// The Holy Grail of gym floor operations

by Richard Beddie

In deciding a title for this article I briefly considered ‘Back to gym floor basics’ to highlight the somewhat basic nature of the concepts discussed, but realised that while the ideas may be basic, successful execution and delivery of them is something that is rarely achieved. Just as the ‘solution’ for weight loss is as simple as consuming less energy than one uses, it is recognised that it is in the implementation of this concept that the challenge arises. The same applies to gym floor operations – defining objectives is easy, implementing them less so. The objective for us as managers is for gym staff to be regularly, systematically and consistently engaging with users of our facilities in such a way that their visit is enhanced and their likelihood of returning soon is increased. If it can ever be consistently achieved then it just may be the ‘Holy Grail’ of fitness facility management!

At the risk of overly-simplifying the message; you should have your gym floor staff talking to members on a regular basis. Why is this the Holy Grail? Because it’s the one area that has eluded fitness centres, especially larger facilities, for years yet it is an integral part of our core product offering. The problem was perhaps best articulated by the CEO of a successful industry operator who said, ‘We get two main complaints from our members about gym instructors. One is that they can’t find them, and the second is that they only talk to staff, or the ‘pretty people’. So I figured if we just got rid of all our instructors we could eliminate half of our complaints’. While this was said in jest, it does describe a very common problem with gym floor operations, and identifies the frustration experienced by many owners and managers.

In the last twelve months I have exercised in over two dozen different clubs around Australia and New Zealand and only once did I see a staff member (other than facility owners, who often do a great job) engaging with anyone other than the ‘pretty people’. ‘Not in my club, we even have a system for it’ I hear you say. Many clubs will be able to produce a gym manual clearly showing what the system is, when to do it, and how it works. Unfortunately, reality is often rather different from the manual.

The thing about systems, processes and manuals is that they are delivered by people, and it’s at this people level that they tend to fall down due to lack of training, measurement, assessment, reward processes and re-training. It’s not that gym staff want to do a bad job – very few workers in any industry want to do a bad job. The problem is that they often lack the tools and training to achieve what is expected of them. Gym staff tend to be very good at what they think they are trained to do: writing and demonstrating exercise programs. What is needed is a refocus to include skills that our clubs need.

Why is talking to people such a problem for gym staff?

In the United States public speaking is actually rated as the number one fear, ahead even of death. While few will admit this, for many, the idea of approaching a stranger that they have little in common with, and talking to them, rates up there with public speaking. So it isn’t surprising that when asked to talk to members, gym staff have difficulty achieving this.

This is especially the case with young staff who lack the confidence to speak to those who they perceive they have nothing in common with. Instead of talking to the slightly overweight woman that joined up last week whose name no one seems to know, they just go and find someone they are comfortable talking to, such as another staff member or one of the gym regulars.

What’s the solution?

Changing this type of behaviour involves three components;

Step 1. Training
Step 2. The carrot and the stick (or rewards and punishments)
Step 3. Making it the norm

Based on my observations, the first step is often skipped and the second step moved onto straight away, providing a system with incentives, and even negative consequences, to encourage the right behaviour. Because of a lack of training, step two often fails, and consequently step three is seldom reached. These missing steps need some attention.

Training involves more than just outlining expectations of what to do; it requires you to provide the tools to achieve it. With sales staff we expect them to gain referrals from each new membership, so we spend time training them to achieve this: what to say (sample scripts), how to handle objections, and so on, and importantly we also measure the results. Gym instructors’ training should involve providing sample scripts of what to say when approaching the member, and role playing this regularly (I know role playing can be a pain, but if you really want this to work – try it). The key with this stage, as with a lot of training, is making it fun.

Teach the ‘hit and split’ concept of how to quickly move from one member to the next without ten-minute conversations. Teach the ‘Queens method’ of greeting someone and moving on (the open question, the closed question, the statement).

Teach instructors that it is alright to multi-task; saying hello to someone as they walk by on their way to write a program for someone else is fine. Train instructors about what new members want to hear to make them come back again soon (and that it’s not more information on how to do exercises correctly!). If you’re familiar with sales, you will recognise many of these concepts from basic sales training.

None of this is rocket science, but it is essential if you want gym instructors’ behaviour to change.

The second missing component to changing staff behaviour (i.e., ensuring it becomes the norm) is both the hardest, and once achieved, perhaps the easiest step of all.

Behaviours are a part of the culture and the norms, not just the rules. Try going into McDonalds and not getting asked if you would like fries with your burger – this rule is not only drummed into staff from day one, it’s just the ‘done thing’.

There are two basic options for getting your staff to systematically engage with members to increase their likelihood of returning, and staying loyal, to your facility.

Option one is firing all your current staff and hiring those that do it naturally (there are some out there – rare, but they do exist). However given employment law in both Australia and New Zealand, plus the obvious harshness of such an action, this approach is certainly not recommended. You can, however, use opportunities that arise when one or two of your more regular gym staff choose to move on. This provides an excellent opportunity to set the new culture and norms from day one with the next generation of staff. The second option is the harder one, and involves implementing a training and measurement program with existing staff, and then regularly giving feedback to them until the behaviour you want to see in your staff is evident all the time. When staff members are consistently achieving your desired standard, be sure to reward them and to involve them in the training of the next generation of staff.

Once you reach the Holy Grail of gym floor operation, or a near as you can feasibly achieve, keep up regular measurement and reporting on behaviour to ensure that it doesn’t slip from your grasp. If it does start to slip, take immediate action to identify whether it is a training need (new staff) or whether the rules are not being followed. The key is consistency – ensure your message about what is expected is consistently delivered: in training, in the systems and manuals, and most importantly in what is measured.

Some training organisations specialise in this area, but the important thing isn’t just to send staff to training workshops, it’s to implement effective, ongoing follow up in the club afterwards. If you are ready to search for the Holy Grail of gym floor operations, make sure you are ready to follow it up when you find it.


Richard Beddie

CEO of FitnessNZ and owner of two clubs in Christchurch, Richard has a passion for the business elements of the fitness industry and is a firm believer in industry collaboration to grow the industry. Richard has presented internationally on a variety of business topics, including engaging with government, and building industry standards.