Five minutes to retain a member right?

Retaining members is far cheaper than acquiring new ones. By using member data to highlight low and non-users, operators can focus on integrating, motivating and retaining these individuals, writes retention specialist Jon Nasta.


  • Research has shown it can cost up to seven times more to get a new member than to keep an existing one
  • Gym-floor interactions with members are great, but can be more useful when specific members can be targeted for attention
  • Research shows that if an individual’s club usage pattern drops by over 50% from their usual pattern, they are at risk of cancelling their membership
  • Member retention software that highlights at-risk members can help clubs to focus staff efforts on integrating, motivating and retaining those members.

Great club operators tell us they take time each week to walk the gym floor and see 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 these extra touch points are experienced by our members?

We know all too well that members value personal service as an extremely important factor in their overall satisfaction of your club. 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.

What can we do to make sure that personal service is delivered, thereby increasing customer satisfaction?

The 5-minute mission

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

They set themselves the mission of holding a five-minute conversation with each member, every two weeks. They felt that five-minute conversations were the least they should deliver for their monthly membership dues. Divided between the five staff, this was 300 members each.

Next, they worked out how this would impact their already busy days:

300 members x 5 minutes = 1,500 minutes or 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 used up, in order to deliver just one aspect of what was felt to be an important element of the experience in the club. Still, they knew this was a valuable and honorable thing to do, so set about the task with their usual enthusiasm and commitment, agreeing to review their progress in three months’ time.

You can’t chat with people who aren’t there

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

Something was clearly wrong with the 5-minute plan. The staff were committing a third of their time to interacting personally with members, yet they were still seeing the same rate of cancellations as prior to the change of strategy.

At the next staff meeting, they went through all the members that had left in the previous several weeks, and it became apparent that they hadn’t been chatted with before cancelling their memberships. Why? The answer was clear, over 90% of the leavers had not been seen in the last six weeks and thus had not experienced the club’s personal interactions. After a little more digging, the data revealed that most leavers were those not experiencing the club’s high level of service for the simple reason that they had stopped visiting in the previous two to four months, 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 prerequisite for a successful and profitable operation. We invest many dollars and copious amounts of time in staff training and systems to ensure these interactions are delivered to a high standard. We congratulate ourselves on our sales efforts that ensure we have adequate members contributing to our ongoing revenue streams. Yet, as we become more sophisticated as an industry, we are learning more facts about the efficacy of our old and maybe outdated strategies.

IHRSA published figures showing it can cost up to seven times more to get a new member than to keep an existing one, and that the cost of acquiring a new member had doubled over the last ten years. If the health club industry today agrees on just one thing, it’s that the market is becoming more and more competitive. As this continues, it is harder and harder to keep the cost of winning new members from rising. This places an added premium on the ‘risk versus reward’ conundrum of retaining members. If 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 certainly make 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 only 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 at twice the risk of leaving, compared with those that do visit weekly.

An IHRSA retention report highlighted a study by Richard Blacklock that concluded if an individual’s club usage pattern drops by over 50% from their usual pattern (over an eight-week period) they are at risk 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 thus be highlighted as a potential cancellation risk.

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 easy to do on your own.

As the amount of data relating to the exercise habits of our members increases and becomes easier to translate, we are learning that there are many ways for us to spend our five minutes other than just with the members we are already doing a great job for. For example, clubs that use AI software services like Keepme to improve systems, pinpoint at-risk members and tailor their service to individual members, are likely to find opportunities to spend those five minutes more productively.

Using these tools, fitness businesses can use the data to automatically shine a spotlight on areas in which differences can be achieved with specific members. By highlighting low or non-users, they are able to spend their ‘five minutes’ (and multiples thereof) far more productively, focusing on more comprehensive new member integration programs and motivating at-risk members to make exercise a habit.

So, when you next spend five minutes with a member you already know well due to their frequent attendance, while certainly congratulating yourself, ask yourself ‘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 when your goal is to reduce attrition, you also need to ensure you don’t neglect those members who need your five minutes the most – the ones who are not regularly walking through your door or attending the 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 where 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. Jon has recently joined Keepme as its new Consulting Partner. /