Lessons from the fitness frontline that we can all learn from

[Image courtesy of jerryonlife at Flickr Creative Commons]

This is the tale of three gyms. Let’s call them A, B and C. I’m a couple of weeks away from moving to C, which is actually a reincarnation, rising from the ashes of A. But before I lose you entirely, let me take a step back (crouching and feeling that stretch, naturally) and set the scene. Gym A was just down the road from me. I joined it 10 years ago, when I left the madness of London for the relative calm of Cambridge. In fact, I joined the gym before it opened, signing up in the sales office to the sound of hammers, pneumatic drills and builders’ bawdy jokes in the background. It was big, bright and well equipped. I got an off-peak membership, which suited me fine. Not for me the after-work crowds and endless queues. And for years and years, it was just what I needed. Until it wasn’t. About  year ago, I decided I wanted a change. And the process has been an exercise in marketing basics – which is a workout that we all need to have once in a while. Here’s what I’ve learned:
  • Don’t look for a reason where there isn’t one. I left Gym A because I was bored and wanted something different. Did they do anything wrong? Not really. No more than other gyms, who take members for granted once they’ve signed up. My departure wasn’t sparked by any one thing, but by a slow burn of minor reasons, ignited by a flash of desire for something new. When there’s no logic, you just need to accept that these things happen and move on.
  • Novelty is attractive, but it doesn’t last. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called novelty. When I moved to Gym B, everything was new and different.  From the machines to the showers, from the pool to the classes. But it soon became the new normal, and after a year it’s almost as familiar as the old gym. And the lesson here? Keep innovating and changing, and never get complacent. If Gym A had been a bit more innovative, they might not have lost me.
  • Price always matters. Gym A was closer but more expensive than Gym B. And for a long time, I thought close beat cheap. But then one day I cycled the route to B, and realised that although it took twice as long (both ways, of course) I could compensate by cutting down on aerobic exercise once I was actually there. Now, cheap became the overriding factor, combined with novelty (see above).
  • You need to make existing clients feel loved. For years, Gym A had special offers plastered outside the entrance (which is next to the foyer of a multiplex cinema) with great rates for new members. And they were almost always better than the deals that existing members were on. Not once did they offer to reduce my membership fees, or add extras. And changing-room chatter often revolved around the perennial question: How much are you paying?
  • Pricing should be transparent, and with Gym A it wasn’t. The website was vague and evasive (‘contact a member of our sales team’). This added to the above chatter, and had the faint whiff of dishonest practices. Gym B had prices on its site for all to see, and a simple signup facility. And sign up I did.
  • Nothing is forever, as Gym B has now discovered. The competitive landscape is constantly changing, and what was good enough yesterday doesn’t always cut the mustard today. Earlier this year, the Gym A chain got into financial difficulties and was forced to downsize. They sold off some of their gyms, including my local one. Enter the newest player: Gym C, a chain that’s shaking up the market with cut-price offers and 24×7 opening (yes, yes, I know – who on earth works out at 3am?).
  • Limited offers work best. Scarcity sells – always. You can either restrict the supply of products (but not too much) or the duration of offers. If people feel they could miss out, they take action. In my case, the clincher was that Gym C has an unbeatable pre-opening deal that will be available up to two weeks before they’re up and running. Once they are, it reverts to the full price with the full joining fee. That rock-bottom deal then runs for the first year of membership. What’s not to like? Needless to say, it was enough to make me reach for my mouse and click Join.
  • You don’t need to wait until you’re ready. Don’t throw open the doors (virtual or otherwise) and then start looking for clients. Hype it up beforehand, and create a buzz. Pre-opening offers means you hit the ground running from day 1 with an established client base. Pre-ordered tablets and phones (Google’s favourite ploy) means you can gauge demand weeks before you have to supply. That vital lead time gives you some breathing space, and ensures you’re not overwhelmed.
  • Make sure you deliver. Whether it’s footfall on your gym floor, or products falling into customers’ hands, you need to make sure you hit your target date. Nothing spoils a shiny new purchase like an unexpected delay. Gym C had better open in two weeks, or there’ll be a lot of disappointed gym bunnies out there. The sexy Nexus 9 (I’m considering its charms, and am feeling more than a little in love) had better be available in early November. A promise broken is worse than a promise never made at all, so make sure it’s doable before you commit.
  • Be a graceful loser, and set your clients fee. I cancelled my membership at Gym B, giving them the required calendar month’s notice. I then waited for the last payment to go out, and cancelled my direct debit (automatic payment). Job done – or so I thought. For just a few days later, my access card failed to open the turnstile. When I explained to the woman at the desk that it might be linked to my imminent departure, there was a sharp intake of breath: “Oooh – they don’t like it when you cancel.” And she was right: the system had put a lock on my account, claiming that I still owed another month’s membership. It took the intervention of the manager to override the system and correct the mistake.
  • Always try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When I announced to Gym B that I was leaving, they made no attempt to make me reconsider. They simply asked me to fill out a form, then clicked, tapped and confirmed – and it was done. Not once did they ask me if there was anything they could do to make me stay. And yet the cost of finding a replacement for me will far outweigh what they could have offered me as an inducement. But they just let me go without a second thought.
And Gym C? Well, I’ll report back in a while. We’re still at the early stages of in our relationship, and I’m hoping for great things. I’m crossing my fingers that its opening will be synchronised with the end of my membership at B. Which it should do if they keep their marketing promise. I’m sure there will be teething problems – there always are. They’ve already blotted their copybook just a bit, by replying to an email I sent about the opening date, and whether there was a way to set up an alert:
I am afraid there isn’t you should receive an email saying where were open for viewings tours and when our actual opening date is. The class timetable will be put on at the end of next week but not too book you won’t be able to do that until were officially open.
So two sentences instead of four, a blind spot when it comes to where/when and we’re/were, and an errant s in viewings tours. But that’s OK. I know that where gyms are concerned, the important thing is brawn, not brain. As long as they’re open in two weeks’ time, I’ll forgive the odd spelling and grammar mistake. But they’d better shape up, or I’ll be on the lookout again. One false move, and I could just be heading for Gym D.