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Fixing Your Y’s Guest Inquiry Process and Offering a Tour

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #72 - #75

Over the last several months I’ve secret shopped five YMCAs in different parts of the country. They’ve all had identical problems in the way they handle guest inquiries, engagement and data gathering.

Based on my 20 years of experience in the fitness industry and my work with Y’s across the country, I’d like to offer some advice for fixing these problems. Let’s explore every step of the guest inquiry process, from the time a potential member asks about a membership at the front desk, to your follow-up activities after the guest leaves.

  1. Initial inquiries

When a guest reaches out to you about a potential membership, this is your chance to make a great impression -- and thereby, a sale. Special attention should be given to inquiring guests because they are already interested in your organization. Remember, not handling this part of the process properly could drive a potential new member right over to your competitors.

Phone inquiries:

There should be a script at the front desk. When a team member answers the phone they can easily follow the short phone script posted next to the phone. 

Here’s an example:

Customer: I’m calling about membership prices and information.

Staff: Thank you for calling! Have you ever been here before?

Yes: Great, let me answer any questions you have.

No: Would you like to come in for a tour? We have a lot to offer here and would love to show you around.

  • If yes, schedule them for a tour time. This will emphasise the fact that it’s an appointment. This will significantly improve your show ratio for phone inquires.

Walk-in inquiries:

You should have a 90+ percent closing ratio with walk-in traffic. Think of the process someone goes through before walking in:

  • They hear about many fitness facilities in the area
  • They make the decision to check out the Y
  • They think about it (sometimes for years)
  • They’re motivated to do something about their health
  • They find time to stop in (everyone is busy)

They finally come in. This is your opportunity to shine.

In my experience, the tour portion is rare at YMCAs I’ve been in (which is over 120). The front desk hands you a price sheet and  basically says, “See ya later” in most Y’s. If you get a tour, they’re all very basic. They are now calling it a “cause-driven tour” but it's the same tour with a different name.

Here are a few factors at play when an employee gives you a tour:

  • How the employee is feeling that day (happy or going through the motions)
  • How motivated they are to give a tour (they may not be)
  • What information they remember to share during the tour (if you do a tour correctly there is a lot of key information to cover)
  • Are they following the cause-driven tour system or just falling back into their old, stale tour
  1. Gathering guest data

One of the most important things you can do up front is get as much information on your inquiring guest as you can. At the very least, you’ll want to get their name, phone number and email address so you can follow up on the lead and stay in touch if they don’t make a decision right away.

  1. Offering a tour

When a guest walks in and inquires about a membership there needs to be a system in place or everyone will do their own thing -- and that never works! The process doesn’t have to be complex, but it does need to be exact. There should be a proper guest experience that embodies what your Y is trying to portray in the community.

Here is a quick example:

Customer: Hi, my name is Brian and I may be interested in a membership.

Staff: Hi, my name is Beth, it’s nice to meet you (get up and shake their hand with a smile). I’m sure you have lots of questions. I would like to give you a short, 20-minute tour and explain who we are and what we have to offer. 

Yes: Please fill out this short tour card and I will get someone to help you.

No: OK, no problem. Before answering your questions would you mind filling out a short guest inquiry form?

Note: This will allow you to market to them in the future if they decide not to join.

I hope these tips are of value and that your team will apply the techniques to make an immediate impact on your membership process. In my next blog I will be talking about how to set up a tour (mapping process). 

Stay tuned for more secret shopping / training missions from “The Secret Shopper!”


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Dare to Compare!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #71

I secret shopped my 71st YMCA in Indiana.

I was at my northern office for a few days and one of my employees asked me to work out with him.

"Where do you work out?” I asked. He said he is a member of a "really nice" gym in town. He was raving about this place and excited to be a member.

We met the next morning and he was right; the place was very nice. The woman at the front desk had me fill out some information and offered a tour. I noticed that she entered all my guest data into their computer system. The welcome packet she handed me was a nice organized folder, with the hours, programs and classes they offer.

The tour guide was friendly and gave me a simple walk-through, telling me where everything was located, hours, classes, pool schedule, programs for adults and kids, etc. The tour had no substance or information gathering, but the facility was exceptional.

After the tour, she presented prices and asked for the sale. I explained that I am only in the area a few times a month and it wouldn't make sense to join, but I would come back.

When I was pulling out of the parking lot I received a text that said "Welcome to _______ ! Thank you for your interest in our facility. It was a pleasure showing you around. We hope you will come visit us again." I was impressed.

A week later, I received a follow up call to thank me for my visit. They asked if I had any additional questions, and said that they would love to have me as a member, if I hadn't joined anywhere else yet. I appreciated the follow up call but they should have taken better notes in their CRM system. I didn't plan on becoming a member due to not being in the area that often, and they should have known that before calling me. There are a lot of things I could suggest to improve their process, but they are doing many things right.  


The Y Comparison

I decided to head over to the Y to compare the two facilities.

Side note: The Y is different and shouldn't be lumped into the fitness center group as a competitor. The Y does a lot for kids, families and their community. However, unless you share that information and educate guests, they will lump you into the "just another gym" category. Our team talks to thousands of prospective members every month at Ys across the country, and very few look at the Y differently. We share history, fun facts, community involvement, donation amounts, and every Y story we can come up with to differentiate the Y from other gyms. This is a key part of our process to develop membership.

It was mid-morning when I pulled into the parking lot. I saw a huge banner on the Y that said "join our cause-driven organization." I walked in and the guy at the front desk asks if he can help me. I said my opening line: "Hi, my name is Brian. I'm new to the area and may be interested in a membership."

He handed me a price sheet and said that membership includes this location and an "express location" on the other end of town. I'm standing at the front desk, looking at hallways in both directions, wondering what they offer.

"Do you have anything for kids to do here?" I asked, hoping to prompt a tour.

"Yes, we have child watch and a pool," he said.

I really wanted to write about the tour comparison so I was working him, trying to get a tour. I asked a few more questions and finally said "OK, well I can't see anything from the front desk, so can I walk around?"

"Yeah, sure, go check it out."

I mentally shook my head in disappointment. After a quick walk around, I passed by the front desk, said thanks, and walked out. As I am leaving I see the "Cause-Driven" words on the banner and realize they're meaningless. They should take the banner down. They are just another gym. Actually, they are a poor representation of a gym.  

This area is oversaturated with every fitness center you can think of, from the high-price wellness centers to the low-price clubs. I have no idea how some Ys stay in business. If they were in the for-profit world, without community donations, paying taxes, they would be out of business. This type of location reminds me of a government ran business, inefficient, losing money, lack of the entrepreneurial spirit and energy, but they stay open.

I am surprised at how prevalent this problem is. I really didn't understand how bad it was until starting this blog. I knew that Ys didn't have a tour system and it was a problem, but I thought, "that's why they hire us." We give quality tours, educate, get members connected, train their staff on a tour system, leave them in a great position to take care of the new members and focus on retaining them. If a Y can't even give a simple tour and cover some basic Y facts, they are not going to have a system in place for retention, member engagement and customer service.

The secret shopping missions started in just locations I was working with. It allowed me to gather key information for our consulting campaign. It's morphed into stopping into as many Ys as I can to secret shop them. It is my personal mission to help every Y across the country develop a tour system, and tell the Y story and history to every guest. If this doesn't change, the YMCA history will be lost.

Frankly, it's lost in most places I visit. I fear when the Y loses their senior donor base, the next generation will give much less. The seniors that I talk with have a much better understanding of the Y and spent a lot of childhoods at the Y. They have loyalty to the Y and continue to support it. The next generation doesn't have the same loyalty. Back then it was a completely different landscape. The fitness industry has changed dramatically and if there aren't big changes in the organization it will eventually be extinct.   

I am encouraged every day to keep this up when I hear about how this blog has helped a Y. I'm motivated by executive directors that take time to email and thank me for the blog and tell me they are applying the information to their Y.

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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How Much Can We Make on Coffee?

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #70

I secret shopped my 70th YMCA in North Carolina.

The New Year is always a busy time for our company. I finished setting up our third YMCA campaign and decided to stop at a Y on my way back to Charlotte, NC airport to head home. 

When I pulled up, there were signs all over the lawn about an enrollment fee special. This is such a played out promotion that is done every January at most Y’s. In my opinion, it's a bad idea to do the same promotion at the exact same time of the year. You are conditioning the market to rely on a once a year discount and wait until that time of year to join. Your marketing should be more strategic, creative and thought-out.   

I walk into a reception area with three employees behind the desk. I was greeted and asked if they could help me.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m new to the area and may be interested in a membership.”

The associate introduced me to the membership director that happened to be behind the desk. After a brief interaction, I was asked if I would like a tour. “That would be great,” I said.

After entering through a metal turnstile, I immediately saw a $1.00 K-cup machine (the first and last one I was hoping to see was on a secret shopping mission in PA) vending machine. Is it just me, or does it seem counterproductive to try and sell expensive K-cups at a Y? Do you really make any money from selling $1.00 K-Cups?

You want members to interact after workouts, right? Coffee is a great way to do that. By the same token, if you want seniors to sit and chat before and after workouts, coffee is a great way to get them to interact.

Whether you are for or against the Silver Sneaker program, a lot of Ys offer it. Want to encourage the Silver Sneaker member to swipe their card? Offer a sitting area with free coffee (have a donation box by the cups) in the morning and see a spike in senior traffic. In my opinion, you will make more money that way.

I was working with a Y in MO and they had this “coffee thing” figured out. They had a space in the Y with 6 round tables and chairs with a coffee maker in the middle. I watched groups of seniors every morning, play cards, read the paper, hang out in groups and enjoy each other’s company – drinking coffee. In other Ys I see the opposite side of the slate. They offer no coffee or seating area, and it’s a ghost town.    

Back to the tour: The representative was friendly, but that was about it. She didn’t fill out a tour card or gather any guest data, and she gave me a very basic tour. No substance, no education and no Y history. After the tour she handed me some information, but didn’t ask for the sale. I said thank you and headed out the door.


The critique: 


  • Friendly staff
  • Offered a tour



  • Get a tour card and use it
  • Gather guest data so you can market to me in the future
  • Share what makes you different during the tour
  • Share some Y history and donation stats
  • Educate me on why I should workout with some benefits and advantages
  • Don’t sell $1.00 k-cups. Instead, set up a senior gathering area with free coffee

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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Let Me Take Some Notes on This...

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #69

I secret shopped my 69th YMCA in Virginia.

I flew from Denver (epic skiing – read blog mission 68) to Charlotte, NC, rented a car, and drove to a Y in southern VA, for an onsite consulting campaign. I arrived early, so I decided to go and workout before the Y closed.

On the walk to the front desk I passed a “synergy zone” room (love the name) with a multi-function fitness station – perfect for advanced PT – and a suspended track with many members actively escaping the winter weather.

I used my YMCA AWAY privileges for a day pass. I was surprised at the lack of guest data they gathered from me. I signed a guest waiver, but what about getting my email or phone number to use for marketing in the future? I could be a prime candidate for a membership. Maybe I’m moving to the area. No one asked any questions or gathered any information from me.

This was a missed opportunity for a proactive marketing effort, that could be targeted specifically to “warm leads” – people who purchase a day pass, use an AWAY pass, a member guest, parents of a child in Y programs, etc. These are valuable leads and potential future members. Most guests are interested in fitness and paid a high day fee to work out. Every Y should have a database with basic contact information and the ability to easily download and use that data wisely.

I headed downstairs to work out. The first thing I see in the strength training area is weights scattered all over the place. Weight plates leaning up against benches, dumbbells lying unorganized on the floor near the rack. It was a mess. I finished up my workout and looked around at the rest of the Y. The cardio equipment was crammed in a room with the circuit training machines. It looked like a maze of equipment that you had to squeeze through. If you get 10 people in that room it would be chaos. I immediately thought of a few ways they could improve the “flow” of the wellness space. The rest of the Y was laid out well, though, with a beautiful viewing area of the pool and nice changing areas.  

The next morning, I secret shopped the Y and it was the same tour I have heard many times. The tour representative was friendly, but that was about it. They didn’t fill out a tour card, gather any guest data, and gave me a very basic tour. Not one word about what makes them a cause-driven organization. They did however, take time to show me the prices, instead of handing me a sheet and sending me out the door.

Later that morning I had a staff meeting to discuss the upcoming membership drive. After the meeting, I was pleasantly surprised by how many staff members came up to me and wanted to learn our tour mapping process. The people at this Y were very engaged in the membership development discussion. They not only were happy and pleasant to be around, but they were asking pointed questions and taking notes on the new action plan.

As I continued to learn about their area, history and specific details of their Y, I found out from several staff members that they didn’t expect to lose hundreds of members to the new Planet Fitness that recently opened. They all expressed their concern for the future of the Y and were motivated to get back on track. I was impressed by the willing and eager attitude everyone showed.   

When you are in a location where there isn’t any real competition, you can get away with not gathering guest data, giving a basic tour, sharing the history, discussing the specific causes the Y cares about, etc. The feeling of security lulls people into a daze of below average thinking in terms of new member development. 

It’s interesting to see how a Y reacts to a goliath like Planet Fitness. Many directors I talk with are in denial and don’t think PF will impact their Y. They feel like it’s “just another gym” that they’ve dealt with many times over the years. What really wakes everyone up and gets people out of their comfort zone is a mass exiting of members who cancel and jump ship for PF. I keep telling directors to be very proactive and not reactive to a new PF opening. You need a plan that will insulate your Y from the impact and hype of a new PF. They are different and will take a bite out of your membership base if you stand by and let them. 


The critique:


  • Friendly staff
  • Offered a tour
  • Presented the prices



  • Gather guest data – its valuable!
  • Get a tour card and use it
  • Share what makes you different during the tour
  • Know the numbers (what the Y donates back to the community annually) and specific programs that impact youth and families
  • Give a quiz to your staff and motivate them to memorize and share important information
  • Be proactive, not reactive, to the ever-changing fitness / wellness landscape 

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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I Met the Hardest Working Executive Director Today!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #68

I secret shopped my 68th YMCA in Nebraska.

I flew into Colorado (you have to take a day and ski when you’re out West, right?) and drove out to rural Nebraska. After the long trip, I decided to stop in and check out the Y before settling into my hotel for the night.

It was late on a Sunday when I pulled up, and the parking lot of the Y was packed. I was very surprised and curious as to why so many people were at the Y.

I walked in and immediately saw a beautiful pool to the right of the front desk. There was a very open feel in the lobby, which has a comfortable waiting area.

The front desk associate was very nice. I said my opening line: “Hi, my name is Brian. I’m new to the area and may be interested in a membership.”

Surprisingly, she called over the executive director. I’m thinking, “It's Sunday, it’s late, and the executive director is going to give me a tour – amazing.”

Instead of secret shopping the director, I decided to introduce myself and find out more about the location and why the Y was so packed. He told me they ran a 12-week special for December and January, and signed up over 200 people. He took me to a viewing window that overlooks the gym, and there was a sea of people all participating in the program as a group.

He explained that he understands the importance of sharing the YMCA history with tours that he personally takes. I asked how often he gives tours and he said “as often as I can” – I love this guy already! Maybe that's why this small-town Y is doing so well with their membership base, and why they have strong participation in promotional programs.

After our discussion and the tour of the Y, the director said he would be in at 5:00 am the next day, and he is willing to meet with me anytime in the morning to discuss our startup schedule. Again, I was amazed at his availability and hours he puts in at the Y. After talking with several members and staff I found out he comes in early and stays late regularly to ensure “the Y is running smoothly.” Not only is he one of the nicest people I’ve met, he has a work ethic I’ve never seen in a director.

The next day I met the leadership team and discussed the startup process. I found out that a lot of the staff do not know any of the Y history and have no experience giving tours. They simply call on the office manager or executive director to give the tours. I asked what they do if one of the leadership team are not available. The response was they will reschedule the person to come back for a tour. Ouch! Have you ever heard the B-BACK-BUS saying? Basically, it doesn’t come around very often.

The time to tour, get the person excited, motivate them on fitness and the Y is NOW! Think about the process to get a person to show up and inquire at the front desk:

  1. They think about it an average of two years before taking the first step.
    2. They have to make time to come – everyone is busy nowadays.
    3. They have to get in their car and drive to the Y.
    4. They come in to gather information, but really, deep down, they want to join. You just need to help them make that important decision that can transform their lives, health, family, mindset, and a ton of other positive reasons we all know they should join.

Instead, these staff members simply hand the person a price sheet and tell them to come back when the executive director or office manager is there to take a tour and see the amenities. So, the cycle starts over. It may be another two years before you see them again — or worse, they go to the competition and join because someone showed interest in them and guided them into a buying decision.


The critique:


  • The hardest working director I have ever met
  • The director gives most of the tours, covers the Y history and differentiates the Y from just another fitness center
  • 200-plus new members in a new year fitness program is awesome
  • Engaged, passionate leader who love the YMCA and is obviously doing many things right



  • "Work smarter, not harder" should be his new motto
  • Never turn a potential member away and tell them to come back for a tour
  • Train the staff to give a basic tour. A basic tour is better than rescheduling them.

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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