The health club industry doesn't have a lock on service. In fact, this industry is relatively young compared to some other service-oriented industries. These “older siblings” have a lot to teach the health club industry if club owners care to listen.

In the hotel industry, the Ritz-Carlton is king of quality as winner of two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards (one in 1992 and one in 1999). The Baldrige Award is given to U.S. organizations that have shown achievements and improvements in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management and business results.

“They focus on hiring right and training people right and then giving them the tools to serve the customer,” Roger Nunley, managing director of the Customer Care Institute in Atlanta, says about the Ritz-Carlton. “They've also looked at what their customers want.”

Following are some tips from other industries that you can apply at your club.

  • Understand who your customer is and what your customer wants. For Horst Schulze, former president and COO of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. LLC, quality is about knowing the customer and creating processes to deliver what he or she wants, he says in an article in the Quality Digest.

    The Ritz-Carlton has a process called Project Ritz in which it conducts focus groups and surveys to determine what customers want in the hotel of tomorrow. You may not have the money to tackle a project like that, but at the very least, you can survey your customers to see what they want.

    “You can do things all day long, but unless you ask your customers whether you are delivering what they expect, then you are shooting in the dark,” Nunley says. A club can go all out and hire a company to do a formal, random survey of members or it can do a less scientific, three-to-five-question survey of members as they come through the front door. Even by doing just that, a club can get some ideas about how to improve.

  • Know what the member expects and help set those expectations. Southwest Airlines knows that people want a cheap and fun way to fly, Nunley says. The airline is known for being fun and inexpensive. When fliers get on a Southwest Airline flight, they not only know the seating situation, but they also know that often the flight attendants tell jokes over the speaker. Southwest Airlines helped create that expectation and they follow through on it each flight, reinforcing that expectation for the customer's next flight.

    When a member walks into your club, the member has an expectation depending on what you as a club owner has set yourself up to be — either a multipurpose facility with lots of amenities or a no-frills gym facility or a calm and relaxing yoga studio. You should remember the expectations that you set and remember that your members rely on that being there each time they walk into your club.

  • Customize the experience. No two members are alike; therefore, no two workouts should be alike. Find a way to tailor your club and your members' workouts to suit each of them. Does Joe like extreme sports? Then, e-mail him about the rock climbing expedition that the rock-climbing club is going on. Does Sue need child care? Then, e-mail her about the new expanded hours for the childcare facility.

    Obviously, you'll have to start by knowing the likes and dislikes as well as the needs of club members. That may require a thorough application upon membership enrollment and a system that can accommodate the information. However, the extra effort upfront is worth it.

    “The more you can customize that experience, the more likely the customer will come back,” Nunley says.

    Amazon also has a reputation for good customer service, much of that predicated on its ability to customize the Internet experience and its Web site to each user. When you purchase a book or CD on Amazon.com, the site recommends other books or CDs that previous purchasers of that book or CD made. Users can create their wish list on the Amazon site and request that the company notify them when a certain item comes in.

  • Hire employees who are service oriented. It's difficult to train someone to be service oriented, so you'll have better luck finding an employee who's honed in on providing the best service possible and training them to perform many of the functions at your club.

  • Install the right technology or systems. Once you know your customer and their needs and once you've hired the right staff, you must have in place the right technology or system to follow through on delivering to your members. For the health club industry, that may mean automated funds transfer setup or posting class schedules on the Web site or offering convenient locker storage space.

  • Live a philosophy. Horst believes that a company should be driven by a philosophy that is defined and aligned with all employees. For the Ritz-Carlton, that philosophy is summed up with “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” In other words, the philosophy expresses the high expectations that the company has of its employees, as well as the importance and equality of all its employees regardless of their job titles.

  • A health club could adopt a similar philosophy or could try the Southwest Airlines philosophy of having fun. Whatever philosophy is chosen, the most important aspect is communicating that philosophy to employees and training them so thoroughly with that philosophy in mind that it permeates their daily interactions with members.

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