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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Service Rant: January at the Gym

January at the gym – the month where “resolutioners” – those people who make the promise to get back in shape, commit to a healthier lifestyle, eat better, etc. for the coming year – come to the gym in droves on newly purchased or gift memberships.

It happens every year, and it makes January is a capacity disaster at the gym.

Lines are stacked 3-deep at many machines with people waiting for a turn. Personal trainers and nursery slots are booked weeks in advance, and you have to palm the cleaning staff a fiver to find an open treadmill. The gym becomes a mixture of expert and novice users, with the former waiting while the latter read machine instructions for proper technique.

Because it happens every year, the gym’s annual unpreparedness is inexcusable.

I’m not saying the temporary increased interest in fitness is a negative. If more people made the commitment and stuck with it, our country would be healthier, lives would be saved, healthcare costs would decrease, and all manner of positive societal benefits would ensue. But the truth is, that most of the resolutioners will be gone by the time the calendar turns to February, and the gym has to shoulder some of the blame for it.

If they wanted to keep the new clientele, they’d make it more attractive for them to stay. Dedicate capacity to the new users to show them how hassle-free gym services are the other 11 months of the year. Deploy more instructors to shepherd new clients through their first few trips. If permanent staff is fully allocated, they could get creative and use a compatibility service to assign a current power user customer to a guide the “newbie” on how best to use the services. They wouldn’t act as a trainer, but someone who can give helpful tips on when to go, how to use the extended services, general etiquette, and so forth. It could be a reinforcing relationship for each party, and at the least would make someone new find what can be an elitist environment more comfortable. If the current user needs motivation for their time, offer something – training sessions, tanning sessions, free protein shakes for a month – for their troubles.

At the same time, create capacity to serve all clientele. Consider taking loyal customers out of the gym – arrange for an alternate facility, or better, a loyalty experience such as a series of hosted events – a hike or climb, ski trip, a members’ triathlon, an adventure race – something that rewards the most loyal clients for their loyalty and gets them offsite in January. For those that stay and put up with the wait on machines, reward them with free training sessions (AKA a free service trial for a potential future stream of revenue) in December or February as a thank you for their patience.

My gym – and most I’ve ever used - manages the annual January capacity shortage awfully, and deteriorates relationships universally, frustrating loyal customers while alienating new ones. It all sorts itself out when most of the new customers cease using gym services, and a few of the frustrated loyal customers change gyms, and capacity turns to normal. But it doesn’t have to. The gym could use the capacity shortfall creatively to reward loyal customers, welcome new clients with positive first experiences and customer-to-customer interactions. Of course, customer retention would create an ongoing capacity problem, and then the gym would have to deal with more revenue, profits, need for expansion, and other such successful business headaches.


Barry Dalton said...

I wonder if this is an opportunity for gyms to take an even more extreme approach to the long-term relationship.

I like the suggestions you make. I would also think many gyms would resist absorbing the additional cost for such a short term problem. Other drivers influence the attrition as well. Not the least of which is that most people hate to exercise and their apathy is at the cornerstone of their inability to follow through with a life style change program. Plus, depending on the membership terms, if your gym is contracting for yearly memberships, they'd actually prefer the place to be empty 12 months out of the year. So, to make it unappealing in January improves profitability the other 11 months. Got the membership fees, don't have to service the memebers. There is certainly a cost to this approach over the longer haul in terms of reputation and loyalty of routine exercisers. Those members will eventually go elsewhere as well.

What about this? How about each new member is required to go through a standard 'on-boarding' process. If you sign up in January, you are required to participate in a 60 day program with set hours, set classes, etc. If you don't want to commit to this up front, don't sell the person the membership. This weeds out the 30 day, then drop out crowd. If you market this right, you can create some exclusivity and improve the experience for your core customer base. With this higher level of service, I'd think you might actually be able to garner a premium set of fees as well.

Would you pay a premium at your gym, if they controlled membership this way?

Anonymous said...

No pains, no gains...................................................

Anonymous said...

I used my 20 minutes on the Stairmaster today musing about the related topic of gyms spending so much time and effort on recruitment that the incoming members get all the perks and the existing members get the shaft (http://bit.ly/8Js6DJ). An interesting wrinkle, I belong to a no contract gym, which you would think would need to focus much more on retention -- but it doesn't.