Lesson 3 Know Your Enemy (Understanding the Fitness Industry, Part 3)

Professional and Not-so Professional Fitness Salespeople (and How to Play Their Game)

The health and fitness club industry is diversifying at an alarming rate. The “big box” clubs (large franchises in major commercial shopping complexes) will most likely have trained sales staff with a sales manager who are paid on performance, i.e. commission. They are hired on the basis of certain qualities. Most importantly, they have to be money motivated and look like a fitness-type character. That’s about it as far as requirements. Therefore, you are likely to run into intense personalities with little education. If they had better education or life experience, or more ambition, they’d probably be doing something else.

Smaller mom-and-pop shops in suburban and rural areas will have a very different atmosphere, and may or may not have a sales-driven staff member there to meet you at the front desk. This may sound ideal to you, but don’t be deceived. Commissioned-based sales staff can work out better for you in the end if you know how to relate to them on their level. A laid back, hung-over, minimum wage earner in a lax club is not necessarily a boon for your membership acquiring endeavors. They probably don’t care if you walk in the door, much less if you join. They may be waving a flier in front of you with published rates from last year and don’t know how to do anything other than hand you paperwork to fill out and show you where the bathroom is. Their ultimate ambition might be to sit down low on the desk so no one can see them and watch the TV or the girl on the treadmill until their shift is over.

The new generation of young workers in America has a different view of hard work, ethics, and hospitality. Service levels vary widely, but are usually disappointing. If you run into the minimum-wage-like situation at your club of choice, don’t despair, you have more options than you think. Of course, if you are in the younger generation, you will have opportunities to relate to these employees in a way that could give you great advantage in getting a cheap membership, or paying nothing at all for all kinds of access and amenities of the fitness club.

All clubs will have a guest registry and require that you sign in. Their goal is to get as much contact information from you as possible. They need it to track how many times you have been there and in order to follow up with you to try to get you to join. Depending on the quality and level of training given to the sales or front desk staff, you may be greeted cheerfully and funneled through their information system. In a larger club you will be asked to sit down and fill out all the information. A more sales-oriented club will have some version of an intake form, a Client Analysis Form, or CAF. The CAF has basic contact information questions, but also represents a needs questionnaire, as well as a tool to overcome your common objections, mostly related to time, price, and having to have your significant other there in order to make a buying decision. For instance, the CAF will probably ask you how many times per week you eat out, if you eat fast food, if you watch a lot of TV, if you have a sedentary job, if you smoke, etc. A casual observer will obviously assume the questions are there to analyze their level of health and fitness and to uncover bad habits. This is only partially true. The real power of the CAF is that it allows the club sales staff to help build a case for how you need the club and can afford the club. If you mention that you eat out twice per week and then you tell the fitness professional that you can’t afford the dues, they can rebut your silly argument by showing you how you can easily afford it if you simply stop your bad dining out habit or if you cut back on a pack of cigarettes. It is powerful because it works. You need to know that this process exists. In my experience, there are very few clubs with trained salespeople that can actually do this. If you run into one who really knows their game, don’t get scared or worried. Later you will find out how to make them your best ally.

In the beginning, the best thing you can do is to remain honest and fill out all forms you need to be conciliatory. This puts you in the position of being able to ask them questions. After all, you opened up to them, so it is only fair that they do the same.

This leads me to a particularly important point of negotiation. I have been in many circumstances as a salesperson where I ran into an irate prospect who had obviously been burned in the past, or who had decided that they could outsmart me. This prospect had a large sales chip on his or her shoulder and decided that all salespeople were bad and all companies wanted to take advantage of all customers and that only the sharp, cynical, shrewd customers that always said no and fought with tooth and nail ever ended up ahead. I believe this attitude comes from a scarcity mentality, where all things are bad and one can only hope for the lesser of evils. In other words, these people despise the fact that they need to do something in the first place to maintain health, despise the fact that they have failed in the past to do so without a club, and despise the idea of having to join one -- before they even show up enough times to prove they will use it! Now, how could they hope for anything other than more of the same? They show up and they hate the whole world before they even arrive (although they would probably not admit it), so now they have to try to lessen the damage by haggling to pay less or talking themselves into giving up and going home. They actually hope that you say something that will give them an excuse for not doing business with you, thereby letting them off the hook.

The irony here is these types of people think they are shrewd and are going to fool the wolves into not eating them alive, but in reality they are sabotaging their intentions. They don’t see that the gateway to what they want is through people and communication. If they irritate the very people they are going to buy from, why would those same people give them a great deal?

Think about it this way: If I have a lawn mower and I start a small service mowing lawns and I am going to charge the average homeowner $50 to mow their lawn, what would influence my decision to move on price? If I moved my price up and down by $10 depending on many factors, such as size of yard, time of day, weather, repeat business, whether I got referrals from a certain customer, and the supply and demand, how would I make a final decision between two identical customers and situations? Let’s say I could go to one customer who smiled and had pleasant conversations and appreciated my offering and paid quickly without much hassle. I might charge full price, but I might drop $10 on occasion simply to keep a good customer happy.

Now think about the other customer, who follows the crafty, shrewd, mean mentality of beating me up mentally and emotionally and not trusting a word I say. To this person, who frowned and doubted and picked and complained and haggled for two hours before paying and then paid only a portion and paid the rest late, I not only won’t give the discount, I will do everything in my power to add $10! If they then talk me down to $10 under my normal price, they would temporarily feel like they “won”, but I would go away feeling taken advantage of and I would probably never forget it. The next time I encountered them I would have a psychological hurdle that would hinder me from even providing adequate service. What goes around comes around.

Therefore, when given paperwork to fill out, the easiest thing you can do is just fill it out. If you feel like you are in a sleazy club or are being conned, then you should just walk out before you get started. There is absolutely no reason to lie to people or to write down fake addresses, or fight them about writing a phone number. If you are of the old school and refuse to give out personal information in fear of identity theft, you need to talk about that with the person right up front the minute they hand you the form and ask if they can make an exception by allowing you to defer this information until you sign up. However, be aware that even the act of doing this will set you apart from the norm as a “problem” customer, thereby making later negotiations more challenging, due to lack of rapport with the person you are negotiating with. If your information privacy is that important to you (which they can probably find on the Internet these days if they really wanted to), then you will have to shop around a lot more to find a club where they are sloppy with their record keeping and don’t care about you filling out a form. Good luck.

After the initial greeting and registration, you will most likely be given a tour. The front desk person will probably call a consultant over to show you the club in a larger facility. If it is a small club, it will be the person at the desk wearing all the hats. Either way, their goal, if they are paid on commission, is to get as much of your money as possible that day. Statistics show that if you walk away without buying on your first visit, the chances of that person getting a sale from you diminish significantly. In their mind, once you walk out the door, you aren’t coming back.

You will be shown the club, perhaps after a questioning process centered on the Client Analysis Form. If you have coupons or advertisements, a good club will validate them right away, so that you don’t feel like it is a bait and switch. Be very careful at this point. They expect a new customer like you to be caught off guard, spending your time just looking around the club, so they have time to size you up. Spend your time enjoying the tour and asking questions about every single detail, but spend most of your attention sizing up the sales person or trainer who is showing you around. Try to put the spotlight on them and ask them questions about themselves, especially if you get a good legitimate opportunity to ask personal questions. He who asks the questions controls the conversation. Their job is to ask questions, so be careful not to upset them by interrogating them. It is important to build rapport, but maintain the initiative at all times. Be proactive and positive and you will gain a psychological advantage that will empower you to sell the salesman on giving you the best deal on earth.

Minimum Wage Flunkey vs. Money Motivated Sales Professional

Here is an important distinction: are you dealing with a minimum wage flunkey or with a money-motivated sales professional? You should be able to tell the difference between these two potential interviewers within the first 30 seconds of your meeting, if not sooner. It is very important, if not absolutely critical that you know which of the two you are dealing with.

The Minimum Wage Flunkey does not care that you are there other than for mild entertainment. If the club is a nice family-owned place or a culture-progressive new franchise, you may get a kid who is just nice, so they might not fit the aforementioned stereotypical description. Nevertheless, we are looking for motivations. The low-level employee is not to be underestimated, however. Even though he might not be able to negotiate a deal out of the ordinary, or change the status quo paperwork in any way, he might be able to get you a free pass for three months or dig up the hidden coupons to use on your membership. He might also give you inside information about the club that can help you down the road. Most importantly, if you befriend him, he can tell you everything about everyone there, since he is like a bartender; after all, it is a very social place. I always recommend becoming great friends with the front desk, as they are the gatekeepers to the entire business: the management, the trainers, the vendors, the other staff, as well as the members. They are the eyes and ears of the club.

My first recommendation is to take your time with them on first meeting and hang out, if possible. Just check things out and try to get to know them. If the club has a prescribed way of handling guests, don’t fight it, but do try to delay it slightly by being personable and congenial with your first point of contact. In a busy club, they may be in a hurry to pass you off to the next person in their chain, but make every effort to use humor or compliments to get moments to ask them questions. Again, questions are key. The more you get them to open up, the more you will have opportunities to glean information crucial to your objectives.

If you are successful at stealing a moment with the gatekeeper before being pushed along, and you have them talking, you must listen intently to their every word and gesture. When they realize you are amiable and sincerely interested in them, they will undoubtedly start telling you inside information about the club without even realizing it. To break the log jam and get the river of information flowing, you may need to throw out some seemingly harmless compliments from time to time, like “You really know everything about this club” or questions, such as: “So, you seem to really know how everything works here, if you were me, how would you get the best deal” (or, less bold, “…what would you do?”)?

Other conversation ‘greasers’:

  • This looks like a great place to belong…
  • You look like you are in great shape, how do you do it?
  • Man, this place sounds like it is going to be expensive, can you give me a tip on getting in anyway?
  • So who is the best trainer here? Why is that?
  • Wow! That _______ that you showed me is really impressive. Do you use it a lot?
  • What workout do you do? Where did you get it?
  • You seem to know everything about how things work here. I bet you know every detail about how to get the biggest discounts. <Smile and nod>
  • This seems like a good job. How is it working out for you? Do you have other jobs too?

The minute you turn the spotlight on them, you really do control the conversation. The hottest of these conversation-controlling questions is the hot button last one about their job. As soon as you bring the fact that they are there to make money and herd cattle like you, you destroy the veil that everyone hides behind and bring the full consciousness of the market place to the surface. This often makes the front desk person or sales person uncomfortable enough that they squirm a bit and will do anything to either avoid the personal conversation or they just spill the beans and completely open up to you.

They might not want to talk about their job if they hate it or think the club is terrible. If so, you need to pick up on it. They may love the club and be full of belief about their future there. Good for them. Find out why.

Even if they try to avoid the discussion, the only successful way out of it and back to a professional ‘controlling’ environment that they command is to be amiable and friendly with you long enough to quickly answer the question and fire a question back to you; either way, they are in the hot-seat and more susceptible to giving you what you want… a fantastic deal and a discount on everything.

Keep in mind that none of this will happen if they are going through a scripted routine to show you the club like a robot. You need to break this pattern by slowing down and asking questions directed at the individual. You must slow down their tour rate. Their objective is to keep the spotlight on you and show you everything while asking you fitness related questions to get you thinking about joining, and doing it quickly.

Another great way to break their pattern is to ask for their contact information when they ask for yours. After all, it is how professionals meet, isn’t it? If you act professional and offer your contact information, isn’t it fair to expect an exchange? I don’t mean they say their name is John and then they give you the main phone number to AAA Fitness, the address, and the hours. I mean that you specifically ask them how you can get a hold of them and then ask them if they have a cell phone and an email. Believe me, this is personal, and it screams of accountability. They then feel watched and will have that subconscious knee-jerk reaction to be on good behavior and treat you right so they can either get a good recommendation or at least avoid an angry customer contacting them down the line. Asking and getting contact information sends a very clear message that you care and that you want to be in an open environment of trust with all the people you work with. If you treat them as if they don’t matter, then you allow them to treat you the same. As soon as you make a friend, know their name, and personal information about them, you establish a level of trust that is harder to break than most people think. If you have a business card, give it to them, and ask for theirs.

At this point you are either getting the rates from the gatekeeper at the front desk, or you will have been passed off to the professional sales person who needs to sell you a membership to put food on their table.

The Professional Sales Person

Much of this discussion applies equally to the professional sales person as it does to front desk zombies. Questions are still critical for getting the spotlight on them. They will, however, be more adept at identifying techniques and manipulation than the gatekeepers, so you must be careful how you progress in conversation. The easiest way to avoid problems in this area is to be sincere. If you ask questions about their personal life, you need to not only act interested, but be interested. It is an important distinction, one that will serve you well in life, discount hunting or not.

The sales rep may be trained well or trained poorly. Enjoy their tour and discussion. Notice if they are using anything that resembles rehearsed techniques. They already have your attention and interest (usually), otherwise you wouldn’t be in the club and you wouldn’t be talking to them. Their primary focus, therefore, is to build your desire high enough to get you to take action. They will ask you some pointed questions if they are good, due to the fact that they need you to sign up right then and there. If not, they think (and statistics prove) that you will not be back. If you do come back, they will probably be working somewhere else by then. Either way they make no money.

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