Customer Service With a Smile

A recent news story about a cancelled American Airlines flight provides an excellent example of how NOT to conduct Customer Service.  While I empathize with the crew and can completely understand the outrage of the passengers, the situation was not handled very professionally, in my opinion.  While the story might be aggravating, reading it reminded me how important customer service skills are to Group Fitness Instructors.  In this post, we’ll examine how we might better mitigate student complaints and help everyone win.

Why should you care about Customer Service?

Two Words:  Member Retention.  You need members.  You need them filling your gym.  You need them filling your classes.  You need members but the quickest way to lose them is to treat them as a commodity instead of a paying customer.  Listening to your members and doing what you can to meet their needs results in happier customers who continue to pay their membership dues and your salaries.  Not to mention how much better it is to teach a class with many enthusiastic participants as opposed to a handful of disgruntled folks.  I have worked in health clubs that really “got” the customer service element but I have also worked in the ones who were horrible at it.  It is much more enjoyable to teach in a club where the customer is respected, mostly because the customers complain less!

But isn’t it the Manager’s job to worry about Customer Service?

Sure, but Customer Service has many levels.  We’ll discuss some actual situations later on, but everyone working in a health club has a hand in serving the customers.  Customer Service should not be saved for times when complaints or problems exist — it should be practiced around-the-clock and at every interaction with every member.  It means treating every person you see in the club respectfully and cheerfully.  It means helping others pick up the slack when the front desk is slammed or the instructor after you is running late for example.  It means that everyone’s job description includes doing anything in their power to give every member a pleasant experience.  You may not be able to order new mats for your classes or control the A/C, but you can help a new member find the restrooms or get started on a treadmill. 

Put the shoe on the other foot

How many times have you been the victim of terrible customer service?  How do you feel when you walk into a store needing assistance and can’t get anyone to acknowledge you?  Or what if you have a genuine complaint and the clerk gives you attitude or the run around? How about those times when the service person went above and beyond your expectations and provided you an excellent experience?  It is common sense that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated, but any time you can go one step further and surprise your members with your involvement or interest everyone wins.  Usually the opportunity to be of assistance is a minimal intrusion that reaps huge benefits.  Here are some simple examples:

  1. Remember and use member’s names.
  2. Smile at everyone you see, say hello and act warm and approachable.
  3. Reach out to the people you see who probably could use a hand, even if they may not
  4. Listen to your members when they have a complaint and be respectful of their concerns.

Handling a complaint with grace

You know that it is really difficult to accept complaints, especially if they aren’t constructive or helpful.  Even worse is when members complain about issues that are out of your hands.  We’ll discuss both kinds. 

First, the kind that you can do something about.  They don’t like your music or they think you are too easy or too hard or you aren’t enough like so-and-so.  The types of personal complaints you may hear can be pretty audacious.  The first thing you must do is decide whether or not it is true or false.  Is it possible that you play the music too loud?  Is it possible that you haven’t been offering enough of a challenge?  Balance this out with honest analysis.  Does your member understand that you have set the music at a level appropriate for the average participant or that you are concerned for their safety?  It can be tempting to blow off all criticism as “just one person’s opinion” but you should seek additional feedback to determine whether or not you have misread your audience or just failed to recognize where you have gone wrong.  Listen to the complaint, ask questions, solicit information from other participants and make a reasonable judgement about how you should handle it.   Regardless of the nature of the complaint, you should listen respectfully, keep your cool and take time to process it before responding.  Even a simple, “I cannot discuss this with you at this moment, but I will think about what you’ve said” can give you an opportunity to step away and think before speaking.  Once you’ve had a chance to consider, let the member know that you care about their concern and that you are handling it.  It is important that you not ignore the request, no matter how ridiculous.  Let the member know that you heard them, what your perspective is, and what you have decided to do about it. 

“Betty, I am really sorry that you don’t enjoy the music that I play.  Please understand that I spend a great deal of time and money finding music that will appeal to the largest group I can, but I know that not everyone will be happy all the time.  If you can give me some idea of what you would rather hear, I will do my best to incorporate it into my purchases in the future.” 

“George, I was sorry to hear that you didn’t feel you were challenged enough by our last few classes.  I do my best to provide well-rounded workouts for everyone in class.  I want you to know that I heard what you said, and today we will be incorporating intervals to allow those who want a higher heart rate to push harder.  I think you will find what you are looking for.”

“Helen, thank you for your loyalty to this club.  It is tough on all of us when we lose a great instructor like Janice.  No one will ever completely replace her, but I am going to do my best to provide you with a great workout.  I hope that you will give me the chance to show you that even though I am different from Janice, I have a lot to offer you and your classmates.”

Second, the kind that are completely out of your control.  The stereo/air conditioning/bikes/fans/lights/whatever do not work.  The mats are moldy and stinky.  The weights look like they have probably been in use since the first Jane Fonda video.  The bikes all have broken pedals or squeaky gears.  Even worse if this is a recurring issue that does not appear to be of concern to the powers that can control it.  These are the toughest complaints because undoubtedly, you share the complaint with your students.  It might be tempting to rip the ownership or management, but unless you want to further drive your students to cancel their memberships, it is best that you provide the smile and positive attitude to help keep your students at least partially satisfied.   Let your students know, again, that you hear them, and tell them what you can and cannot do.  Also, encourage them to speak up to the managers who can make the appropriate changes.  Typically, members voices are much louder than instructors voices, although you may need to sit down and explain to the manager or owner why this issue will hurt their bottom line.  When handling student complaints, try not to turn negative or gripe to them about your hardships.

“Hey guys, it is really hot in here today, so the workout is going to be a bit less comfortable than usual.  This means you will need to work overtime to stay hydrated.  We’ll also take extra breaks to help keep our cool.  Then, after class, if you would all please stop by the front desk and ask to speak with Tracy, the manager on duty.  Share your thoughts on the situation and ask her to help us remedy this problem.  I’ll speak to her as well and see if we can’t get this taken care of by our next class.  If you can’t stay, it is doubly important to let them know why you are leaving.”

“We don’t have a stereo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get a great workout.  Having the music off will mean that we get to work just like athletes do — nothing to distract us, just a chance to hear our bodies better and find our zone more effectively.  I hope you can see today as a new type of challenge, and I’ll speak with the maintenance crew to see if we can get this fixed for next week.  You might also drop a comment in the box or send an email to the owners just to let them know it needs to be addressed.”

It’s Common Sense

Handling your students really boils down to common sense.  How would you want to be treated in the same position as your student?  Even if you deem their request to be a bit crazy, they still deserve your attention and concern.  Let your students know that you care about their experience in your club and in your class, and you are guaranteed to see them return for more!  Set a good example and encourage others also to do good turns to one another and we might actually see the whole world get on board with kindness!  If only the crew of American Airlines could have done the same….


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