A 2014 survey found the reasons why people quit their gyms. No 1. It was too expensive. No. 2. They weren’t using the gym membership. Catherine Kolbeck, EXOS marketing consultant, doesn’t see much difference, since, “If you’re not going, you probably don’t feel like you’re getting your money’s worth,” she says.

No club wants to lose people, but they do, and often the exodus is a quiet one. But successful clubs have high retention rates by doing two things. They provide members with what they want, whether it’s basketball leagues or quality hair dryers. This is a simple-sounding but easily-missed concept. “Client retention isn’t just about people working out. It’s about the experience,” Kolbeck says. “You’re in the service business. Fitness just happens to be the setting.

Good managers also know that a 20-pound weight is the same everywhere. The differentiator is how people get treated. That goes for both members and staff because, ultimately, the key ingredient comes down to one word — relationships. “People don’t easily leave a relationship,” says Bonnie Mattalian, vice president of community services for EXOS. “But they will leave a place.”

Kolbeck and Mattalian have seven ideas for how to provide for members, strengthen bonds, and create a club that no one wants to leave.

1. Know your core audience.
With a limited budget, it’s not possible to reach every demographic. Successful managers identify their base, which then guides what to offer, Kolbeck says. If you have young lifters, it’s having a good sound system with an optimized free weight area. If it’s parents, it’s safe, reliable babysitting. Take that last group a step further. If your facility has a preschool, offer nontraditional start times to allow parents to drop off their kids and get to classes without rushing. When you pay attention to those details, happy people spread the word, which makes economic sense. “Member referrals are the cheapest and most trusted form of health club marketing,” Kolbeck says.

For more marketing tips, read “It’s time to change the way we market fitness.”

Your coaches need to be aware of your unique population and know how to cater to their specific needs.

Successful managers identify their base, which then guides what to offer.

2. Put the right people in the right positions.
Again, it’s knowing your audience. If preschool families are a major segment, staff needs to be comfortable with children. If it’s senior citizens, then it’s being responsive to their concerns. And whoever your audience, the experience begins with the front desk. Smart managers have people there who look and stand up, smile, and call people by their first names before they scan in, Kolbeck says. And to find these people, it’s essential to…

3. Always keep an eye out for talent.
When you’re in a department store, hotel, or restaurant — all places that thrive on customer service — take note of impressive people and recruit them, regardless of their skill set. “We can teach multitasking but to be able to have a conversation is something that’s innate,” Mattalian says. People are flattered to be approached, which builds loyalty, but being proactive in the search allows you to control the training process and ensure great fit.

4. Keep your promises.
Opening at 5 a.m. doesn’t mean 5:03 a.m. for the doors and 5:04 a.m. for the lights. “It’s an experience. You have to deliver what you say you’ll deliver,” Kolbeck says. While this requires having a reliable staff, the other piece is allowing employees to make independent decisions. A common turnoff for members is when complaints or requests go nowhere. Take, for example, the weekend or late at night. It can often feel like an overlooked, forgotten time from a staffing perspective. Successful managers prevent that feeling. “No one is the B team,” Mattalian says.

For good relationships with members, it's all about creating an experience in every part of your facility.
To succeed as a business you need to honor promises, from opening times to responding to feedback in a timely way.
Acknowledging milestones, whether for members or employees, helps people feel recognized and cared for.

Member referrals are the cheapest and most trusted form of health club marketing.

5. Find ways to get feedback.
To deliver the right experience, you need to know what members want. Wait outside classes or walk the gym floor. “People love to be asked,” Kolbeck says. But for a more structured, real-time system, Mattalian likes the cloud-based Medallia. “Most people don’t tell you when they’re upset. They just get upset and leave,” she says. “Having an automated feedback mechanism in place, we give the customer an outlet to let us know before it’s too late.”

But it’s not just about gathering opinions. You have to do something with them. Members should receive a personal response from someone in the appropriate department and be invited to stop by when they’re at the club, further building relationships, Mattalian says. Managers should also put results on posters every quarter, letting members know what was suggested and what was done. The message is clear. “You spoke. We listened,” she says.

6. Catch members off guard.
People like to know they matter. Words are good. Stuff is even better, especially when it’s unexpected. Kolbeck and Mattalian call it “surprise and delight.” It could be anything from setting up breakfast outside an early morning class or wine and cheese in the evening. Swag bags to members on their gym anniversary or when they swipe in for the fifteenth workout of the month or bringing in guest instructors and giving guest passes so members invite friends are also effective.

Whatever the move, members feel that, “You’re paying attention and you care about me,” Mattalian says. “Everybody likes to be recognized and everybody likes little freebies.”

7. Take care of your staff.
While you want to retain members, successful managers want to retain staff. Acknowledge employees’ work anniversaries. Give gift cards, swag bags, and/or the chance to buy gear for 50 percent off. Recognize them nationally. When there are babies, send personal notes. It all adds up. “Employees develop relationships with the members. When they feel inspired and enthusiastic, that trickles down,” Mattalian says.

Looking for other ways to improve your health club? Find out the six things successful fitness centers get right.

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