The Member Experience in Your Health Club Can Affect Retention

In our clubs, we work relentlessly to remain focused on delivering a great member experience. As my own understanding grows about member experiences and the memories they create, I hope to share what I learn to improve not just our own operations but to have a broader impact on the fitness industry.

Getting the member experience right requires acute awareness that all interactions between customer and company (people, plant, equipment, advertising, website, etc.) will merge into a single belief about your company. This “memory” is the experience.

Experience shapes belief. Belief shapes action. Action shapes results. In the ideal club world, people who walk into your club for the first time are greeted warmly and personally. The salesperson is genuine and caring and inquisitive about their world. The club is spotless, and people are having energetic and friendly conversations all around.

From this experience, your customers begin to form a belief: These people care, and this place is authentic. If your customers return the next day to find someone different behind the front desk talking on a cell phone and not paying attention, they will question their belief and think that perhaps their first impression was wrong. Perhaps it was just the individuals who were caring yesterday, not the company.

Getting the experience right cannot be a “sometimes” thing. It must be pursued all the time, even if you know that “all the time” is not possible.

B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, the authors of “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater and Every Business a Stage,” explain that if we receive any cues not aligned with the experience we expect, the experience is degraded. At Disneyland, if we see two staff members arguing or a sweeper walk past garbage on the ground, we log this in our memory as a “chink” in the Disney armor.

In our member experience manual (our internal “Bible” for our gyms), we describe negative cues as “defects,” or something that will degrade the quality of the product. We create customer experiences. Negative cues are the defects of great experiences.

The fitness industry delivers all levels of member experience. Some clubs effectively apply the same customer experience principles as some of the world’s greatest companies (Apple, Four Seasons, etc.), and many clubs are small and connected enough to always deliver a great “hometown” experience. But mostly, the clubs in our industry deliver mediocrity.

If we are to live up to our potential as major contributors for solving a health care crisis, we need to generate more legendary customer care stories than are generated today. If we totaled all the stories about health clubs told around the world, the net result likely would be far more negative stories than positive ones. Our goal should not be to merely have more positive stories than negative ones but to obliterate negative stories and to create so many positive stories that the negative ones are insignificant by comparison.

Would that help retention? Yes. We hear that we service the same 15 percent of the market that we have for years. Yet attrition is still around 40 percent. If membership growth in the United States has moved from 45 million in 2009 to 50 million in 2010 and attrition is 40 percent, then roughly millions of people have quit their club during the last two years. Granted, many of those join somewhere else. But I am concerned with the people who came to a club to solve a problem and instead were sold a membership. I am concerned about the people who are used to the excellent customer experience they receive from Apple, Starbucks, Disney and others, who are left to wonder why the same experience has not permeated a business dependant on repeat visits and recurring revenues.

If we are ever to live up to our potential, we must design (to create, fashion, execute or construct according to plan) the end-to-end experience in a way that connects with and dazzles people when they are at their most vulnerable and when we are in our greatest position of power and influence. Then, we must deliver. No process, policy or person stands alone. They all connect to form what is the experience of our members.


Blair McHaney is president of Confluence Fitness Partners Inc., which operates two Gold’s Gyms in Washington. He previously served as president of the Gold’s Gym Franchisee Association and is an educator on customer experience management.

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