24 May 2018 Health Club Management Handbook
 

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Health Club Management Handbook - Stay or leave?

Research round-up

Stay or leave?


Research conducted exclusively for Health Club Management looks at why people leave health clubs, and how are they treated during the leaving process

Mike Hill, Leisure-net Solutions
Interaction with staff is needed to keep members engaged and stop them leaving Photo: Shutterstock.com/ candy box images
Most issues could be resolved by gyms Photo: Shutterstock.com
One respondent was so disillusioned she opted to buy a bike instead of joining a new gym Photo: Shutterstock.com
A reasonable proportion of leavers could probably be persuaded to stay and give it another go Photo: Shutterstock.com

What happens when people leave our health clubs and leisure centres? We know retention is an issue, but what we don’t know is how well we handle the leaving process. With anecdotal evidence suggesting it’s nothing short of terrible, we asked a focus group of 12 ex-members to share their experiences.

Before the focus group took place, we set the scene by surveying 50 different leavers about their experiences. The results reveal that, despite the many personal explanations why people leave, the main reasons can be grouped into ‘cost’, ‘moved’ and ‘no time’.

We then asked how these leavers felt their decision to cancel was handled. Just over half (51 per cent) said it had been handled reasonably well, but more than a third (36 per cent) thought it had not been handled at all well .

Lastly, just under two-thirds said they would consider rejoining a health club or leisure centre again, but almost a third said they wouldn’t.

Why do members leave?
The focus group then explored in more depth the 12 ex-members’ experiences of leaving a gym. All had recently left one of three clubs in the Norwich area of the UK: a private hotel-based club, a university-based gym and a local authority management contractor site.

The group was first asked to reflect on why they’d decided to cancel their membership. The answers related to a wide range of personal reasons, most of which – on the surface – were beyond the centre’s control. For example, several talked about lack of motivation and ‘being lazy’.

General lack of motivation and perceived lack of time are issues that come up regularly in Leisure-net surveys, with ‘time’ the number one reason people give for not being more active. Operators need to be more proactive in addressing this, providing tailored support to help maintain members’ motivation and working with them to find time to fit in exercise sessions.

Perceived value for money
Two of the leavers had specific issues that seemed to be major factors in their decisions to leave. Neil, 44, a quantity surveyor, said: “I was really annoyed by how they treated customers. Some new equipment arrived which I’d been using for weeks. One day, while I was working out, a member of staff asked if my induction had included this new equipment. As it was prior to the equipment’s arrival I said no. The staff member told me I could no longer use it until I’d had another induction. I asked if I could have this immediately and was told no, so I asked for the manager, who was also very unhelpful and said I would have to wait.” For Neil, this led to an immediate decision: “I told them I would like to cancel my membership immediately. They let me leave and I will not go back.”

But there were other underlying reasons for him leaving. He mentioned that the gym was very crowded, and that he would prefer to pay a higher membership fee for a better level of service and more exclusivity. For Neil, membership of a gym is about perceived value for money, not absolute cost.

But for many of our leavers, cost made all the difference – and in most cases, their reasons for leaving were directly linked to frequency of usage. For example Ray, 32, a student paramedic, said: “I just wasn’t using the gym enough. My financial situation is difficult at the moment and gym membership seemed an easy saving. I was only a member for four months. I work near the gym but didn’t attend as much as I hoped I would.”

Apparent indifference
Once the members of the focus group had decided to leave their respective gyms, how was their decision taken and how was the process handled? None of the 12 members felt their request to leave was used as an opportunity to recover the situation. Not one was asked to discuss why they were leaving, and only two went through any sort of exit process.

Mark, 54, a retired office manager, was typical: “I rang and told them I wanted to cancel and they just said I would have to come in to sign a cancellation document. This annoyed me. I thought they would try and make me change my mind, but in fact the whole process only took a minute and was a waste of my time as well as theirs!”

Neil was even more amazed by his club’s response: “I didn’t receive any contact from anyone – just a letter accepting my cancellation. Considering why I was leaving, this made me even more angry.”

Dianne, 55, a recently retired teacher, was asked to go through her reasons for leaving, but as she explains, even this didn’t feel like an attempt to dissuade her: “The young instructor was really pleasant and just said he needed to fill in a form before he could organise my cancellation. I answered about six questions but he didn’t address any of the points I raised. It seemed a bit of a box-ticking exercise really.”

One member of the group – Ben, aged 45 – actually felt obstacles were put in his way to try and prevent him from leaving. He had a back problem and wanted a six-month break: “If they’d offered me a membership freeze I would have accepted, as I do intend to start working out again, but they seemed to want to make it quite difficult for me to cancel. That just made me more determined.”

The main impression shared by the entire group was one of indifference. Sarah, 32, a radiologist, said: “They really didn’t seem to mind one way or another, and they certainly didn’t see it as a personal comment on them or their facility.”

Evidently the clubs and centres our focus group used felt no obligation to make members feel valued or treat them as individuals – both factors proven to drive customer loyalty.

Future intentions
So did their treatment during the leaving process affect the group’s thoughts about joining a gym again in the future? Opinion was split: a third said they probably wouldn’t consider re-joining; the others had varying views.
Steve, a 38-year-old IT programmer, explained: “I don’t think I would go back to the same gym, but it hasn’t put me off joining another. To be honest, I wasn’t looking for them to change my mind – I just wanted them to make it as easy as possible for me to go.”

Annie, a 19-year-old student, disagreed: “The whole experience has put me off gyms altogether. I didn’t feel like I was valued as a member and leaving just confirmed that. I’m going to give gyms a miss and just buy a bike instead!”

In conclusion, the focus group represented the findings of the wider survey fairly well. While people give a lot of reasons for leaving, most boil down to a lack of motivation (or should that be lack of support?) leading to infrequent visits and therefore a feeling that the gym membership lacks value.

For some people, these feelings are precipitated by external events that truly are out of the club or centre’s control, but for most they are issues that operators could address if they wanted to, with interaction strategies put into place and appropriately trained staff on-hand to implement them.

Hold on tight
People aren’t generally looking for an exit process designed to change their mind, but considering that most leavers have only been members for a short time, surely the factors that encouraged them to join couldn’t have changed so dramatically?

It’s therefore highly likely that a reasonable proportion of leavers could, with the right approach, be persuaded to stay and give it another go. An approach that recognised a member’s motivation levels, and acknowledged that life situations do change, would be a good start. It must be possible to treat every member’s request individually and seriously, seeing it as an opportunity to re-engage them and recover the situation.

What is certain is that most other industries would not accept such a high turnover of customers without investing time trying to recover the potential loss – and, if the member did decide to leave, at least make sure the experience was as good as possible to encourage them to come back when they were ready.

What happened the last time you tried to cancel your mobile phone contract, for example? Chances are you were put through to a dedicated team member whose specific role it was to keep your business at almost any cost. While I’m not advocating that we take mobile phone companies as our role model, their dedication to keeping your business with new offers and packages designed around your individual needs is surely something we can aspire to.


FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Customer insight specialist Leisure-net Solutions – which also conducts research such as HAFOS, call-Focus and the Fitness Industry Confidence Survey – conducted this ex-member research exclusively on behalf of Health Club Management.
Email info@leisure-net.org
Tel +44 (0)1603 814233


Originally published in Health Club Handbook 2014 issue 1

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