and then find a solution. Follow up with the member to provide a service that is a better fit for both of you.

A good example of commitment to communication is Bally Total Fitness’s website, which can be viewed fully in either English or Spanish, thus openly communicating with a greater number of members.

Showing Appreciation

Letting your loyal members know that you appreciate their patronage increases the length of your relationship with them. Showing appreciation to members runs the gamut from doing simple things, like giving small gifts, to organizing an elaborate gala or a free concert for all members and their friends. What you do for your appreciation effort will depend on the goal you have and the resources available to you. Whatever form it takes, this type of customer service can bring in additional members through positive word of mouth and help keep your current members happy and coming back.

One of the most personal and easy things you can do to show your members how much you appreciate them is to send each member a handwritten note of appreciation once a year. Perhaps include a couple of guest passes and coupons for services. In today’s technological world, handwritten notes are becoming scarce and are therefore special.

On the other end of the scale, commit to hosting an appreciation party for all your members. One plan is to hold a “Workout Party” right on the fitness floor, where members can exercise and enjoy the high-energy atmosphere. Hire a live disk jockey to provide the music. Decorate the entire fitness area with bright colors or in keeping with a chosen theme. Offer all types of free exercise classes and demonstrations during your party, and provide complimentary food and drink. Make this a free guest day to generate leads for sales.

In addition, consider showing appreciation for your members’ variety of interests by developing specific programs for various niche groups.

“One way to do this is to identify a niche target audience and develop programs and services specifically targeted to it,” explains Denise Lee Yohn, independent fitness brand consultant from San Diego. “For example, a growing segment of women is hiking moms (that is, mothers who have small children and who love to go hiking). Hiking moms use websites to share their passion and schedule day-hike meetups. Clubs that want to appeal to this segment might offer hiking conditioning classes, self-guided training programs and hiking field trips, as well as stellar childcare and kid-friendly facilities and amenities. By gearing services, classes and membership plans to a specific target group, clubs can stand out and strike an emotional chord with prospects and members.”

If you want your facility to succeed, innovative customer service must go side by side with innovative programs and classes. Superior customer service will lead to higher profit margins and higher retention rates.