Welcome Desk Boot Camp: Training Your Gym’s Front-line Staff

Your gym’s welcome desk staff plays a vital role when it comes to customer experience. Here’s how you can train your employees to turn members into raving fans.

“Every hiring decision is a retention decision,” former IHRSA executive director John McCarthy once famously said. As customer experience gains as a prime business objective, McCarthy’s statement has more resonance than ever.

“Member experience is our number one priority,” said Stevenson Fitness General Manager Marisa Hoff during an IHRSA 2019 session on training front-desk staff. “And all staff interactions have a huge impact on retention.”

It All Starts at the Welcome Desk

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Photo: Stevenson Fitness

For Hoff, successful retention means hiring employees who understand how to interact with members to create touchpoints that improve customer satisfaction on all levels. And it begins the moment a member or a prospect walks in the front door.

“To us, the welcome desk is the most important job in the club,” she said.

Hoff’s approach has worked wonders for Stevenson Fitness, judging from the club’s Net Promoter Score (NPS). An NPS is a business metric that tests consumer loyalty and satisfaction. The scale of the score runs from negative 100 to 100. To introduce some perspective, Apple had an NPS of 63 in 2018, while Tesla’s was a robust 96.

Lacking the advantages of Big Tech, the health club industry in North America had an average score of 44 a few years ago, leaving room for improvement. But at Stevenson Fitness, that score is 77.

“To us, the welcome desk is the most important job in the club.”

Marisa Hoff, General Manager

Stevenson Fitness - Oak Park, CA

According to Hoff, Stevenson’s advantage comes from understanding the importance of member interactions. “We do specific customer experience training to teach employees how to perform customer service in accordance with our core values,” she said.

Hoff has developed her hiring and training techniques from top business experts as well as her own experiences. She earned a B.A. in psychology from UCLA, which has come in handy for managing a staff who can very widely in age and life experience. She also cites books like The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, by Mark Sanborn, for helping her instill passion and commitment into employees.

Culture Training Is Number One

“Culture training is the most important aspect of the hiring process,” Hoff said. “New employees need to understand the history and philosophy behind what you do. You can train people on your equipment and systems; it’s critical that they already possess the aspirations that can deliver on your values and on the member experience.”

It starts with understanding that every staff job, no matter how small, is part of the club’s core mission. Hoff cited the culture at the Dallas Cowboys NFL team as an example. When you ask a member of the Cowboys’ staff, say the maintenance crew, to describe their job duties, the answer isn’t, “I do maintenance work.” Instead, they respond, “My job is to win the Super Bowl.” Everybody in the organization, from top to bottom, is committed to the same mission.

“New employees need to understand the history and philosophy behind what you do.”

Marisa Hoff, General Manager

Stevenson Fitness - Oak Park, CA

Hoff said she wants to see this same level of commitment in her staff. If you ask even part-time employees at Stevenson Fitness what their job is, the answer should be: “Empowering people to live healthier lives.”

Hoff is careful to refer to the front desk as “the welcome desk.” You don’t want welcome desk personnel on their phones or talking to other staff. Hoff wants her welcome desk employees to remember the names of members and their specific needs and wants. You have to make sure your team members have the personality to interact well with every person who walks through the door.

Hiring the Right Welcome Desk Staff

Hoff believes a good way to gauge potential candidates is through a group interview. “In a group dynamic you can see how people engage with others. You get to see their social skills.”

Another of Hoff’s hiring techniques is to ask the open-ended question: “Name your top five.” Most people anticipate a category to be introduced, but Hoff leaves it there.

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Photo: Stevenson Fitness

“It opens up the possibility for a huge range of answers,” she said. “You learn a lot about people by how they respond.”

Besides taking them on a tour of the facility, she’ll also give hiring prospects a two-week pass to use the club.

“If they don’t come in, what does that say about them?” she said.

On-boarding Front-line Staff

When on-boarding new staff, Hoff makes sure they undergo facility training and have a firm grasp on safety issues, such as where the AED and fire extinguishers are located. Then it’s important to cross-train new employees so they understand everything that the club offers in amenities, class instruction, children’s services, trainer packages, etc.

“Your welcome desk people need to know a lot about the product,” she said. “Members will be asking them questions about everything the club has to offer them.”

You want to take the time necessary with front-desk personnel, since you may be hiring people with other part-time jobs or are attending school. It may take weeks to make sure they understand all of their responsibilities. You may want to shadow them at times, or have other staff monitor their performance.

“Your welcome desk people need to know a lot about the product.”

Marisa Hoff, General Manager

Stevenson Fitness - Oak Park, CA

Once a new employee is integrated successfully into the club’s culture and operations, continue to keep staff engaged with ongoing training. Hold meetings every month or even every week to make sure your club is reaching its goals.

Also, keep employees motivated by rewarding them for performing well.

“Create a culture of gratitude,” Hoff says. “Conduct frequent face-to-face evaluations with staff and mention what they are exceeding at.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that your staff is watching you. Display the qualities you want to see in your employees. That’s an important part of leadership.

“A good manager will make sure tasks have been completed,” Hoff said. “A good leader expresses a shared interest in the staff and inspires them.”

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org