Originally Posted: 05/05/09
Every person that has ever suffered from a drinking problem knows the old adage that there is never change until you hit bottom. Then, and only then, can you admit you have an issue and rebuild your life.
In this industry, we have hit bottom and we're floundering on the floor like a bunch of wet monkeys in a hot tub. We have found the bottom and we now have no way to go but up.
How do you define bottom in the fitness business? We as an industry track the national membership numbers every year and then we bend them until they break and we still show flat growth. We track new clubs opening, and when the truth finally emerges from this recent alleged recession, we will find that we probably shrunk in total club numbers with the biggest hits occurring in the circuit club and dinosaur classes (dinosaurs are generic box clubs left over from the 80's who still have the same old business practices, and probably the same original equipment, that give us all such a bad name in this industry).
We don't have any exciting new business models, and despite the success of the small training club segment, sports performance centers and the rare chain showing growth, such as Planet Fitness, we seem to be more in a retraction mode than growth mode. We're trapped by 50 years of bad mistakes and we just can't seem to break into the next generation of fitness that will feed the industry for the coming decade.
I think the revelation for all of us is that this needed breakthrough won't come in the equipment or workout concept segments, but rather in the industry's maturity in our business practices. This much anticipated awakening, when it comes, will be in our selection and management of the people who work in our clubs. So far in the history of this industry, we have been horrible in this portion of the business, yet this where we have to target to get to the next level of growth in members and new clubs.
In the fitness business, we spend most of our time as owners and managers managing the business and very little actual time managing our people. We market, we manage processes such as receivables, we pick the perfect, yet out-of-date equipment line, and we keep our clubs open for business.
We also spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the next gizmo or class that will drive millions of new members to the club. Perhaps we are so overwhelmed by infomercials about fitness that we really do believe that there is one class DVD or unique piece of equipment (maybe Tony Little and the Gazelle) that makes millions of people instantly and forever in shape.
The reality is that we have made fitness a horrible experience for the average person. We put them on routines designed for 1970's bodybuilders, we teach them to go around in circles on the same equipment week after week and we believe that equipment and acreage makes up for horrendous service and young dumbasses working the front counters. Fitness clubs aren't fun and over the years we have progressed away from being a service and people driven business to becoming nothing more than a vast floor of equipment that is several decades out of work and was never designed for a functional fitness approach to life.
One of the jaw on the floor moments from our workshops over the years has been the question, "How much time do you spend a week training your staff?” The average fitness business owner in this country, despite about 60 years of collective experience, only works with his staff for an hour or less a week.
Despite what you hear at a trade show, we are in the experience/service business and not the equipment business. We have, however, become extremely dependent on equipment and other amenities in the club to do the job we are supposed to do, which is to build strong relationships with the people who depend on us to help them change their lives.
Another way to look at it is we are in the service business dependent on a large number of young people providing service to our most valuable asset, which is represented by the members and their monthly payments. The powerful point to consider here is that the average person working in our club, standing in front of the largest number of customers per week, is trained for that job less than one hour per week.
Compare your staff to a person the same age working at Starbucks. How does your staff handle the customers compared to those employees? Compare your staff to the average nice hotel check-in staff.
These hotel people, by the way, make about the same money as most club people. How are the hotel people dressed? How are they trained to handle service? How well mannered and well spoken are they as a whole?
Even you reading this who are nodding your heads and saying your staff can hold its own against other service people are suffering from delusions. Having a body at the front counter with a tee shirt tucked in is not staff training and it is definitely not customer service.
Staff training should be our biggest concern for the week, not something we do after everything else is done. Staffing, relationship building, real customer service, member retention and other industry defining issues are something we haven't even stumbled upon yet, even by accident or even as practiced by a small number of owners who are trying to create a business that is people dependent and not equipment dependent.
What I am reading again: This week I am reading, The Simple Truth, by Alex Brennan-Martin. It is a small, but powerful read, that I find myself picking up at least once a year. It is important to help you focus on what is the true focus of your business.