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Shifting the Focus from Retention to Sales

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Have you ever wondered if there’s really any point to your retention strategy? You offer everything under the sun, do double back-flips, and consider giving away your first-born any time a member tells you they’re ready to leave, and then they go ahead and leave anyway. Ever get the feeling that there’s just nothing you can do?

The fact is, everyone in the industry wonders, but it’s something we try not to acknowledge. We hold on to the idea that we must continually try new approaches and inexhaustibly explore all possible avenues, plus a few impossible ones, and never give up on the lofty goal of retaining 100 percent of our members. Well, what if that’s the wrong approach? What if, instead, we conceded that we never will retain 100 percent of our members, and that our energy would be better spent on other aspects of running our clubs? What if we actively prioritized new sales over member retention?

These are questions Rob Bishop and Barry Klein, owners of Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pennsylvania and regular contributors to Athletic Business magazine, hash out in a recent article for Athletic Business. Having focused on retention over sales for two decades — never employing salespeople or using high-pressure sales techniques — Bishop and Klein found themselves one day wondering why, despite all their daily concerted efforts to get members to stick with their gym, they nevertheless almost always lost the members they were expending energy to retain. As long-time gym owners, they considered their “retention program” nothing more than everything they did everyday and every dollar they spent on their staff, facilities, and programming. As they put it, “Is your club clean? Are people greeted properly? Are members well-integrated into your facility with training programs, group fitness classes, seminars and other offerings?” Those elements, along with other offerings vital to the success of any club, are critical for keeping any member signed up for any length of time, they argue.

Given that, they realized that most members “cancel for reasons that are beyond our control — relocation, financial reasons, work conflicts. And while reasons such as ‘no time’ might be shorthand for ‘I don’t want to be a member anymore,’ it’s clear to us that once someone has crossed that threshold, we are not going to bring them back.”

If that’s the case, they ask, what can gyms do? The answer may lie in shifting the focus of your business premise, so that rather than privileging retention, you start thinking more about sales. “Our point isn’t to give up,” they write. “It’s to focus on something we think we can more directly impact and to some degree control.” Thus, Bishop and Klein are trying out a “sales focused” approach that aims to attract many happy members. Basically, they consider happy members ambassadorial assests — vital elements of the community who spread the word to new potentially happy members. It’s a subtle shift, but focusing more on sales than retention — while still aiming to keep members as happy as possible from day to day — allows the duo to value referrals even more than a forever commitment from a member (which, they say, is an ideal that doesn’t exist). For example, if the stated purpose of “bring a friend” event is to acquire new members rather than to keep existing members engaged, they now might find themselves, if spots are limited, turning away a member in favor of a guest. This isn’t something they ever would have done previously.

That’s not to say it isn’t still worth trying to keep members forever. Who knows? Perhaps it’s possible and the industry just hasn’t yet discovered the right lever or formula? Still, it might be worth exploring strategies that are potentially more realistic — if for no other reason than achieving greater peace of mind. “The real difference will be this,” Bishop and Klien write. “When a member who has sent us 10 referrals suddenly cancels, we’re not going to stress about it anymore…. The trick is to have a gym full of happy members, regardless of how long they are with us.”

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