Written by Jon Nasta MD UK Managing Director, Retention Management
The warm smile and friendly "hello, how are you?" from reception, the encouraging comments from the fitness staff as members go through their workouts, the duty manager that holds the door open as a member walks in are all part of the complete package consistently offered by successful clubs.
So how do we guarantee these extra touch points are experienced by our members? We know all too well that members value personal service as an extremely important factor in their overall satisfaction of your club. We also know that the level of personal service received in the early weeks of their membership is directly related to the length of time that person will remain a member. What can we do to make sure this personal service is delivered and increase customer satisfaction?
Recently a club owner I have known for many years told me about how they had raised the issue of interacting with members at a meeting with their fitness staff. They run a busy centre in a large market town with just over 1500 members and five fitness staff, personal service is how they differentiate from the large multi site chain that opened down the road a few years ago. They set out to take 300 members each and aimed at holding a five minute conversation with each of those 300 every two weeks. They felt that five minutes was the least they should deliver for their $38 per month fee. They then worked out how this would impact on each of their already busy days.
300 members x 5 minutes = 1500 minutes
25 hours every 2 weeks for each of the fitness staff
So 12 hours or almost a third of each of the fitness teams' time out of a 38 hour week would be gone simply to begin to deliver on one important aspect of what their customers felt important about their experience in this club. Still they knew this was a valuable and honourable thing to do, so set about the task with their usual enthusiasm and commitment agreeing to review their progress in three months time.
Pretty soon they discovered that each and every one of the fitness team was experiencing the same issues. Many five minute conversations were being held from each of their groups of 300 members however it soon became clear that the same members were being seen over and over. These were committed exercisers who used the gym many times a week, they had no issues with the facility, a couple even expressed a wish to be left alone to get on with their exercise programme.
So what was going wrong? The staff were committing a third of their time to personally interact with the members in their club yet they were still seeing cancellations on the same levels as before they changed the strategy. At the next staff meeting they went through all the members that had left - to find why they had not been spoken to before reaching this point - the answer was clear, over 90% had not been seen in the last six weeks and thus had not experienced the club's personal interactions. A little more digging and it soon became apparent that the majority of leavers were those not experiencing the clubs high service for the simple reason they had stopped coming in the previous two to four months and no-one had noticed.
We know interacting in a positive and constructive manner with members in our clubs is a prerequisite for a successful and profitable operation, we invest many pounds and copious amounts of time in staff training and systems to ensure this interaction is delivered to a high standard and continually congratulate ourselves on our sales levels that ensure we have adequate members contributing to our ongoing revenue stream. Yet as we become more sophisticated as an industry we learn more facts about the results of what we do.
IHRSA recently published figures showing it can cost up to seven times more to get a new member than keep an existing one, also that the cost of acquiring a new member had doubled over the last ten years. If the health club industry today agrees on just one thing it is that the market is becoming more competitive. As this occurs the cost of acquiring members is only going to increase, placing an added premium on the "risk versus reward" conundrum of retaining members. If it was possible in the nineties to outrun attrition by topping up with great sales figures the prospect of doing so in today's competitive market and challenging economy certainly make this a far more daunting task.
We agree that every five minutes we spend with our members is time well spent. We only question which members should be receiving the main focus of our efforts. Look at the evidence, new members that are encouraged to achieve a visit frequency of once a week or more during their first four to eight weeks of membership are 20% less likely to cancel in the next year (FIA "Top Ten Strategies for Winning the Retention Battle"). The same report logically suggests that members that use a club less than once a week are more at risk of leaving than those that do.
IHRSA's retention report also highlights a study by Richard Blacklock that concludes if an individual club members' usage pattern drops by over 50% from their usual pattern (over an eight week period) that member is in danger of cancelling their membership. For example a member that previously visited twice a week for the last six months who now visits only once a week should thus be highlighted as a potential quitter.
Every year as an industry we sell hundreds of thousands of memberships to those people who, although they sincerely want to, have not yet been able to develop the discipline to make exercise a regular habit. Behavioural scientists and experts will confirm that developing such discipline is not an easy task to do on your own.
As the amount of data relating to the exercise habits of our customers becomes more and more available and easier to translate we are learning that there are many other ways for us to spend our five minutes than just with the customers we already do a great job for. There are methods, systems and companies that can be adopted, implemented or contracted to help us focus where our five minutes is best spent. Some of these companies will now focus on delivering automatically where the evidence leads us to believe differences can be achieved; focusing on new member integration programmes, highlighting low or non-users and motivating people to make exercise a habit. Leaving fitness staff many more 'five minutes' to provide the services where they excel.
So next time we spend five minutes with a customer we already know well, who is already working out on our gym floor, whilst certainly congratulating ourselves, we must surely consider, "did we just spend one third of our working week growing our membership or standing still?" While expending time and effort to better service your customers is never a wasted endeavour, if your goal is to reduce attrition then we need to step back and make sure we don't neglect those members who need our "5 minutes" the most- those members who are not regularly walking in your door. As the ever-growing body of evidence and research suggests; expanding your focus to include this segment of your membership base is where the true retention battle is won- or lost.
Jon Nasta, UK Managing Director of Retention Management, can be reached at +44 1527 870875 or Jon.Nasta@retentionmanagement.com. Comments and questions are welcome and appreciated. Retention Management is a privately held company that manages the complexities and time demands of running a comprehensive retention improvement service for health clubs. It focuses on new member orientation, member attendance, health/fitness education and the automation of attrition defence systems. Retention Management's mission is to create a positive impact on a club's bottom line through improved member retention.