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The Blog of Dr Paul Bedford

Use the F word more, if you want to improve member retention


The F word here is the not the F word popularised by Gordon Ramsey and Billy Connolly and frequently used by me when I am getting frustrated. The F word we need to focus on within the health club business if we want to retain more members is frequency, as it relates to frequency of visit.

 For the past few years the industry has been fixated on intensity of exercise, to help members achieve their goals. This may be due to the most commonly cited barrier to exercise being “I don’t have time”, these short but intense workouts can deliver the result but we need to be aware one of the most cited reasons for dropping out of exercise was increased intensity. In fact the research shows that as intensity goes up adherence goes down.

If we are seeking to improve the retention of our members we must understand the difference between retention, attrition and exercise adherence.

When I report on member retention I am talking about how long hey pay for, because retaining members can make or break a business. Attrition is a measure of how many quit, and is not the opposite of retention. Adherence relates to how many sessions are completed against how many were planned.

While the popular press are quick to discourage people from join clubs in January, proposing that they will have stopped going by March. The data tells a different story. In fact 30% more members quit in July than in January. But remember this is a measure of when they stop paying. When they stop attending is a measure of visit length. This is the gap between first and last visit. While reviewing pilot data for a North American study we were able to plot the retention curve from joining to stop paying as well as the first to last visit. The outcome can be seen in the image below.

 

 Pilot study (West South Central United States) measuring last vist and last paid. N=181,227

 At 12 months 42% of members were still visiting the club whilst 60.9 were still paying.

What appears to be happening here is that in the first few months of membership members stop visiting and quit very close together. As the months increase the gap between last visit and last payment grows. This could be for a number of reasons but one could be that those who have made it through the early months of membership may stop attending but believe that they will get back into at some point in the future. Towards the end of the study period it can be seen that the two curves once again come together. This could be the effect of contracts coming to an end and that inhibiting subsequence visits.

There is no one reason why people quit. However decreasing visit frequency certainly can be used to predict member behaviour. You need to think of it more as a cumulative effect, stemming from several factors".

This results in reduced frequency of visits and a shift in mindset.

  • Exercise cause discomfort and people avoid discomfort.
  • They become bored and feel they are not achieving their goals
  • They begin to re-evaluate value for money
  • Daily hassles and irritations take on an increased significance
  • They feel they are receiving low quality service

 

Frightening Facts

During the interviews for the Black Report I interviewed 1000 members who had been members of more than two clubs/facilities in his quest to better understand the gym member behaviours related to joining, staying and quitting. The Black Report research shows that on average only one in ten people are spoken to when they visit a gym, and this includes "hello" and "goodbye". The critical question therefore is whether consumers feel they receive a service or merely gain access to facilities?

The data and the interviews show that interaction is key if you want to drive visit frequency, "Members want a sociable gym, but this does not mean they want to socialise there. They want to be in a friendly and sociable environment."

I advise operators to provide all new members with the option of a consultation session, to discuss and establish their personal goals. This should result in a personal programme and follow up consultation which focuses on realistic visit frequency. By offering these basic services, members receive professional expertise for their money and feel they are important and valuable to your business. It also allows us to discus unrealistic visit frequency or achievement goals.  These services are proven to increase retention, therefore you may need to revisit your business model and consider rewarding those who play a key role in retaining members as well as the sales team who bring in new business. 

Interaction on the gym floor encouraging, guiding and reassuring members should be the base level of service with additional costs will be covered by your retained members. If this proves difficult, arrange for one person to be available at the busiest times so they impact as many people as possible. Why do we need an increased level of interaction with members, because these consultations and interactions provide an opportunity to stress the importance of frequency of visit and its impact of goal achievement.

When we begin to discus exercise adherence we move from the members financial behaviour, to their fitness behaviour.

In physical activity and exercise research adherence is measured by comparing the number of exercise sessions prescribed, compared to the number of sessions completed. Therefore in order for a member to achieve 100% adherence they must complete 12 training sessions in a month, if they have predicated a frequency of exercise of 12 sessions. Completing 9 sessions out of 12 is reported as 75% adherence. It is also possible to exceed 100% if the member completes more than 12 sessions in a month.

With those who are new to exercise advise them to begin by focusing on monthly targets, 12 times per month, rather than weekly targets, 3 times per week as this provides an opportunity to catch up if sessions are missed. You may also want to include the expression “build up to” 12 times per month, for those who are new to exercise, allowing them the opportunity to change old and establish new exercise habits.

It is important that we start to improve visit frequency for two reasons. Firstly the results that the member aspire to, require a certain frequency of attendance, in order to stimulate the body, to make the desired changes.

Secondly we can accurately predict that if they are not coming they won’t get their desired results and will eventually stop paying, resulting in a loss of revenue. It’s a loose, loose for member and club.

Past and present studies continue to use a simple question a short while into the membership to assist in the predicting member behaviour.


"How confident are you that you will still be members in six months?"

Follow up research on the same sample of members showed that responses to these questions were accurate. Therefore, if member confidence is boosted at 12 weeks, high risk members are far more likely to reach the six month mark.

It has also been found that of those surveyed, confidence at 12 weeks was significantly higher among those members who had received inductions, personal programmes and follow up reviews and had been frequenting the club.

Data from operators has shown us that people who use a gym four times a month are twice as likely to be active participants. If members leave a two week gap between visits in the early stages of their membership, their drop out risk increased dramatically.

Clubs should look to run reports from their operating systems that indicate these gaps in visit frequency as it relates to length of membership. Which is often missed. Reports should also be linked to the time of joining to identify high risk members. This way you can avoid waking sleeping members who believe that they will return sometime in the future when their diary eases up, who continue to pay and long standing members who happen to be on a long holiday.

 

Developing a Strategy

Knowing that the first three months is a key stage in the formation of member behaviours regarding their chosen centre/club, means that specific strategies can be developed for the various stages of membership.

In the early weeks/months of membership, ensure that they receive a consistent level of interaction to help them feel comfortable and acclimatise to the new, often daunting, gym environment. Provide them with assistance in achieving their frequency goals and set ranges of attendance 10-12 visits per month not absolutes. Consider building the member up from an initial 6-8 to 10- 12 per month over the first few months. Remember that over achievement, more visits than originally planned, is better motivator than underachievement, not attending all 12 sessions.

Once a personal programme has been developed, track their usage for any long gaps in attendance. Recognising each visit as an achievement and congratulating them on it will boost confidence and make their visit far more rewarding.

For members of 4-9 months, maintain regular communication but recognise that as confidence grows, they may not need the same level of intervention. Review their visit frequency to ensure the maintenance of the exercise behaviour. Introduce rewards and promotions whereby they can bring a friend or their family for the day. Little gestures of recognition can go a long way towards making members feel valued and appreciated. It also drives additional visits.

Veteran gym goers are likely to be far more self motivated and will hopefully feel ownership and a sense of it being ‘their gym’. Think about how you can reward their loyalty and when this should happen, each month, each additional year of membership?