Just 5 minutes – right?

Great club operators tell us they take time each week to walk the gym floor and observe how their staff interact with their members. The warm smile and friendly ‘hello, how are you?’ from reception, the encouraging comments from the fitness staff as members go through their workouts, the duty manager that holds the door open as a member walks in are all part of the complete package consistently offered by successful clubs.

So how do we guarantee that these extra touch points are experienced consistently by our members?

We know all too well that members value personal service as an extremely important factor in their overall satisfaction. We also know that the level of personal service received in the early weeks of their membership is directly related to the length of time that person will remain as a member.  So, what can we do to make sure that personal service is delivered and increase customer satisfaction?

The 5-minute mission

Recently a club owner I have known for many years told me about how they had discussed the issue of interacting with members at a meeting with their fitness team. They run a busy centre in a large market town with just over 1,500 members and five fitness staff. Personal service is how they differentiate themselves from the large multi-site operator down the road and a new boutique that opened recently.

They set out to talk to 300 members each and aimed at holding a five-minute conversation with each of them every two weeks. They felt that a five-minute conversation was the least they should deliver for their £38 per month membership.

They next worked out how this would impact their already busy days:

300 members x 5 minutes = 1500 minutes


25 hours every two weeks for each of the fitness staff

So, 12 hours or almost a third of each of the fitness teams time out of a 38-hour week would be spent simply to begin to deliver what their customers felt an important aspect about the experience in this club.  They knew this was a valuable and honourable thing to do, so set about the challenge with their usual enthusiasm and commitment agreeing to review their progress in three months’ time.

You can’t talk to people who aren’t there

Pretty soon they discovered that each of the fitness team were experiencing the same issues. Many five-minute conversations were being held from each of their groups of 300 members, however it had become clear that the same members were being seen over and over. These were committed exercisers who used the gym many times a week, they had no issues with the facility, a couple even expressed a wish to be left alone to get on with their training.

The staff were committing a third of their time to interact personally with members, yet they were still seeing cancellations on the same levels as before they changed their strategy. So, what was going wrong here?

At the next meeting they went through all the members that had left to find out why they hadn’t been spoken to before reaching this point. The answer was clear, over 90% of the leavers had not been seen in the last six weeks and thus had not experienced the personal interactions.  It soon became apparent that most leavers were those not experiencing the high level of service for the simple reason they had stopped visiting so long ago and no one had noticed.

The cost of retention versus acquisition

We know interacting in a positive and constructive manner with members in our clubs is a pre-requisite for a successful and profitable operation.  We invest many pounds and copious amounts of time in staff training and systems to ensure these interactions are delivered to a high standard and continually congratulate ourselves on our sales efforts to ensure we have adequate members contributing to our revenue streams. Yet as we become more sophisticated as an industry, we are learning more about the results of our old and maybe out-dated strategies.

IHRSA published figures showing it can cost up to seven times more to get a new member than to keep an existing one; that the cost of acquiring a new member has also doubled over the last ten years.  If the industry today agrees on just one thing it is that the market is becoming more and more competitive; it is harder and harder to keep the cost of winning new members under control. This places an added premium on the “risk vs reward” conundrum of retaining members.  It was possible ten years ago to outrun attrition by topping up with great sales figures – the prospect of doing so in today’s competitive market and challenging economy makes this a far more daunting task.

Use it or lose… them

We agree that every five minutes we spend with members is time well spent. We just question which members should be receiving the focus of our efforts. Look at the evidence, new members that are encouraged to achieve a visit frequency of once a week or more during their first four to eight weeks of membership are 100% less likely to cancel in the next year. Members that use your club less than once a week are more than twice as likely to leave.

An IHRSA retention report highlighted a study by Richard Blacklock that concluded if an individual’s usage pattern drops by over 50% from their usual pattern (over an eight-week period) that member is in danger of cancelling their membership. For example, a member that previously visited twice a week for the last six months who now only visits once a week should be highlighted as potential quitter.

Better use of your time

Every year as an industry we sell hundreds of thousands of memberships to those people who although they sincerely want to, have not yet been able to develop the discipline to make exercise a regular habit.  Behavioral scientists will confirm that to develop such habits and discipline is not an easy task to do on your own.

As the amount of data relating to the exercise habits of our members becomes more available and easier to translate, we are learning that there are many other ways for us to spend our five minutes than just with the members we already do a great job for. There are methods, systems and companies that can be adopted, implemented or contracted to help us focus where our five minutes is best spent.

Some of these companies now focus on delivering automatically where the evidence in your data leads us to believe positive differences can be achieved – focusing on new member integration programmes, highlighting low or non-users and motivating members to make exercise a habit. This gives fitness staff many more “five minutes” to provide the services where they excel.

So, when we next spend five minutes with a customer we already know well, who is already working out on our gym floor whilst we should congratulate ourselves; we must surely consider “did we just spend one third of our working week growing our membership or standing still?”

While expending time and effort to better service your customers is never a wasted endeavor, if your goal is to increase retention then we need to step back and make sure we don’t neglect those members who need our five minutes the most – those members who are not regularly walking through your door or not attending your classes they would enjoy the most.

As the ever-growing body of evidence and research suggests expanding your focus to include this segment of your membership base is were the true retention battle is won or lost.


Jon Nasta

Jon has a wealth of experience in the health and fitness industry from both a supplier and operator’s perspective. Noted for his expertise in member engagement and retention Jon has held positions such as COO of Retention Management, Sales Director of Matrix Fitness and Marketing Director for Xercise4Less.