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Managing the Member Experience

Evans, David L. M.A.

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181ed57b0

LEARNING OBJECTIVE • To introduce the reader to the importance and specific ways of creating and managing an environment within a health and fitness center that provides consistently positive member experiences.

Providing and managing a positive member experience is the result of proactive planning and a daily commitment to both the big and little things that personalize someone's experience.

David L. Evans, M.A., is a founder and principal of Meritage Healthcare Strategies, LLC. He has more than 25 years of experience in the medical fitness industry with specific expertise in the development, start-up, operations, and management of hospital-affiliated and corporate health and fitness centers. Before founding Meritage in 2002, he served for a combined 16 years as the managing director of the Baptist Fitness Center in Nashville, TN, and the Baylor-Tom Landry Sports Medicine and Research Center in Dallas, TX, both of which are hospital-owned medical fitness and sports medicine centers.

Almost everyone who visits Disneyland, shops at Nordstrom, or stays at the Ritz Carlton for the first time has an expectation that they will experience something special based solely on the reputations these companies have earned and maintained. If you have patronized one of these companies, you no doubt can cite a few special memories from your own experiences. So what is it about these companies that keeps them at the top of the "customer satisfaction list?" Moreover, where would you rank your health and fitness center's reputation within your community? Notice that I asked about your "reputation," meaning what others think of you instead of what you think of yourself because our opinions of ourselves are usually inflated. Asked differently, what expectations do members and guests have when they walk into your center each day? Are they expecting something special and unique or just the "status quo" that everyone else provides and they are simply darkening your door because it is the center closest to where they live or work?

Having mystery shopped well more than 200 health and fitness centers across the country, my experience tells me that most of them have fallen into the trap of operating in the comfort zone of the status quo. Nothing fancy, nothing out of the ordinary, just the same thing in a different size and shaped box. Too often, all I hear is "Over here is our fitness floor, and over here is our pool, and over here is our… and this is how much it costs." With rare exceptions, my experiences at most fitness centers have not been positively memorable. Then again, there is the occasional memory maker like the center that had termites floating in the whirlpool, and the person giving me the tour just said, "I wish they would get around to fixing that. Those have been there for days." What a memory indeed!

Providing a positive memorable experience is more than just helping a customer when they have a problem. Disney, Nordstrom, and the Ritz Carlton strategically focus on providing an overall experience for their customers from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. This doesn't just happen, but instead, it is the result of a daily commitment to both big and little things that contribute to a uniquely positive experience for each customer. Here are some ways your center can become more like Disney, Nordstrom, and The Ritz:

It Starts At the Top.As the saying goes…"it starts at the top." In this case, "the top" refers to how the company defines itself. For example, another company that has a reputation for providing outstanding customer service is Southwest Airlines. Southwest describes itself to their employees as a "customer service company that just happens to provide airline transportation" (3). Talk about starting at the top. Southwest has certainly articulated their most important priority, and it transcends throughout the entire organization. So let me ask…what is your fitness center's highest priority and how do you describe it to your employees and members? Most likely, it includes improving the health of those you serve, changing people's lives, and making a profit. However, if you apply the Southwest Airlines philosophy to your highest priority, it might sound something like "providing an exceptional overall experience for each member that sets the stage for improving their personal health." Prioritizing the customer experience at the top of the list might sound relatively simple, but for many centers, this will require a total paradigm shift in "priority thinking."

Suggestion 1: Define your health and fitness center as an organization whose priority is to provide outstanding personalized member experiences that in turn helps each person maximize and maintain good health.

The "Right Stuff." Most of us have seen the movie "The Right Stuff." The underlying theme of the movie suggests that, although there are several good pilots, a precious few have what it takes (the right stuff) to be elite fighter pilots. Do you have an expectation that each staff member in your center has the "right stuff" to be an elite personal trainer, service desk attendant, membership sales advisor, group exercise instructor, or locker room attendant? Too often, the expectation for these people is that they should simply be able to do the minimum requirements to get the job and then work up to the "status quo" for their respective position. But even more important than having basic job specific skills, do your employees have foundational core aptitudes, values, and character qualities that will make them want to help others? If not, they do not belong in the fitness business. Southwest Airlines does not care how well a pilot can fly a plane if they don't first care about the welfare of the people on the plane. Admittedly, finding employees with the right stuff is easier said than done; if you have been in a management position responsible for hiring employees, you have most likely at some point hired a "warm body" to fill a position that has been vacant for a long time, so a difficult shift could be covered or a vacant class could be taught. How did that work out for you? I think I know…the plane crashed.

Suggestion 2: Do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to hire people who have the right stuff in their member service "DNA."

Expect Elite Performance from All Employees. Let's assume that you have done the proper screening, testing, and interviewing required to hire the right people with the right stuff…now what? Elite performers, such as fighter pilots, musicians, and athletes, did not reach this level of excellence on day 1 of their new job. Quite the contrary, becoming elite requires many hours of training, practice, refining, performing, and then doing it all over again. Good coaches and managers will recruit those who have the right foundation to then become elite. Do you expect your employees to be elite performers, and if so, do your employees know what level of performance you expect from them? Being an elite performer in most businesses is a shared responsibility between an employer and the employee. I suspect that your center provides an initial orientation and job specific training for new employees. Great…but the real question is what do you do beyond that in the form of ongoing training to help your employees refine their skills, learn new things, and even practice what they have learned before they are expected to "perform" for the members they serve? Your center will not be able to provide elite member experiences without elite performance from all employees.

Suggestion 3: Expect your employees to be elite performers. Develop and formalize ongoing training programs for all employees, regardless of their position, that reinforces your center's priorities, helps them learn and practice how to provide Five Star service to each member and guests, and continually improves on the specific skills needed for their respective position.

A Unique Sense of Place. How would someone describe your health and fitness center (the facility itself) after they have experienced it for the first time? One way or another it was a memorable experience. Using the Disney example, the experience actually begins on the roadways leading to the entrance. There are signs along the highway that build excitement, which lead to the entrance of acres of parking, all the while that mystical castle is looming in the distance enticing you to enter the Magic Kingdom. By the time you get to the ticket counter, you (and of course your kids) are busting with anticipation to begin your "once in a lifetime" journey, so much so that you give them your entire wallet and tell them to take whatever they want. Disney's purposeful impressions are choreographed down to the last detail. For example, Disney pumps the tantalizing aroma of freshly popped popcorn directly beyond the entrance into the park just to help "set the tone" that one has entered amusement park paradise.

Although no one can duplicate Disney, the obvious question is, what is your center doing to create a unique "sense of place?" What are the sights, the sounds, and, yes, the smells someone experiences the moment they enter your center? Is it inviting and clean, and most importantly, do they hear a warm and sincere greeting? Notice that I did not ask if your center looks like The Ritz Carlton. Although it is true that a well-designed building with beautiful decor will certainly contribute to a positive lasting impression, almost any facility can provide a positive sense of place if the facility is uncluttered, is spotlessly clean, has updated finishes, and has well-maintained and clean exercise equipment. Seriously, what is the "ambiance" of your facility? Finally, do some unexpected little things to break up the routine, such as have your staff walk through the locker room one morning serving complimentary juice and coffee. Give every mom a single rose on Mother's Day when they leave the center. Pick a member at random and offer to have their car detailed at the center while they are working out. Get creative, have fun, and your members will begin anticipating the unexpected little things.

Suggestion 4: Create and maintain a positive, inviting, energetic "sense of place," and eliminate the "hassles" that would otherwise prevent your members and guests from experiencing your center's own kind of "magic."

Commitment to Zero Problems. I heard a senior executive at Federal Express speak several years ago regarding the FedEx commitment to quality service. I will never forget him saying that their company's acceptable error margin for on-time delivery is zero. Yes, zero. I thought that was absurd at the time. Surely, a 98% or even 99% error rate would be acceptable. Then, he told us how many packages they deliver around the world per day, and it was obvious why they cannot tolerate even a 1% error rate. Using today's FedEx statistics of 3.4 million package deliveries per day (2), a 1% failure rate would result in 34,000 dissatisfied customers per day, who might elect to use the competitor's shipping service next time. Multiply that by a 30-day month, and it equals 1.02 million dissatisfied customers per month or almost one third of their daily volume. So let me ask, how many member problems are considered acceptable in your center, and how many members does that represent per day, month, and year? Most likely, you have never thought of it this way. For some reason, the fitness center industry has accepted an annual attrition rate of 25% to 30%. I understand that there are some legitimate reasons why some members quit (move out of town), but why should 25% be the "acceptable" attrition rate for your center if it is simply based on an industry norm? A norm doesn't necessarily mean best performance; it simply means that, on average, the majority of those surveyed experienced it. Bottom line, you should never lose a member because of something within your control, and you should never be satisfied with anything less than 100% satisfaction and retention.

Suggestion 5: Track and report the impact of member dissatisfaction to your staff and set your member problems goal at 0%. Make plans to meet that goal; then, celebrate and reward the staff every time you reach it.

Empowered Problem Solvers. With even the best of plans and intentions, we are all human, and we cannot prevent every problem from happening. However, what we can control is our attitude regarding how we deal with problems when they do occur and how we train and empower employees to handle them. Does everyone on your staff view member problems as an opportunity to create a positive experience for the member, or do some view the member as the problem? Does every staff member feel like they have the ability to solve a member's problem? A member of a medical fitness center I managed at one time had his exercise shorts ruined by our in-house laundry service. The angry member went to the front desk and asked the staff what they were going to do about it. They said they were unable to help him because they were "just" front desk attendants. Our pro shop manager happened to overhear this exchange and invited the member to the pro shop where he was given a new pair of shorts and workout shirt because of the inconvenience he had experienced. Come to find out, this member spent an average of $10,000 per year on personal training, and we almost lost him over a pair of burned shorts. Lesson learned!

The Ritz Carlton states that some of their guests will spend an average $250,000 at their hotels and resorts over their lifetime; they just don't know exactly which guests (1). To that end, The Ritz has given all frontline employees the authority to spend up to $2,000 per guest per day to solve a problem, which is a relatively small amount by comparison to what they might lose from the wrong unhappy guest. Your center might not have members who will spend this amount of money. Nevertheless, The Ritz's principles for problem solving should still apply to the staff of your center. It might take some hard work and creativity, but there is always a solution to every problem if you are committed to finding it.

Suggestion 6: Train all staff on how to handle member concerns and complaints and empower them to solve the problem up to their authority to do so. If that staff person cannot solve the problem, the member should be escorted immediately to the person who can.

Exceed Members' Needs, and as Many Wants, as Possible. I am constantly amazed at the number of centers that have not conducted a member satisfaction survey in years. One center I know had been open for 22 years and had never conducted a comprehensive member survey, but they did have the obligatory suggestion box on the wall. One of the biggest mistakes managers of a health and fitness center make is assuming they inherently know the needs and wants of their members; and even if they have asked for member feedback before, they assume that members' needs will not change. Additionally, some mangers choose to listen to the voices of the "vocal few" and assume it to be the voice of the "silent majority." Who you really need to hear from are those who are not outspoken and will just disappear without a trace and sadly without anyone knowing why. What needs and wants did the center not meet for those members? If your stated goal is to meet or exceed your members' expectations, how do you know if you met the goal if you never ask your members what their expectations are? If you conduct frequent member surveys (at least once per year), the next question is "what do you do with the results?" I have a simple rule about surveys…don't ask the question if you are not willing to do something with the answer. In other words, an answer to a survey question should drive a decision. If it doesn't, you should not ask the question to begin with.

Suggestion 7: Ask all of your members what they need and want on a regular basis and act upon the answers. Exceed all their "needs" (clean facility, safe environment, more handicapped parking near the main entrance, and assistance from qualified staff) and as many "wants" as possible (new exercise equipment, more variety of group exercise classes, towel service, and newspapers in the locker rooms).

Willingness to Change. Blockbuster used to be the king of video rentals, but as of the date of writing this article, it seems that they are headed for bankruptcy. Why? Primarily, the reason is that they became complacent with their business model and did not proactively change when new technologies entered the market place. Unfortunately, it seems that any changes Blockbuster might try now could be too little, too late. It's easy to sit back and throw stones at others, but how about your center? Have you become complacent with the status quo business model? How long has it been since you carefully researched changes occurring within the fitness industry or, at a minimum, in your own market area? For instance, how might the inevitable changes in the delivery of health care in our country impact the operations of your center? What changes in exercise and wellness programming and fitness equipment have occurred in the past 12 months that might benefit your center? What is your primary competition providing, and do you know what you need to do now to make sure you differentiate your center from the competition? But most importantly, even if you know the answers to these questions, how willing is your organization to change; and equally as important, how fast can the required change happen? As the saying goes "contentment in business is the first step towards failure."

Suggestion 8: Establish a permanent committee composed of your staff that is charged with researching local, regional, and national trends in the fitness and health care industries. Then, be willing to adjust your business model where appropriate to meet new market conditions and demands.

In conclusion, the most important variable that separates companies from their competitors who provide similar products or services is "The Customer Experience." If your health and fitness center decides to improve on the member experience, will it simply be another resolution with lots of initial focus and fanfare only to be forgotten after a few months, or will it become the new foundation on which everything else is built? I submit that the long-term success of your health and fitness center relies heavily on the answer to that question.

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To provide a positive member experience, your health and fitness center should do the following:

  1. Define itself as providing outstanding member experiences that helps each member maximize and maintain good health.
  2. Do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to hire people who have the "Right Stuff."
  3. Expect all employees to be elite performers.
  4. Create and maintain a positive "sense of place."
  5. Commit to zero customer problems.
  6. Train and empower staff to solve the problem.
  7. Exceed member "needs," and as many "wants," as possible.
  8. Stay current with industry changes and be willing to change.
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1. D'Antonio, Mila. Inside the Ritz-Carlton Revolutionary Service. 2002 [cited 2007 May]. Available from:
2. Federal Express Web site [Internet]. Memphis (TN): Federal Express. Available from:
3. Southwest Airlines Web site [Internet]. Dallas (TX): Southwest Airlines. Available from:

Customers; Members; Service; Excellence; Success

© 2010 American College of Sports Medicine.