Last time, I described how creating appropriate fitness programming for your busy members can cement your customer relationships and your clients’ resolve to stick with their programs. In this article, I examine an often overlooked necessity in our industry: training ourselves. As in the prefious columns, converging trends in society and fitness launch this discussion.

Societal Trend #3: Businesses at large are increasing automation and decreasing one-to-one customer interaction.

Fitness Trend #3: Likewise, fitness facilities have become increasingly dependent on equipment and programs
to do their “people work.”

I recently called a good friend’s fitness facility, eagerly anticipating the friendly personal greeting that had long typified his excellent organization. However, I was taken aback when an answering machine droned, “Good day. You have reached XYZ Health and Fitness Facility. To speak to someone in sales, press 1. For management, press 2. For fitness, press 3. For member billing, press 4. For child care, press 5. If you wish to speak to a person, stay on the line, and we will answer your call as soon as possible.” After persevering through about 3 minutes of canned music and a looping 30-second infomercial for the club, my friend, Bill, finally came on the line.

“What’s the new phone system about?” I asked.

“Isn’t it great?” he answered excitedly. “It’ll save me more than $12,000 a year in front-desk wages!”

I wanted to reply, “Yeah, but it may cost you twice that much in disgruntled members and peeved guests,” but just wished him luck and moved on in our conversation.

Like many other managers and
owners, Bill doesn’t get it. He not only has bought into automation but also actually thinks his phone system is
better! Apparently, he has forgotten that his club’s reputation was built on customer-friendly service that included a live person who greeted guests
on the telephone. How can he ignore many people’s abhorrence of automated call-answering systems and
the strain that this might place on his customer relationships?

Bill’s decision to automate his phone service speaks to a bigger problem in our industry today: the lack of effective people training in almost every aspect of our businesses.

Experience vs. Automation

Our society is moving from a service economy to an experience economy. The industrial economy (which died
in the 1950s) and the service economy (which is nearly dead now) brought a proliferation of products and services that didn’t exist before imaginative companies invented and developed them. The experience economy will grow in much the same way as companies tough out what economist Joseph Schumpeter terms the “gales of creative destruction” that characterize business innovation. Businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will become irrelevant. To avoid this fate, business owners and operators must learn to stage
a rich and compelling experience for customers (Pine & Gilmore 1999). Unfortunately, automation is neither rich nor compelling.

Positive business experiences happen when people interact with other people in a special environment, whether a
raft on the Colorado River, a night at the opera or a workout in your fitness facility. In the emerging experience economy, companies must realize that they make not goods but memories and set the stage not for delivering services but for generating greater economic value (Pine & Gilmore 1999). Our
outdated methods of customer service will not cut it in the 21st-century wellness industry.

Traditionally, our industry has
based personnel training on the supposition that we offer our users goods
and services, but we really offer them experiences. Accordingly, our staff teaching has been based more on process training than on what I call familiarity guidance.

Process training teaches people to pass the responsibility of customer satisfaction to the next person in line. In our businesses, this is evidenced by the impersonal and all-too-familiar “Your card, please” at our reception areas, as opposed to the relationship-building “Good morning, Mary. How are you? What are you going to do today?” In contrast, familiarity guidance occurs when a staff member helps a customer enjoy a fitness experience and learn during it. It is also evident when the “light goes on” in a personal exercise session or when Joe the front-desk guy goes out and starts Joan the member’s car on a cold January night.

Why Must Staff
Training Change?

Based on data comparisons between the 1990 and 2002 IHRSA State of the Industry Reports, member retention
in the fitness industry is no better now than in 1990. Facilities may have better equipment, flashier displays, integrated audiovisual escapist modules and other goodies to offer clients, but we turn over as many members as we did before the advent of such bells and whistles. I conclude that such customer turnover still happens because members’ experiences have not changed
that significantly in the last 12 years.

Moreover, according to surveys I’ve conducted, facilities are no more profitable now than more than a decade ago, despite the development of sophisticated computer tracking systems and club management software. We seem
to need something more than advanced technology.

Finally, many facilities have reported to me an employee turnover rate of more than 50 percent per year in key jobs! The cost of hiring, training and retraining is exorbitant in any industry, including ours.

Because current methodologies clearly do not work for facilities or users, staff training has to change. Instead of facilitating better member experiences in our clubs, our training (or lack of it) seems to continue the trend of chasing customers away.
Even though we subscribe to a Disney-era understanding that customer care
is the most important aspect of business, we have not shifted to the experience paradigm. We are stuck in
the old model of pushing goods and rendering services. For example, I
recently examined a preconference flyer for one of the most respected trade shows in our industry and discovered that the word experience
was mentioned in only one of more than 100 seminar titles.

What to Do?

What strategies should facility managers and fitness, group exercise and personal training directors adopt to
address these challenges?

Facility Managers
  • Train reception (not “front desk”) staff to greet warmly every member and guest coming to and going from your facility. Name-memorization courses are a must.
  • Indoctrinate all staff members at every level into not just passing clients through but serving them.

Fitness Directors
  • Understand that “one-to-one training” is not a process but a practice
    of engaging the client. Teach your trainers accordingly.
  • Work with the group exercise and personal training directors to integrate all programming into a cohesive whole.
  • Put fun back into fitness and eliminate mundane ways of doing day-to-day tasks. Why not begin by eliminating that ubiquitous white-cardboard workout card?

Group Exercise Directors
  • Return to programming basics.
  • Eliminate the notion of a “star,” or “prima donna,” instructor and build a team that wants not to perform for people but to motivate them.

Personal Training Directors
  • Understand that more sales will come out of relationship-oriented “being there” for clients than will come out of all of the multi-ticket bargains ever put forth.
  • Recognize that, in the experience economy, if your personal trainers can invigorate your clients to “get a good ride every time,” they will be the dominant players in the new era of wellness just around the corner.
Roll With the Changes

I hope to call Bill one day soon and
find that he has heard enough customer complaints about his automated telephone-answering system to return to the simple, personal touch of a
live receptionist. Sometimes, it takes nothing more than a wake-up call
such as this to realize that, in the
name of progress or bottom-line savings, we have denied our customers
an experience that they appreciate.

If we do not begin to take staff training seriously and integrate the lessons of the experience economy into our businesses, fitness facilities may just follow the old-school economic models into history.