There are at least a dozen clichés about making a good impression. Maybe you’ve heard or used one of these: “Just relax,” “Be yourself,” “Be confident” or the ubiquitous “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” The clichés are off and running this time of year, when New Year’s resolutions send scores of people to your fitness facility in a bid to make good on a resolution or two. How are you going to convert these leads? What’s your action plan?

While statements themselves don’t necessarily motivate, a tangible plan of action does. To create a plan of action, set communication goals for yourself and your staff. As you gear up to set new membership records in 2012, consider using the following exercise in your next planning meeting—to inspire your team to help people keep their commitments to themselves and become part of your fitness community.

The Objectives Game

While preparing staff to handle your facility’s peak season, emphasize the importance of making an honest and effective first impression. Here’s a game I call “Objectives.” To ensure that this exercise is effective, stay positive and stress that it must not be used to manipulate or deceive someone. Objectives is simply a word to describe how one person is trying to make another person feel. It will help your staff navigate conversations and social settings and remember that the interaction is never about them.

This exercise forces staff to get out of their own head and focus on the needs of the people with whom they are communicating. It sounds simple, yes. But maybe your personal trainer director is used to being behind closed doors and doesn’t feel confident interacting with trial members. Your front-desk staff may think their only purpose is to smile and swipe membership cards. It’s important to train staff in the basics of communication. Everyone can use a refresher course—especially in today’s smartphone and tablet culture, where people tend to interact on-screen instead of face to face.

Deliver a focused experience. Untrained associates—especially those who work on commission—might be overly focused on getting leads to like them and the facility. Or they may be overconfident about signing people up, so they spend the entire introduction talking about amenities and perks. This mission to impress is likely to have a bad ending: When associates put on a hard-sell hat and are ticking off a list of things to cover, they forget the lead’s name, they’re not listening and they try too hard. Instead, if they’ll focus on the person in front of them, they won’t have time to worry about their own nerves, their own anxieties or their own negative self-talk.

Common and effective objectives for managers, instructors, trainers and other facility staff might be to make the potential member feel comfortable, important, valued, respected, secure, safe and relaxed. You have a long list of objectives to choose from for the people who walk through your door. Here’s how to pull from that pool of objectives and teach staff how to listen and deliver true focus and power.

During a staff meeting, invite two people to stand in front of the group; have one person act as the potential new member and the other be a sales associate. The “lead” role-player thinks of a “profile” to present—without making it obvious. The goal is for the sales associate to interact and make a good first impression while staying attentive and providing an authentic objective. For example, the lead decides to play a young mother who wants to carve out some time in her day for herself. The sales associate discovers this by asking targeted (not probing) questions and by listening. The objective may become to make the lead feel comfortable and confident, which in turn shifts the impression to autopilot positive!

Focus on someone else. The purpose of the exercise role-played above is to teach staff how to be service-oriented and how to take care of everyone who walks into the facility, whether a person signs up for a membership or not. That good first impression will pay off in one way or another. Remind staff on a regular basis that when we think about ourselves or about making a great first impression, we often forget names, interrupt, say the wrong thing, don’t say enough, etc. This usually backfires. Encourage staff to think about other people’s needs (including the needs of their teammates). Imagine the constructive conversation and growing trust between two people who both have the objective to make one another feel comfortable. Imagine an entire team thinking this way!

When their objective is to make a potential member feel relaxed, comfortable or confident, staff will be amazed at how much more relaxed they are and how appreciative the other person is. Keep quarterly track of how your staff is doing with this new approach, and watch as your retention rate climbs as the result of true service-oriented interactions.

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