Lessons from my Gym Membership Fail

Trips - Los Angeles 2006 (14)

Image by clarkwoods via Flickr

I was all  ready to join a gym.

I weighed my options and decided having a place to go and listen to audio books while walking or biking indoors would be a good thing.  I found a place close to my house that offered what I needed at a price I was willing to pay.  I was ready to sign a contract.

The only thing standing between me and membership was my fear that the actual membership agreement was not in alignment with my understanding of the agreement.  So I went to the gym to get information (in writing) about the $10 per month deal and a copy of the contract so I could look it over to make sure it was something that worked for me.

Turns out, they don’t have any information about the deals they offer in writing–even in the form of marketing materials.  Also,  the contract is “proprietary” — the only copies that can leave the building are the ones that have already been signed.

Not what I needed to feel like I was about to make a good decision.  In fact, the five minutes I spent in the gym undid  all the work I’d done selling myself on the concept of a gym membership in general.

When I first considered telling this story on the blog, I expected it to be a story about crappy customer service, and how we should never treat our supporters in a similar, manipulative manner.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I think there is a deeper, more difficult lesson here.

I did not happen to pick the one gym with crappy membership rules–those rules are standard to the industry.  When the sales dude told me in one breath they were not like other gyms and in the next breath started listing some of the additional fees associated with membership, the cognitive dissonance did not explode his brain–because he is so seeped in gym culture he doesn’t even notice the conflict.

And he wasn’t alone.  Lots of people join gyms.  The rules for joining are not a barrier for them–in fact, these rules are so similar gym to gym that they are something of a comfort.  The gym is a place where they know how to navigate the hidden rules and that makes them feel special.*

So what does this mean for you and your nonprofit?  Culture is the velvet rope of your organization.  It turns many people away–and at the same time makes the people inside feel like they are a part of something special.  The trick is deciding who you want on each side.

*this part of the lesson would never have occurred to me in terms of gym membership–I’m so not the target market.  What brought it home for me was an ushering experience at a local community theatre.  I’d not worked front-of-house in nearly 10 years and yet two minutes into stuffing programs I felt like I’d come home.

12 thoughts on “Lessons from my Gym Membership Fail

  1. What a great post. I don’t like joining anything because then the commitment makes me feel guilty when I don’t hold up my side of the bargain. If diverse parties could agree to a laissez faire existence, I think more people would volunteer to help non-profits because they wouldn’t feel so guilty when time restraints force them to decline lending their services at times. Possiblly a broader volunteer base would still yield the needed volunteer hours needed to run an organization.
    Lucie Carruthers

    • Thanks Lucie, this is an important perspective. This concern about being asked to do more than you are comfortable with causes a vicious cycle. Fewer people volunteer–which means there is more work for the volunteers who remain–leading to more people quitting because the commitment becomes to much. Having a low stress, no guilt way for people to dip their toe into working with your nonprofit may be a good way to break that cycle.

  2. I think there are 2 factors at work which provoked you to abandon the gym.

    The first is that they asked you to get married on the first date. A short, trial membership first might have made you feel more comfortable. The cultural industry equivalent is asking first time ticket buyers if they would like a subscription automatically. Better to ask AFTER they have seen their first show, rolling the already paid dollars into the cost of the subscription. When you ask for a subscription right away, it just feels like an up-sell, trying to dig deeper into their wallet at the first opportunity. A follow up sales call feels more like you are helping them save money and are interested in their feedback.

    The second factor is the unsavoury nature of ‘fine print” which makes it impossible properly compare offers and which feels like a deliberate lie. The cultural industry equivalent is sometimes found in on-line box offices which take in all your information, and then at the very end, reveal their big beefy service charge. Tickets are advertised $20 but there is a $7 extra fee. OUCH! It would be better to disclose this from the start.

    • Great points Sheila–and great connections to cultural organizations. I’ve seen museums and zoos use the “apply your ticket price to your membership” idea–but I’ve never seen it in a performing arts organization. Brilliant!

      As for the other points I think there are two different lessons in play here–the first is about trust. In the case of the gym, I’m not sure a trial membership would have helped me, because my concerns weren’t around the quality of the gym they were about getting into something I couldn’t easily get out of. To use your metaphor, I don’t ever want to marry my gym–I want them to be there for me when I need them and to be able to walk away without consequences later. 😉

      What I am finding more interesting as I reflect on the experience is how I could feel so obviously taken advantage of in the situation while the gym dude seemed totally oblivious to how his organizations rules were getting in the way of what we both wanted. Your example of fine print fits this piece of the problem quite well.

      This also applies to situations where no money changes hands. If your organization advertises that you want and need volunteers–and then ignores people who ask questions about volunteering–or makes it ridiculously difficult to get involved, your organization has basically channeled the gym dude.

  3. Maureen,
    This has me thinking about a couple of things. First, what kind of unintentional barriers and lost opportunities am I creating? The other is how would I know? It’s so hard to see what could have been when people turn away, so hard to find out why without getting to the relationship stage where they might tell me. Hmmmm.

    • That’s the real rub, isn’t it Christine? There is probably a whole post in ways to shine light on the invisible. One easy to say, but difficult to execute option is to find the lesson in the criticism hurled by people who don’t know or like us well enough to deliver it in an easy to hear manner. That can be a dangerous path, as sometimes there is no there, there. But if one finds people disengaging at the same point in the process on a regular basis–it may be worth looking down the rabbit hole. . .

  4. This is a huge insight, Maureen, and one I wish more nonprofit and small business folks could take to heart – it would make all the difference to a membership-based organization, in particular, if the people on the inside could see this: the rules and rituals that are “industry standard” and comforting/comfortable to insiders can be a very real barrier to bringing new people into the organization. To begin with, who is assigned to explain those rules in friendly, helpful terms? Most often, the newbies are expected to flail around and figure it out for themselves. Or, no, that makes it sound like this is a deliberate choice – and it’s most often not; and perhaps that’s worse. Our organizations are crying out for members, but we forget what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, and so no one reaches out to help them learn this new language and culture.

    • You are so right Rebecca–and it can also work the other way. We can work so hard to welcome anyone and everyone that “veterans” start to feel like there isn’t really room for them anymore. No matter what you do some people will feel like insiders, and some will feel like they aren’t welcome. The key (from an organizational perspective) is to make conscious decisions about where that line is.

  5. Hmmmm …. Maureen, you’re right that health club marketing does suck (as so often do the salespeople). But how is that different from the cell phone industry? Or banks with their hidden fees? Or your Internet provider?

    One gets a cell phone or cable television or an internet provider or a bank account because of a perceived need – customer service generally be damned.

    I got a gym membership to use the weights and take classes and build my fitness level – period. Not for the customer service.

    Our supporters don’t have that similar *need.* Heck, we need them. So to me this is like comparing limes to apples.

    • I agree with you *halfway* on this, Pamela.

      Gyms and cell phone companies and the rest do supply a concrete need or provide a desired service to the individual member/customer, where nonprofits – charities, at least – don’t necessarily have that clear benefit in exchange for donations. (No doubt the charities that send out address labels and greeting cards were addressing that very gap, but need to rethink what they’re offering in these days of declining snail mail use – but that’s a rant for another day!)

      Member-based nonprofits and associations are a closer comparison for the gym analogy, perhaps. Yes, we join a gym to gain a specific benefit, but if the culture of the place is uncomfortable or the customer service is such that the experience of dealing with the people there is not a comfortable one, we’re likely to pick a different gym (or group) to join. Hence the rise in recent decades of “women’s” gyms, designed to make women feel more welcome. But I digress…

      Even given an element of limes-to-apples, I do think Maureen’s analogy is a sound one. Example: a certain charity I know of has their site set up to require a telephone number in order for online donations to be processed. I want to give money, but I don’t want to get on their call list. No phone number – no payment completion – no donation for the charity. Revisiting their existing “rules” might be as a useful exercise for this nonprofit as for Maureen’s gym.

      Does that make sense?

    • Hi Pamela,

      The metaphor certainly only goes so far, and “service” providers have a lot more leeway than most nonprofits. My point was not “at least we are better than that guy” but rather that even when we are trying to be as welcoming as possible our “insider” perspective makes us blind to the ways we are turning off people without knowing it. Rebecca’s example of the organization that requires a phone number to make a donation is a great one.

      I’m also not suggesting it is possible to please “all of the people all of the time” only that it is in the best interest of our organizations to be as aware as possible of who we are welcoming in and who we are brushing off.

      Thanks so much for continuing the conversation–it’s always great to see you here.

  6. Thanks Pamela for pointing me to this great post, its a very interesting comparison to other membership organizations.

    I actually think the compassion of the gym to cable and phone service is very applicable. The key factor is not the monthly fee aspect of membership, but commitment term. We live in a world of monthly fees now. You can’t even rent a movie any more without a monthly membership. Where I think members and organizations are butting heads is that if you want out – you have to pay up big time. Organizations want to lock down members to have predictable income, members are willing to pay monthly but don’t want to feel trapped if they are not happy.

    We had a client for many years on retainer – which is basically a use it or lose it membrship. Last year they started to chafe at the structure. The client needed more flexibility, so we increased their hourly rate, billed than after we did the work. They have ended up using more hours than they used to, paying us more and appearing quite happy about it.

    Most membership organizations couldn’t function if they made special arrangements with every member. Its seems however, that the feeling of being locked in if you are not happy can sour all kinds of relationships. No organization will be able to make everyone happy, but some of the things that can help include points like Rebecca made. Membership organizations of all types are horrible with initiation. That first year immersion is key to member satisfaction. One way to do that and keep your longer term members engaged is through different types of ambassador programs. I am on a mission to try and get orgs to be more clear about how to get involved and provide volunteer opportunities at the 30 minute level up to the almost-staff level.

    Most people aren’t as thorough as Maureen, we sign anything thinking its going to be great. The real resentment for being stuck in a membership comes when people are not getting what they expected. Organizations need to do a better job being clear about what they do, attracting the right people and setting up systems to help them get what they want. I think membership orgs could learn a lot from development departments. Acquisition without stewardship just doesn’t work.

    Now if only I could switch phone service when I wanted to…

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