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Let The Fish! Fly

Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market has set a standard known as The Fish! Philosophy on which you can model a business culture that shapes employee and customer satisfaction.

Imagine that one morning you walk into a new bagel shop in your neighborhood and are
surprised and delighted by the welcome you receive from the high-
energy and engaging staff. Whether they’re boiling bagels or smearing cream cheese on a dozen, they all seem to love what they’re doing; the positive energy is almost palpable. Contrary to the forced, “have-a-nice-day” service scenario that you
normally encounter in similar establishments, the customer service here is playful yet edged with respect. It is such a pleasant experience you decide you’ll return tomorrow.

At the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, owner John Yokoyama realized that having his employees interact with customers in such an upbeat manner could profoundly influence their attitudes toward his product. In fact, he and the rest of the people working at the fish market have generated such a positive reputation that tourists and corporate executives come from all over the world just to see them work. These fishmongers love what they do and it shows!

They bark out each customer’s
order in a collective chant and fling the fish from the front display across the counter; although the business lunch crowd runs the risk of being teased by the fishmongers, they don’t care. Taking a little good-spirited ribbing is worth the price of admission to experience the action at the Pike Place Fish Market.

Yokoyama’s workplace has inspired Fish!, a best-selling book and training video. The Fish! Philosophy is simple: Give your employees and customers the best relative experience ever, and they will love working for you and buying your product, respectively.

What more natural setting for this philosophy is there than the fitness
industry? We are fortunate to work
in environments in which creativity,
enthusiasm and energy seldom run dry. The challenge is for fitness managers
to harness this energy and release its potential by creating an environment where playfulness, outstanding customer service and caring for one another are the highest priorities.

Concepts of
The Fish! Philosophy

The Fish! Philosophy has four basic concepts:

  • Play.
  • Make their day.
  • Be there.
  • Choose your attitude.

Each of these includes common sense applications that fitness managers can use to engage and energize their staff. How can these concepts be applied to the fitness industry? At the World Fitness IDEA® fitness conference in San Francisco in July, I had the opportunity to teach The Fish! Philosophy to more than 250 program directors, and the fish really flew! The brainstorming session was charged with the ideas that follow the description of each concept. Each list is limited to 10, although many more were developed in the session. Perhaps you will be able to implement some of these or use them as guidelines to develop some of your own ideas. Since fitness managers deal both with members and staff, these ideas
can apply equally well to coworkers or exercise participants.


Play is about making work fun, creative and spontaneous. It guides us to take our work seriously and ourselves lightly. Play is natural to children, who have been observed in studies to laugh about 400 times per day. As adults we’ve forgotten how to play and tend to take ourselves too seriously; adults average a meager 15 laughs per day. Playfulness at work can decrease stress and increase retention, communication, energy levels and cooperation.

  • Dress up in costume on a holiday
    or any other day.
  • Have a theme day.
  • Have contests.
  • Let members lead classes (role reversals).
  • Create a “club” handshake for members.
  • Give every staff member a nickname (put them on their employee name tags).
  • Have karaoke indoor cycling classes.
  • Take pictures of the members and create a “fun” board.
  • Organize fun activities (laser tag, mini golf, etc.).
  • Give a high-five to every employee who comes in the door.

Make Their Day

Make Their Day is applicable to both staff and members. It’s about doing something special, unexpected and personalized that will delight your employees and/or your customers. One example is the “singing anesthesiologist” at a Michigan hospital who serenades his patients and medical staff, a device used to alleviate presurgical anxiety for all involved.

  • Give stickers to reward workout efforts.
  • Meet special requests.
  • Send out an employee e-mail with a tip of the day.
  • Have signature moves, music, sing-a-longs during classes.
  • Have an employee-of-the-month incentive ($50 prize).
  • Give pride and caring pins for staff who go the extra mile.
  • Give fortune cookies containing healthy/motivational messages to members as they leave.
  • Give staff or members a spontaneous standing ovation.
  • Give water to members when they don’t expect it (e.g., on the treadmill).
  • Play music requests.

Be There

Be There—giving your complete focus to your customers and all others—is the concept that cements The Fish! Philosophy. Remembering to be present in the moment helps you devote 100 percent of your attention to customers’ needs without being sidetracked by internal or external noise, distractions
or frustrations.

  • Acknowledge people by name.
  • Initiate conversation and practice active listening.
  • Send greeting cards via e-mail.
  • Use direct eye contact.
  • Reach out and touch staff and members when appropriate—a hug can go a long way!
  • Give individual attention.
  • Stay after classes to talk to your members.
  • Be aware of what’s going on in the club.
  • Walk around the floor and talk with the members.
  • Ask sincere questions and engage the members.

Choose Your Attitude

Choose Your Attitude demands that you take full responsibility for your demeanor in the workplace and make a conscious decision to have a positive outlook every day.

  • Leave your problems at the door.
  • Create a fun/power move for the staff.
  • Smile a lot.
  • Be energetic.
  • Be committed to what you do.
  • Use good posture.
  • Give out the “live wire” award.
  • Remember your vision.
  • Raise your blood sugar and work out before your shift.
  • Make someone else laugh.

Nurturing the Concepts

These concepts are simple and the ideas generated could apply to any fitness facility. The challenge to all fitness managers is to create an environment in which The Fish! Philosophy will thrive and nurture a committed and passionate staff.

If you are wondering how to use some of these concepts in your program, start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What can we do to bring these four concepts to life in our organization?
  • What are we already doing that we should continue doing?
  • What needs to change?

Consider the company-wide organizational changes and implementations that would be integral to making this program work. An organizational development consultant can be crucial in successfully implementing this philosophy. Through experience, such a person can readily pinpoint problem areas and make recommendations for positive change. The Fish! Philosophy is not the “flavor-of-the-month” training program. If implemented correctly, it is a lighthearted, friendly approach to service, employee and member retention, and a way to make every organization a great place to work.

  • Check out www.fishphilosophy.com or call ChartHouse Learning Corporation at (800) 328-3789.
  • Attitude is Everything: 10 Life-Changing Steps to Turning Attitude Into Action by Keith Harrell
  • The Beauty of the Beast: Breathing New Life Into Organizations by Geoffrey M. Bellman
  • Emotional Value: Creating Strong Bonds With Your Customers by Janelle Barlow
  • Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin, PhD, Harry Paul and John Christensen
  • Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans
  • Managing to Have Fun by Matt Weinstein
  • “A New-Economy Fish Story” by Rekha Balu. Fast Company, October 2000, www.fastcompany.com/online/39/rftf.html.
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Tatiana Kolovou, MBA

Tatiana A. Kolovou, MBA, started her professional journey as a health educator and became an organizational development trainer, public speaker, university professor and executive communication coach. She is a faculty member for the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and the owner of Ethos Fitness, a boutique fitness studio in Bloomington, Indiana. She is also an ACSM-EP professional and a veteran master trainer for Schwinn® cycling, a Core Health & Fitness brand. Find her courses on LinkedIn Learning or reach her at [email protected]

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