Effective communication is widely recognized as an important skill set for a successful leader to have. Marketing campaigns are built around how effectively the message is communicated to the target audience. Yet, in many businesses efficient internal communication is often overlooked.

Many times departments within the same fitness facility operate like islands; they make decisions and plans without informing each other. This can affect customer service, employee morale and profitability. Managers must practice good communication skills, but it is also imperative that staff learn these skills. The best way for your staff members to improve their communication is by training for it just as they would for physical fitness.

The following active training techniques teach the importance of effective internal communication and also serve as good team-building exercises. (Although initially you will facilitate these training sessions, be prepared to hand off the planning and coordinating of future trainings to others.) Keep in mind that the role of the facilitator is to make sure everyone participates and to keep conflicts to a minimum. Your overarching strategy is to help staff learn to communicate better interpersonally, internally among departments and externally to customers.

Importance of Detailed Directions

This first exercise demonstrates the importance of detailed directions for ensuring consistent results (Silberman 2006). This is also a good icebreaker for your first team-building meeting.

Give everyone one sheet of paper. Tell people to close their eyes and listen to your directions.

Give the directions as follows:

  1. Hold the paper in both hands.
  2. Fold the paper in half.
  3. Tear off the lower left-hand side of the paper.
  4. Fold it in half again.
  5. Tear off the upper right-hand side of the paper.
  6. Fold it in half again.
  7. Tear off the lower right-hand side of the paper.

Then, say, “If you did a good job of listening and I was effectively communicating, all of our papers should look the same. Now, open your eyes.” Inevitably, everyone’s papers will look completely different, and this usually garners a few laughs. This will clearly illustrate that, without detailed directions, you cannot expect the same results from everyone. This is exactly why companies like McDonald’s have systems for every aspect of their business. When employees follow the system, consistent outcomes are achieved. Now, in most fitness centers it is a bit harder to put rigid systems in place for every aspect of the business. Nonetheless, proper communication is a system that should be mandatory.

Here’s a scenario to illustrate this point. The sales department decides to implement a new policy that discontinues a discounted program for members, yet does not inform the frontline departments or other areas. The employees in those departments are usually the first to be confronted by members when there is a change. Thus, it is imperative that they are properly briefed on new policies. Before any external communication is made to members, an internal communication plan should be designed that includes end dates for the discontinued program, talking points for staff and any new procedures. This will not only minimize member anger over miscommunication, but it will also empower staff to stand behind new company policies.

Good Communicators = Good Coaches

This exercise is a good one to do if you are conducting a group meeting in the afternoon when people may be tired. Start the training by pairing everyone up. Have the partners tell one another their birthdays; the team member whose birthday falls earlier in the year will be the “coach” and the other the “student.” While everyone is comparing birthdays, scatter various objects, such as books or shoes, throughout the room.

Next, position your teams in different areas throughout the room. Have the students don blindfolds, and tell the coaches to direct their students to pick up as many of the scattered items as they can through verbal cuing only. Limit the time to 5 minutes, and reward the winning team that gathers the most objects before the time runs out. Then, switch coaches and students, and move the teams to different areas in the room while you scatter the objects again. It will be interesting to see who the best coaches are. This game demonstrates the necessity of good listening skills as a crucial component of effective communication and illustrates how working with a team involves listening and leading.

In daily interactions if staff members are “half-listening” to each other or their customers while multitasking, they might miss the bigger picture. Knowing the entire situation can eliminate miscommunication and its problems. This is also is an important game to play because coaching clients and customers is our business. Being a good listener makes people feel understood, heard and cared for.

Telephone and Lollipops

In a fitness center there are signs everywhere—on the way in, at the front desk and even in bathroom stalls. However, how many of those signs communicate a clear, concise message that is instantly understood? Before placing signs throughout your center, think about how best to deliver your message. Ask other people to read your signs before putting them on display. Think about signs as outdoor billboards. The messages on billboards typically go through rigorous focus groups and ad executives before being launched. You obviously don’t need to go to that extreme for a simple sign, but you can teach staff to be cognizant of writing clear, concise signs.

To get across the idea of clarity in signage, try playing “telephone and lollipops,” a variation on the old game I learned from Kim Fabian, president and founder of Ovations Inc. in Reisterstown, Maryland. Hand a box of lollipops to the first person in line and whisper, “Please savor a single unit of this crystallized confection designed for your sensory cells’ enjoyment.” Have that person pass the box to the next person and repeat the statement. This continues until the last person at the end of the line hears the statement. The facilitator asks that person what was said. Inevitably, it will not be anything like what was originally stated. The point is that the writing on signs, memos, press releases or anything else within your facility should be easily understood and replicated. See the sidebar “Case Studies” for another game.

If you are still concerned that you aren’t clearly communicating among your staff and departments, ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Does my staff fully understand my expectations?
  2. Can my staff easily explain the company’s mission to customers?
  3. Do my departments work together when making major decisions to ensure a clear plan of communication to customers?

When you can answer yes to all these questions, thanks to staff training and attention to details and systems, you are well on your way to a more streamlined department and overall facility management experience.