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In Pursuit of Prospects

<i><b>Prospect-management solutions can help control club traffic, boost sales productivity and gain a marketing edge over the competition.</i></b>

Tracking members and their club usage is a common practice among fitness facility managers, but efficiently tracking other users — namely prospects, guests and participants in short-term programs such as tennis or swim lessons — traditionally has not been as simple. However, advances in club-management software during the past few years have made it easier to track non-member usage.

Club operators are relying on technology to decrease the labor involved in prospect management. One software company's systems store guest data the same as that of members, so a club operator can track and keep all information in one database. The club can then track the prospect's name, contact information, e-mail address and interests. From the front end, the system may look different to the staff member who is entering the data, but from the back end, the information is treated the same to make it easier for clubs to manage all of their data.

Software vendors say that just in the past few years, more of their clients have been clamoring for better tools to track prospecting, sales and marketing initiatives, and nonmember club usage — and to integrate that data in other club-management systems. Club operators who use the software can, for example, show different pricing structures for members and nonmembers who sign up for an eight-week weight-loss program, set club-usage parameters for program members (such as limiting entrance to the club for swim-lesson members to 30 minutes before their sessions begin) and download prospects' e-mail addresses for use in an e-mail blast. The club can turn a nonmember into a prospect with one click, and then the sales rep can follow the usual procedure for follow-up sales calls.

Some club operators already are seeing the benefits of implementing such systems. Users can automate some sales and marketing functions, thus saving employees time and money; get a clearer picture of sales staff productivity (e.g., how many sales calls are made daily, how many follow-up calls are made in a week); see which offers and sales channels are most productive, thus helping managers develop better marketing and media-buying budgets; communicate more efficiently with program-only members (e.g., class schedule changes, membership conversion attempts); and keep tighter control of club usage by nonmembers, thus improving member and staff security.

Functionality was the issue for Glenn Rappaport, director of information technology at Sport and Health, which offers several programs for members and nonmembers.

“We wanted the ability to offer more and better services — via the Web, too — and to more easily handle program registration and scheduling across all of our 24 clubs,” he says.

Moreover, Sport and Health executives wanted to control the length of guest access to a club and the number of visits for that person among all of its facilities, and they wanted to track guest fees. The executives also wanted to know who was using their facilities, so they could easily parlay that information into a marketing database to tout both regular memberships and new programs.

The Tysons Corner, VA-based club chain previously used proprietary member-management software, but Rappaport found that the 33-year-old system was unable to accommodate all of the company's “wish list” items. Recently, Sport and Health purchased a new club management system to track program participants and nonmember usage, among other tasks.

“In our view, tracking nonmember usage is the same as tracking member usage, and it is just as important,” says Rappaport. “We want to treat nonmembers like members, track them in our systems and treat them as valid members for the length of the program to which they've signed up.”

June Penniman, sales and marketing director at Nautilus Fitness Center, a two-club operation in Erie, PA, had similar frustrations with her club's old system, which didn't have a prospect-management module. Previously, the club tracked prospects via index cards.

“Can you imagine doing a mailing that way?” she says. “It was a nightmare.”

Then Nautilus tried a contact-management program, but that also proved problematic for the clubs' needs because the program didn't “talk” to the clubs' membership software. Staff had to manually remove prospects from the program when they joined the clubs, Penniman says. With the new software system, Nautilus employees can enter prospects into the database, and when the prospects join, their information is moved automatically to the membership database.

Penniman says that's only one of many labor-saving options the software offers, although it's hard to quantify the cost savings from such work-flow efficiencies. The clubs are doing a smarter job of prospecting, however, she says.

“We're able to save some advertising dollars because we're utilizing alternative methods like e-mail, mass phone calls and member referral campaigns — all made possible with the help of our software,” she says.

In fact, the software helped Penniman save $35,000 on her advertising budget. The technology is also helping the center to track prospects and to see exactly what they are buying, which in turn helps club managers make better decisions about profit centers and advertising methods, says Penniman. Such tactics must be working: The club has seen its new membership sales increase by almost 7 percent during the past year.

Garrett Rambler, founder of Falls Church, VA-based Vantage Fitness, recently purchased a new software system after studying 20 or 30 systems. Nonmember tracking wasn't the only requirement he had, so Rambler had to balance all his club's needs in terms of member and nonmember functions before making a decision.

Rappaport also surveyed what other similar sized clubs were using.

“Then we had to decide if we wanted to build the software ourselves or buy it,” he says. “To be honest, at the time we were looking [for nonmember tracking modules], there weren't many choices available for enterprise-wide solutions, which is what we needed.”

But last August one of the vendors he previously crossed off his list announced the launch of a rewritten version of its software making it a viable option.

“We had to customize a few things with the software, but other than that, we were set with the features we needed,” says Rappaport.

Some clubs have found that proprietary software is the way to go. For example, Gainesville Health and Fitness Center uses a proprietary system that allows staff members to populate the database with prospects' contact information, referral codes (i.e., type of guest pass being used) and program the person joins. Sales counselors then use the database to track leads and market the facility, says Debbie Lee, director of marketing at the Gainesville, FL-based facility.

As one example of how the system is used, Lee says the club runs four- to six-week cancer-recovery programs. The staff enters participants' information into a database, and then a counselor is assigned to each participant to track his or her visits. At the end of the program, the employees can see who didn't attend often, which means they were unlikely to have seen good results and, therefore, would be unlikely to join the facility. Thus, the system gives Gainesville's counselors a snapshot into the likelihood of the program participant converting to a member.

For Penniman of the Nautilus clubs, the issue of system compatibility was and still remains an important feature of her software. Her facilities use a member- and prospect-management tool, as well as a software program that offers prospects a virtual picture of what they can look like if they get into shape. The program syncs with the club's prospect database, an important element since seeing their virtual picture often “sells” the membership. The conversion from nonmember to member is made easier with compatibility between the two systems, she says.

Efficient and effective tracking of nonmembers can help club owners develop a ready source of new members for their facility, streamline their overall sales and marketing efforts, and help control usage. For some clubs, investing in new software might be the right move for pursuing those elusive prospects.

Vendor Selection Strategies

Before traveling to the next trade show to view the new prospect-management modules on software systems, jot down all of the tasks you'd like your in-club technology to help manage. For example, if you offer a lot of programs for nonmembers, think about the current bottlenecks your staffers encounter in signing up people for programs, collecting their contact information, quoting and collecting fees, notifying of cancellations, tracking program attendance, and then following up with sales conversion calls.

Then think about how you handle guests and prospects by answering the following questions.

  • How are you tracking source codes (i.e., how did they hear about your club)?

  • How are you collecting and storing guests' and prospects' contact information?

  • How easily-or if at all — can you import data into a contact management program?

  • How readily can your staff access guest-usage data if you ever need it for security purposes?

The idea is to start with your needs. Identifying those early in the software-specification process will help you narrow your focus while browsing through software vendors' booths and avoid being wowed by features that look terrific on screen but may not be useful to your unique club operations.

Three Staff-Training Tips

Club owners may be aware of the availability of some viable nonmember tracking systems, but the thought of changing software and then training staff to use it may be enough to send them running for the aspirin bottle.

Here are some strategies club operators have used to train employees:

  • Take advantage of on-site training

    Tap your vendor's training resources, says June Penniman with Nautilus Fitness Center. “This will help with the data conversion as well as make sure your staff is comfortable with the new system before it goes live.”

  • Do it during slow periods

    Nautilus Fitness changed to its new software system during the summer months.

  • Start with new employees

    Garrett Rambler with Vantage Fitness recently hired several front-desk staff members and a front-desk manager. “We simply trained them on the new system. They didn't have to re-learn any tasks.” Once fully trained, new employees can help teach veteran employees.

Software Manufacturers

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