// Gauge movement, engage members

If you can ensure ongoing member engagement by showing the 'progress in the process', then your retention will take care of itself, says Emmett Williams.

The product we sell – 'fitness' – is an intangible experience. The member doesn't get to take the treadmill home, so the satisfaction reaped from a gym membership is about the immediate endorphin hit, and a belief in the long term payoff of exercise. This is fine for those that are savvy – and patient – but for the most part it is a long reach. It takes faith.

Soon after attending the gym the member forgets about the satisfaction that was provided from the endorphin hit – it was short lived. This intangibility and forgetfulness causes a problem for achieving customer engagement, so these members typically become high maintenance to retain. Tiring stuff. What we need is a method of ensuring ongoing engagement.

The downward spiral

As an industry we are very good at many things; we pick great locations for our facilities, we are exceptional at lead generation and we are experts at the selling process – but retaining members is our Achilles heel. According to IHRSA, the fitness industry's retention rate sits at about 40 per cent a year. Although the 2011 Australian & New Zealand Fitness Industry Survey (ANZFIS) records a higher rate, the issue of retention was still listed as the joint number one challenge faced by clubs. In real terms, the IHRSA data means that of 1,000 people who are members of a club, only 400 will still be members in a year's time – a pretty atrocious metric compared to most businesses. So why do we have such trouble retaining members? It is due to two things; 1) lack of results for the member, and; 2) members becoming disengaged with the experience. These two issues, of course, go hand in hand.

What usually happens is the discipline of 'attendance per month' and 'effort per session' drops as the member is tempted to cut corners. They do this simply because the initial burst of adrenalin that got them into the gym has now worn off, and the benefits of exercise seem such a long way away. The member doesn't have the education or the embedded beliefs to uphold a medium term outlook, let alone a long term one. And as for an endorphin hit, well, chocolate can provide that much more easily!

After this drop off in attendance and effort, the results slow down even further, and the cost of membership then exceeds the benefit. At that point it becomes really hard to maintain the gym routine, attendance essentially falls all the way to zero visits per month, and payments cease about three months after. That's it, end of story.

This downward spiral all starts with the initial lack of discipline and motivation that allowed the critical success factors of 'attendance' and 'effort' to drift. There was no alarm system, there was no coach re-energising the member. The member no longer had the sales adrenalin in their system and neither did they have the faith in the medium term benefits. So they saw a short cut, lost interest and let their critical numbers of 'attendance' and 'effort' fall off the page. The spiral is hard to stop. Consider this: if a member's attendance and effort drop off, but the club doesn't notice it, did it really happen? If your annual retention rate is even anywhere near the IHRSA-reported rate then the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

Motivation boils down to this

In his keynote address on the science of motivation at the 2011 IHRSA convention, Dr Daniel Pink delivered the following standout message; 'if you can show somebody, be it your child, your student, your gym member, anybody, that they are making progress, then there is nothing more you can do to motivate them.'

In a recent paper on 'Attracting and retaining a gym member', David Lowe's message (to paraphrase) was; 'members want clubs to encourage routine. They don't need the end benefit of a dress size continually sold to them; they simply want to be encouraged to uphold a routine.'

Consider then that the most effective thing a club can do to fight the inevitable downward spiral is to show 'progress with the process'. If you can achieve early wins and show the member they are making headway, making progress, then as Pink says, 'there is nothing more that you can do to motivate them.'

Showing members that they are progressing not with their end result (i.e. dress size or blood pressure) but with their attendance, their workload and their output, is extremely motivating in both the short term and the long term. Of course, in the long term the 'end game' of dress size or lower blood pressure needs to be delivered upon, but focusing on the process – on the controllables – empowers the member and enables them to engage.

How to show 'progress in the process'

There are various ways of monitoring and, importantly, showing members and clients the 'progress in the process'. Some will work for certain members and clients but not others – it may be a case of trial and error to discover what works best for your business.

The program card
The old program card appears to be an obvious tool, however it has one major drawback: it requires the member to fill it in. This perceived inconvenience prevents most people from using it, thereby preventing any tracking taking place or any progress being shown. Thus the downward spiral begins.

The leader board
Another option is to have a notice board in the reception area featuring a table of members who attended the gym more than eight times the preceding month. In one column show how many sessions they have attended for the year, and in another column place a rolling 12-month average. Targets can be set for all members, with new members being given the target of making the leaders board, thereby encouraging them to focus on the process. The annual counting tally focuses on 'progress with the process'. Maintaining anything above an average of eight is admirable, and proven to limit attrition.

The VIP subsidy
Consider implementing a 'VIP subsidy' scheme. Members who join up on the VIP deal could pay $16 a week, but if they attend a minimum of eight times a month they would receive a $3 per week reimbursement, making their membership $13 a week – a huge $150 per year saving. It may appear to be throwing good money away, but if you trial it and measure the average length of stay the value should become apparent. Is 14 months x $16 better than 21 months x $13? You do the maths.

The tech option
A technological option is MYZONE, a heart rate monitor that tracks and collates the physical activity of your members, uses wireless technology to store the output data in a 'cloud', and provides the member and the club with an accurate way of tracking physical activity. The memory chip it uses also works outside the facility, effectively acting as a log book of members' activity. Targets can be set around effort level, duration and visits per month, enabling you to show members and clients their 'progress in the process'.

Regardless of the system you implement in your facility or with your clients, your core business is 'attendance' and 'effort per session'. If you can master that, then retention takes care of itself.

Emmett Williams
Emmett is director of CFM, the international group of businesses with over 300 staff. Emmett also owns seven gyms in Australia, and is currently based out of his Chicago office launching the new MYZONE product in the US. Emmett is passionate about the fitness industry going beyond marketing, beyond sales, and truly engaging its membership base. For more information visit www.cfm.net or email emmett.williams@cfm.net