For the overworked club professional who has grown accustomed to wearing too many hats, a consultant can present a fresh way of doing things — and most likley make some improvements in the process. In fact, consultants can look at a club's systems and fine-tune the little things that fly under the owner's radar.

“I not only come [into the club] and see the little things, but even more importantly, I come in with a trained eye and see the club and the staff through the eyes of a new member or prospective member, and owners and managers fail to see things that way,” says Sandy Coffman, president/owner of the consulting company Programming for Profit.

Sales, marketing, business planning, retention, design, technology — these are just some of the areas consultants may cover. Operators looking for advice in a particular area can probably find an appropriate specialist — someone who knows the subject inside and out, and who has helped other clubs. For that reason, consultants have gained knowledge that their clients may lack, according to Julia Wheatley, owner of Women's Fitness Center, Harrisonburg, Va.

“Typically, consultants have worked in a myriad of clubs and have followed the industry's trends and seen the full scope and diversity of what goes on in the industry,” she says. “They have the finger on the pulse, so to speak.”

Naturally, a consultant's insight comes at a price. While the size of a business and length of consulting period will affect the fee, club operators can typically expect to pay thousands of dollars for a consultant's services. Therefore, to make sure you get the most for your investment, Club Industry offers these tips for hiring and working with consultants.

  • Watch the consultant in action. Need a consultant? Go to a convention. Many of the best experts speak at the leading trade shows. By attending one of their seminars, you can get a taste of what they may bring to your club.

    Wheatley hired a consultant she saw speak at a Club Industry conference. “I felt everything he was saying was right on target,” she says. “He was blunt, direct, to the point. He really made you pause and think. I knew that that personality would be appealing to me.”

  • Find a specialist. Different consultants concentrate on different things: technology, sales/marketing, staffing, etc. So make sure you hire the consultant right for the job. For example, as a small-club operator, Wheatley chose a consultant specializing in businesses her size.

    Some consultants may claim expertise in all areas. But Coffman believes true consultants can only specialize in certain subjects. She points out that consultants should stick to their areas of knowledge and recommend other consultants for clients who require additional services.

    “As big and diversified as our industry has gotten, no one — not even consultants — have all of the answers for every department,” Coffman says.

    “A consultant that tells you they can be an expert in every single area is not being fair.”

  • Check references. Clubs use testimonials to increase business. So do consultants. So ask them to supply names and numbers of previous clients.

    Checking references further ensures that the consultant is the right fit for the club, according to Wheatley. She called her consultant's references and asked what impact the consultant had on their club, what vision/guidance he gave, how he interacted with them, and so on.

    By checking references, you'll get a good idea of a consultant's track record. Since there are so many consultants available, you want to make sure you hire a professional with a great reputation.

    “Consultancy is something that too many people decide they want to go into,” Coffman says. “While I feel there are more good consultants available this day, it also means there are more poor ones.”

  • Ask (and answer) questions. When you find a consultant suitable to your needs, ask for a proposal. Schedule a telephone interview and prepare questions. Ask how long the consultant will need to train your staff and find out what sort of follow-up is available.

    During the discussion, you shouldn't be the only one asking questions. Just as you are trying to determine if the consultant is right for you, the consultant should be trying to determine if he or she is right for your business.

    “The consultant should be asking as many questions of the owner as you ask of the consultant,” Coffman says. “A good consultant does not just cookie-cut answers to every club.”

    Wheatley agrees. Her consultant sent her a questionnaire asking why she was interested in his services and what problems she faced. Her answers allowed him to prepare for the job. “He could plan what we were going to cover during his on-site visit,” Wheatley says.

    Coffman tells her potential clients to send brochures, newsletters and anything else pertaining to the club. This gives her a feel for the club, an important first step in the consulting process.

    “When I go in as a consultant, I usually want to get as much information on that club before I even take the job,” Coffman says. “I want to make sure I can truly do the job for that client.”

  • Accept criticism and be prepared to change. If the discussion works out well, the next step is to set up the consultation. Just remember: Consultants don't get paid to massage egos. Their job is to improve your business, which may lead to unpopular decisions, such as firing staff, investing in new marketing/promotion and changing sales strategies.

    This doesn't mean you should accept the consultant's advice blindly. It's OK to object to suggestions and debate with the consultant, just as long as you are willing to admit to your club's shortcomings. For example, Wheatley and her consultant challenged each other — for the overall betterment of the club.

    “That was a good thing,” she says. “Sometimes it's uncomfortable, but you really have to look at your business.”

  • Set standards for judging success. Given the investment necessary for consulting, you'll want to make sure you get your money's worth. “You should be talking to your consultant, saying, ‘If it's going to cost me this much, how can you justify what I'm going to be paying? What am I supposed to be seeing out of this money?’” Coffman explains. “A consultant should be able to tell you that.”

    Naturally, sales consultants can prove their worth by telling you how many memberships they'll sell within a certain period of time. Other consultants, such as those specializing in retention, will take longer to evaluate.

    Still, you can't always judge success with numbers. The benefits of consulting may be subtle — from changes in the ways that employees conduct themselves to your own increased self-confidence.

    “I determined [consulting] was worth the investment because I was absolutely more confident and capable in my job,” Wheatley says. “My club was running as a more well-oiled machine. And our sales numbers just started jumping up. Everything I wanted to achieve really started falling into place.”

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