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Health Club Member Retention & the Art of Listening

Of all the skills that you need to navigate in the current landscape—to ensure that members see your club as safe and protected—listening has to be at the top.

With all the attention being paid to access to programming, distance-based physical layout, and sanitization, a key message around member communication can sometimes be lost. Now, more than ever, empathy and the ability to listen actively is critical to assure members that you’re providing a safe space.

“As a club owner, your number-one objective should be to understand your members,” says Michael Sorensen, author of I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships. “With all the uncertainty in today’s pandemic life, it is especially important to understand their concerns and expectations, so you can be certain your policies and safeguards address customer and employee concerns, and also ensure your communication of those policies is effective.”

That understanding, he says, begins with listening and actively asking members what their issues are.

“If you assume everyone is concerned about the coronavirus and go to great lengths to keep your club clean, that’s great,” Sorensen says. “But what other concerns might be keeping members from returning? Have you asked? What if a large group of your customer base is staying home not because they’re worried about getting sick, but because their kids are stuck at home all day? What if many lost their jobs or are dealing with financial hardship? Uncovering these deeper concerns is essential to a successful reopening.”

“But what other concerns might be keeping members from returning? Have you asked? ... Uncovering these deeper concerns is essential to a successful reopening.”

Michael Sorensen, Author

Empathy in Action: Keys to Effective Listening

Among the most important aspects of effective listening is ensuring that members feel heard and acknowledged, which is key to building trust.

“We all want to feel heard and understood,” notes Sorensen. “While a health club is not a therapist’s office, it is nevertheless comforting to feel that the staff or management of a business is taking your concerns to heart. Even the simple act of sending out a survey to club members—with the obvious expectation that you’ll act on the survey’s findings—can go a long way to establishing trust.”

Jason Markowicz, CEO of Fitness Premier clubs, which operates 11 facilities in Illinois and Indiana, and another slated to open in December, has literally made listening central to the customer service philosophy.

“It’s embodied in our LAST (Listen, Acknowledge, Solve, Thank Them) program,” he says. “We train all staff in this skillset. As a result, we were able to respond to members’—and staff’s—chief concerns around safety as they came back into the clubs. Based on what we heard, we focused on taking precautions from entry throughout the in-club experience.”

Based on what they heard, Fitness Premier installed special door openers in all facilities, personal sanitizing bottles for members to use throughout their workouts, extra hand sanitizing stations, and added staff focused specifically on consistently cleaning the facilities.

As a result of listening and responding to member concerns, Markowicz adds, check-ins are down only slightly at the clubs that are open, and “members report that they are very happy with the experience at the clubs.

Member retention woman in gym gear at front desk Pexel stock column

Top Listening Techniques

So, what are some listening techniques that help elicit truly useful feedback?

“I’m a big fan of asking questions,” says Sorensen. “If someone raises a concern with you, it’s easy to immediately fire back with a solution. But sometimes, people don’t lead with the true concern or the true issue. But simple discovery questions such as, ‘And then what happened?’, ‘How do you think we can address this?’, or “How can I help?” can go a long way in reaching a resolution.”

Emma Barry bills herself as a “Global Fitness Authority & Chief Creative Soul” at Good Soul Hunting, an executive search firm geared to the fitness industry. She outlines several tactics designed to support effective listening.

“Create an environment that is 100% focused on hearing and understanding the points being made,” she advises. “Remove outside distractions—crowded areas, phones, interruptions, etc.—so that you can focus solely on the person. Encourage a two-way conversation, but don’t interrupt. Keep your body language open; keep your legs and arms uncrossed and maintain positive facial expressions.”

Barry also suggests taking notes so that you can replay key points back to the person. Ask if you’ve heard the conversation accurately and encourage corrections, if necessary.

“Remember, you won’t please everyone,” reminds Sorensen. “I say this not to suggest that you can just ignore the most irritating comments, but rather to help you keep your cool when criticism does come through. Do your best to stay open-minded to new ideas and new feedback, while also being careful to not obsess or stew over one person’s opinion. Look for the themes, the patterns, and the big-ticket items. What one or two changes can we make that will have the greatest impact?”

Member retention true fitness stair stepper column

Listening as a Core Competency

At TRUE Fitness, listening is in its production DNA.

“At TRUE, we listen to our customers and gather valuable feedback before we develop our products. We try to take a step back and think about what we can improve,” says Jared Kueker, director of product development. “We speak to the customers, service technicians, and club owners to know what they want versus what is currently in the market.”

Products are tested in-house, and employees submit feedback prior to the product being released, he says of the process. Then, before fully releasing a new product, beta testing is conducted out in the field where customers provide feedback on the machine and user experience.

“Even after being released in the market, we continue to fine-tune all of our machines, day in and out,” adds Kueker.

That approach to development—a willingness to listen to customers throughout the production process as opposed to just at the beginning—yields benefits.

“For example,” he says, “we got feedback midway through the development of the Palisade climber that caused us to adjust the depth of the step, which resulted in improved efficiency.”

TRUE’s flexibility is ultimately geared to optimized product development.

“Our schedule is fluid all the way through the project until we get the product right,” says Kueker. “We don't hold ourselves to a firm launch date and that allows us to integrate the best features without having to worry about deadlines.”

For more on TRUE Fitness cardio, strength, flexibility, and group training products, visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.