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Management Notebook


Creating a sense of community.

Jahn Dolphin just doesn't feel it. And he doesn't think enough other club members feel it either. The worst part of it is, he doesn't know why more club owners don't make sure their members feel it. That “it” is a sense of belonging, a sense of what a real club is.

Dolphin, now president of Active Lifestyle Selling — which teaches customer service and sales techniques — previously ran health clubs in the Midwest. He says members want from their health clubs a place they feel welcome in and can relax in after a rough day.

“I could see the members of my club coming up to the front desk, and their shoulders would drop like ‘Whew! I'm here,’” Dolphin says. “That sense of community, sense of belonging to a club — that's why they call it a club…You belong to something. You've paid money to belong. You should be catered to, welcomed, thanked. They should know more about you than they do the average person off the street.”

Dolphin's clubs often won sales awards, but not because they were wonderful sales people, he says. It was because they had great customer service and personally knew and greeted each member.

“The members sold it for us,” Dolphin says. “They knew if they walked in with a friend or a client, we would call them by their first name. That's impressive. Can you imagine taking a client into a restaurant where the owner came up, shook your hand, called you by name and said, ‘Jahn, I see you have a guest with you today.’ That would be impressive.”

It would also encourage members to bring in their friends because they know they'll be treated just as well, Dolphin says.

The club owner or manager should set the example by walking around the club five to six times a day with an instructor, the front desk person or another staff member. Staff should also walk the clubs on their own, nodding to or shaking the hand of every member. That contact provides a sense of recognition by the member that the owner or staff remembers him or her, and that they appreciate the member being there. It also allows for the member to ask questions or for the staff to hand out guest passes or encourage the member to visit the juice bar.

“The biggest excuse that I hear for not doing this is that most people (members) know what they are doing now,” Dolphin says. “That's an excuse. People want to know that they belong to something.”

Dolphin has belonged to a club for two years but has been disappointed in the lack of interaction the staff has initiated with him.

“Maybe I don't need the assistance, but I still want someone to say, ‘Hey, Jahn, how have you been?’”

Members also need to be greeted by name when they arrive and thanked when they leave.

“Some of the best designed places may have someone sitting behind the desk that barely looks up when they swipe your card,” Dolphin says. Part of the problem is the automation that helps speed a lot of processes in a health club also lessens the personal interaction members receive during their visits. At many gyms and health clubs members no longer have to hand in a towel and pick up their membership card as they leave.

“That has done some harm because you don't have any interaction at the end of your visit with anyone from the club,” Dolphin says. That is a missed opportunity for a staffer to engage the member in dialog about whether they had any problems during their workout, whether they felt good about their workout, whether they know someone who might want a free pass or even to just inquire about their family.

Often, clubs try to create a sense of community by holding activities such as picnics or bike outings for club members. In addition, some clubs sponsor charity races and get teams from the club to participate.

The two Centre Clubs in Illinois, which are owned by Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, IL, sponsor three charity races a year and encourage club members to participate. The club also gets its members involved in leagues and puts together bike rides and different events for the members, says Tamsin Hutchinson, program director for Centre Clubs.

Sometimes club members and staff even participate in charity events, such as walkathons, as an unofficial group from the club.

She says that not only do these activities help create a sense of community within the club, but it helps create the sense that the club is a part of the larger community, too.

However, Dolphin says that a club must first have some sort of sense of community and belonging already established before these events will work.

“Right now, my club could do a great bike outing and a cookout, but you know what? I don't know anybody. They haven't created a friend in me yet,” he says. So, why would he, or anyone else who belongs to that club, go to the event?

“I really believe that some clubs are amazed that these events flop, and they can't understand why,” Dolphin says. He joined his current club to get into a racquetball league, but no one from his club ever took an interest in the league or in his participation in the league. He signed up for the league, sent in his money, was mailed his schedule, and at the matches, he simply signed his name on a clipboard that was left at the court. No one ever called to thank him for signing up for the league, no one showed up at the matches, and no one asked him how his match went when he walked into the club.

“Then, there was a party at the end, but no one showed up because they didn't know anyone there,” he says.

It boils down to good customer service creates loyalty and without loyalty members will feel the way that Dolphin does. “If a new club opened up across the street, I'd join there in a minute,” he says. “That's the shame. [Creating loyalty] is such an easy step. It doesn't cost them any money.”

Here are some suggestions on how to create more loyalty and a sense of community in your club without spending any money:

The sales staff should be the customer service staff. They should be standing by the front desk when not making rounds instead of sitting in their offices. This makes the job about customer service, not getting the sale.

Follow up with phone calls to new members within the first month of their joining and thank them for joining the club. That call is also a good time to ask them if they have questions, if they are having any problems at the club or if they want a free pass for a friend.

Make it a part of the job for staff members (especially the owner) to go through the club and say hello, pat backs and shake the hand of every member that they see. The owner should make sure to take a staff member on every run as a form of continual training.

Get rid of chairs behind the front desk and ensure that large groups of staffers don't congregate behind the front desk. Staffers should be out walking the floor and talking to members, not sitting behind the front desk talking to other staffers.

If you sponsor races or leagues, ensure that at least one club employee attends the events and makes it known to members that he or she is there rooting them on. Staff should also recognize the members' participation in the event prior to its occurrence and in the days after the event with a conversation at the club, a phone call or a mention on the bulletin board. Thank the member for participating in the event. If it's a league, keep track of the members' progress and comment on their matches and games.

KNOW WHEN TO THROW IN THE TOWELTowel service can help boost member benefits

Towel service may seem like an inconsequential subject, but for some health clubs and gyms, providing this service shows that the club has gone that extra step.

The Sports Club in Las Vegas has always provided towel service because it considers it good customer service.

“It's another amenity that we can offer to the members so that they can place a value to the membership,” says Tim Smith, facility manager of The Sports Club, which has about 4,500 members. The service is free to all members. “We consider ourselves a higher-end club,” Smith says. “The members are paying quite a bit more money to belong here.” And, it follows that they expect higher-end service than members at a less- expensive club.

Not all health clubs or gyms provide towel service. 24-Hour Fitness provides towel service at its Sporting/Super Sport Club facilities, which are the largest of its facilities with the most amenities and the highest membership fees. Those clubs also provide amenities such as day spas, executive locker rooms and tanning. All of those amenities, including towel service, are missing at the smaller 24-Hour Fitness facilities (24-Hour Fitness Clubs and the 24-Hour Fitness Sports Clubs).

The expense keeps many clubs from providing towel service. Not only must the club purchase an initial shipment of towels but those towels must constantly be replaced because they've been lost or ruined. The Sports Club orders about four bales of towels each month. There are 15 dozen towels in a bale. That's 720 new towels a month.

Providing towel service also means the club must pay to launder the towels at their facility or send them out to be laundered. The Sports Club launders its towels on site, which means it also must purchase detergent, pay for the extra water used, pay for repairs to the two washers and two dryers, and hire staff to launder the towels.

Every time towels are laundered, the staff inspects them. Thinned out towels or those towels with stains or rips are pulled and turned into rags, Smith says.

“We have a lot of loss because of taken towels,” Smith says. “Some members keep them in their bag and forget to throw them in the dirty towel bin.”

Smith can't say how much they spend a year on towels, but he said the number is large enough that it is budgeted in and they must stick to that budget.

Smith has never marked towels to see how long they stay in circulation before they are thrown out, but he says laundering the towels is a constant cycle that requires two shifts with one staff member on each shift. The washing machines, which wash by weight, can each launder about 60 pounds of wet towels at a time. Each laundry cycle (washing and drying) takes about 90 minutes.

So, only clubs that are large enough or willing enough to take the extra time, space and staff to launder towels at their facility should even consider providing towels to their membership. For other clubs, they may want to consider another amenity that will allow them to provide that extra touch of customer service.

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