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How About a History Lesson?

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #67

I secret shopped my 67th YMCA in Pennsylvania. 

I'm guessing this YMCA was built in the late '70s. It looks like an older building, but it's in very good condition for its age.

This Y is very compartmentalized. When you walk in, the only thing you see at the front desk is a small waiting area to the left with a Keurig style coffee maker. Upon further inspection, I see that you have to purchase the k-cups for $1.00! I wonder how many they sell a year? My bet is not many. Not one person drinking coffee in the lobby that morning – go figure.   

I walked up to the desk and said, "My name is Brian, I'm new to the area and possibly interested in a membership." A friendly front desk associate asked if I would like a tour.

"Yes, I would love a tour," I said. 

She didn't have me fill out a tour card or gather any information about me, so I was hoping there will be some interaction during the tour to gather this important information.

The tour was the same "here is this and here is that" tour I have taken unfortunately many times in Ys across the country. The tour lasted 10 minutes and we were headed back to the front desk area.

"Did you know that Father's Day was invented at the YMCA?" I asked.

"No I didn't know that," she said. "Really?"

"Yes, really. Pretty cool huh? I bet if you shared some YMCA history, and non-profit information on your tour that people would connect better."

She agreed. 

I started to rattle off some fun facts to her:

"Did you know that the YMCA started as a bible study in the 1800's?" No.

"Did you know that basketball and volleyball were invented at YMCA's?" She knew about basketball, but not volleyball.

 "Did you know that bodybuilding was coined by a Y employee?" No.

"Did you know that one of the first indoor pools was at a Y?" No.

 "Did you know that the YMCA is a non-profit?" She smiled and said yes of course.

"What specifically does your YMCA do for this community?" I asked.

"We discount memberships for people that can't afford to be members and have a lot of youth programs."

"Awesome, what else do you do for the community?"

"Well, we do strong kids campaigns and fundraising."

"Do you know how much you raise a year for this community"?

"No, I don't know that number, but our finance person, I'm sure, does," she said.

"I agree, I bet they do and it's easy information to get."

After explaining who I was and that she was being secret shopped, I told the associate that some history, fun facts and especially what their Y does for the community are very important to share with every new person that walks through the door.

"People do not know the history and look at the Y just like the Planet Fitness down the road," I said. "It is imperative to the health of your Y and for the future of your organization that you share the differences on your tour."

I left her with this: By the end of the tour, people who walk in your door should feel that they should join, even if they don't work out here at the Y. That is how passionate you need to be about the organization with every tour.

She thanked me and promised to share Y history with every tour from now on. I believe she will.


The Critique 


  • The front desk made me feel welcome
  • Offered a tour
  • Covered all the amenities and gave me basic information
  • Great Y associate that was willing to learn and apply information.



  • Charging $1.00 for a k-cup. With all the Ys that have the senior insurance memberships this is the first thing I would offer for free. You want seniors drinking coffee, sitting and chatting, making friends after their workout.
  • No tour card
  • No gathering data from me (name, phone, email from inquiring guests is valuable information)
  • Didn't ask any questions to learn about me or my family
  • Didn't tell me any YMCA history or even the basic "we are a non-profit"
  • Didn't cover any fun facts about the Y


Y executive directors should make it a high priority to train every staff member on basic Y history and location specific information. This will make a positive impact on your location. 

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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Wow! I Didn't Know That!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #66

I secret shopped my 66th YMCA in Indiana.

As you pull into the parking lot, this YMCA is impressive. The modern, contemporary architecture indicates that it was likely built within the last decade — whoever did the design work made it look very appealing from the outside.

I purposely dressed down to see if I would get any different reaction or treatment. With my hat, t-shirt and jeans I approached the front desk. There were three people behind the desk and they were all busy. “Can I help you?” one of them asked.

"Yes, thanks. My name is Brian, I’m new to the area and possibly interested in a membership."

The associate handed me a price sheet, and as I was looking it over she asked if I had been here before.

"No, but for a small population, this is a beautiful Y," I said.

She asked if I'd like her to show me around, and I agreed. We started in the fitness area that is directly across from the front desk. She gave me the same basic information about the fitness area that I have heard many times before: “Here is our cardio area and here are our machines and here are our free weights.” Basic, basic, basic. No substance.

We walked around and I listened as she showed me the “movement studio” (cool name!) that has a kids' fitness game built in the ceiling and dance classes. Then over to the aerobics room, up the stairs to the track, down the stairs and made our way to the gym. She quickly opened the door and showed me the basketball gym.

"Did you know basketball was invented at the YMCA?" I asked. (She did.) “That’s a cool fun fact isn’t it? You should use that on your tours from now on. I bet people would appreciate that.”

"Yes, I need to tell people that more," she said.

We then entered the pool area from a family changing hallway. She explained the kids' water slide hours, sauna, steam room, how to access the pool from the main locker rooms and much more. I asked if she knew that one of the first indoor pools was installed at a YMCA.

"No, I didn’t," she replied. "That’s interesting."

The associate kept walking about four to five feet ahead of me in any areas where there was nothing to explain. Either she was a fast walker, or she didn’t really know what to say when there wasn’t an amenity to explain or a schedule to tell me about. I walked fast to try and keep up.

At the front desk, I asked her a few questions about the prices and commented that they are very reasonably priced.

“Tell that to people around here!" she said.

"If I join today, then I have to pay a joiner fee and pro-rated monthly amount. Is that correct?" I said. She said yes, but told me if I waited until January, the $75.00 joiner fee would be discounted.

"OK, I like to save money," I said. "How much is a day pass if I just want to work out for the day?"

"Oh, we don’t sell day passes. You have to come in with a member to try it out."

"OK, well have a nice day," I said as I walked out the door. 


The Critique 


  • Beautiful YMCA
  • Friendly people at the front desk made me feel welcome
  • Offered a tour
  • Covered all the amenities and gave me basic information



  • No tour card
  • No gathering data from me (name, phone, email from inquiring guests is valuable information)
  • Didn’t ask any questions to learn about me or my family
  • Didn’t tell me any YMCA history or even the basic “we are a non-profit”
  • Didn’t cover any fun facts about the Y
  • Didn’t talk with me during downtime
  • Walked way ahead of me and seemed to be hurrying
  • Discouraged me from joining by telling me to wait until January to join


The most disturbing part of this experience was the fact that I was an interested customer, standing in front of the associate, asking about a membership. You can’t ask for a better time to sell me a membership. Why in the world would you send me away and hope I come back in January to sign up?

The annualized gross on an adult membership is $531.00. That doesn’t include all of the "cascading effects" (referrals, renewal, fee based programs, camp, swim lessons for my kids, etc, etc) that you may get from my membership. That's potentially thousands of dollars that this Y just shoved out their front door. Now I'd be more inclined to go to the nice gym down the road and buy a membership there because they don’t have a “joiner fee.” 

I see this same exact scenario over and over again. Come on, folks! This is unacceptable and needs to be fixed.

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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No, Thank You. We Are Doing Fine!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #65

From the outside of the building, I could tell it was an older Y, but it looked well-maintained and in nice shape. My first impression was good. 

I walked in and was immediately greeted by the front desk associate. “How are you today?” she asked.

"I’m great. My name is Brian, I’m new to the area and possibly interested in a membership."

She had me fill out a very small 4x6 index card with some basic information. After filling out the card she asked if I would like her to show me around.

"Perfect," I said.

The associate was extremely nice and very friendly, but the tour was not good at all. She seemed to be all over the place and really didn’t have any plan or process in place. It was a very sloppy tour with no substance. I kept thinking that it wasn’t her fault: it was obvious that she had not been trained.

As a side note, I am not looking for a perfect tour. I understand that the front desk people wear multiple hats and are not professional tour guides. However, I do training with YMCAs across the country and within a day of training, I can turn any front desk employee into a solid tour guide.

We concluded the tour at the front desk and she asked if I had any other questions. I asked about membership prices; she slid a price sheet over to me. There was an awkward silence as we were both staring at the price sheet. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to see what she would say next.

As she and I were staring at the prices, I kept thinking, “who is going to speak first?” I waited and waited and waited. Nope. Nothing. It seemed like we were at a stalemate for at least 3 minutes, which is a long time to stare at a price sheet with no words being exchanged. It was getting weird, so I spoke first.

"OK, I have a confession to make. I work as a consultant and have worked with 120 YMCAs doing training and sales," I said.

I handed her a business card and talked with her for a few minutes about what we do and how she did a great job offering me a tour. I asked her how much training she got on giving tours, because I was impressed with how friendly she was and her great attitude. Her reply was that she has worked there for a few years and didn’t have any training.

"I made up my own tour," she said.

What I loved about this associate is she was all about learning and improving. She was very interested in what I had to say and seemed like she would apply the information that I gave to her.

I asked to speak to the Executive Director to share my secret shopping experience and offer some free advice. The ED came out and greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile. I explained what we do as a company and how I was willing to give him some free advice from my secret shopping experience. He seemed interested and invited me back to his office.

After explaining the pros and cons of the tour, he seemed content with the fact that there was no system in place and made excuses for not doing tour training.

"I am going to be in the area for a few days and I would be willing to do a few hours of training for free with your front desk lady. She is super nice and really seems to want to learn. Based on my 20 years of experience, I can promise you the training will make a big difference in your conversion ratios," I said.

He thanked me for the offer but declined. I was frankly shocked that he wasn’t interested in a few hours of free training. He walked me out and said he would keep my card, and that if he is ever interested in our services, he will give me a call.  


The Critique 

Our team has been hired to train YMCA staff and teach them our tour process to convert a much higher percentage of walk-in traffic to memberships. The fee they pay is a small fraction of the lifetime increase in conversion rates due to training. Beyond that, it helps the YMCA to look much more professional and informative to guests who inquire about memberships.

I have given tours to thousands of people at YMCAs across the country, and I tell every single one of them the difference between a for-profit and not-for-profit. Why, you may ask? Because it is a huge selling tool, and by sharing all the great things the Y does for the community, we help people understand why our higher rates offer a greater value than that $10.00 a month gym. I help them see how they are part of a movement, not just a gym, when they join the Y. This is a cornerstone of my tour and should be just as important to every Y.

I get thank you emails and positive feedback from Ys all the time telling me how our tour training made a big impact. Having a standard tour, asking questions, being genuinely interested in the guest, gathering information, giving the proper information, building rapport, should be standard. Our process isn’t hard, but it has to be practiced and maintained, or it will fall by the wayside.  

This was the first time I have offered free training, and it may be my last.

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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The Prices Are Over There on the Wall!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #64

Our company is currently working with YMCAs in Montana, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Missouri to drive membership sales. Before starting every campaign, we secret shop the Y to gather information about the location.


I secret shopped my 64th YMCA in Missouri today.


From the outside of the YMCA, I would guess this was built within the last 10 years. It's a very nice-looking YMCA with an outdoor kids' play area and soccer fields within view. This Y is connected to a college on the opposing side of the building. 

As you walk down a long hallway to get to the front desk, there are windows to the right so you can see the entire fitness area. I really like the layout, which lets you see some action with people working out immediately when you walk in the door, rather than a “stale” front desk with no one around.   

I said my opening line: "Hi, my name is Brian, I’m new to the area and possibly interested in a membership." One of the two front desk associates, from their comfy front desk chair, pointed to a wall tray to my left: “Just grab a price sheet and that will give you all the information you need,” she said.

I walked over and grabbed a price sheet from the stack on the wall, read over the prices and minimal information on the sheet. After looking it over I asked a few questions about the facility to try and prompt someone to offer me a tour or even get up out of their chair. No such luck! As I left they returned to their computer screens and I didn’t get even a “have a nice day” as I walked out.


The Critique  

This is a major problem! The average customer has no idea what makes the YMCA different and unique. I am very surprised that this type of low energy, low motivation and frankly, laziness is allowed in any customer service industry, let alone the YMCA. This is unacceptable. It's the perfect example of what not to do.


My advice for this Y is obvious:

  1. Get out of your chair and greet potential members with a smile.
  2. Don’t point to price sheets on the wall and say “go get one.”
  3. Ask the customer some questions. Make them feel welcome.
  4. Ask if the customer would like a tour
  5. Explain why the YMCA is different than the other fitness centers in town.
  6. Make customers feel like you care if they become a member or not.


Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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No Tour for You! Let's Look at Prices!

What I Learned During My Secret Shopping Mission #63

I've toured a variety of Ys across the country—everything from the big, beautiful, new, expensive Ys, to the not so nice Ys, in a variety of demographics. Our company is currently working with YMCAs in California, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, Iowa and Pennsylvania to drive membership sales. Before starting every campaign, we secret shop the Y to gather information about the location.

Today I secret shopped my 63rd YMCA. It looked amazing from the outside. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see past the front desk!

When I pulled into the parking lot, I could see a play area for kids that put McDonald’s to shame. The front of the building was all glass windows, and I could see nice, new equipment was being used by lots of happy members.

I walked in and looked around the beautiful front desk area. There was a pool to the right and a glass partition to the left with a lot of cardio equipment in view.

I said my opening line: "Hi, my name is Brian, I’m new to the area and possibly interested in a membership." One of the three front desk associates said she would be right with me. She returned and asked what kind of membership I was interested in.

When I said I wasn't sure, the associate pulled out the price sheet and started to go through every membership—and I mean, every membership.

She started with the Individual membership and worked her way down to the senior membership before I stopped her and said, “Do I look like a senior?” She smiled and said, “Oh no, no you don’t – sorry.”

I then asked about the household membership, and if my kids could come in with me. I was hoping to prompt a tour. Instead, the associate explained all the amenities for kids, and said they could stay in the play area as I worked out. I commented that the play area was beautiful, again trying to get a tour. She responded by saying that I could keep the price sheet and that they will be doing an enrollment fee discount next month. I thanked her and headed for the door.


The Critique  

There is a big problem at this Y based on the information above. First of all, there are at least five really nice fitness locations within a 5-mile radius of this Y. The average customer has no idea what makes the YMCA different, so a tour is essential. Some Ys can get away with not giving a tour and being sloppy because they are the nicest facility in town. This isn’t the case in this area.

Second, there were there people working the front desk. There is no excuse for not having one of them offer a tour. I have no idea how well this Y is doing financially, but I am confident if they gave tours it would be much more successful.


My advice for this Y:

  • NEVER give price sheets out at the front desk until the guest has a tour.
  • When you do go through price sheets, don’t just go down the list of membership types. Based on the guest, recognize what type of membership they might need—it’s a waste of your time to go over the senior membership with someone who is middle aged.
  • The goal should be to sign the person up when they are at your front desk. You should have a minimum 75% closing ratio with walk-in traffic. The hardest part is getting potential customers in the door. I came in on my own, inquiring about joining. I should be a new member, if the situation were handled correctly.
  • Don’t tell me to come back when you are discounting your joiner fee. There is an old saying: 'the b-back bus doesn’t come around very often.' There is a good chance I will go down the road and find a better price—or maybe just get some attention with a tour person that is interested in getting to know me and helping me make that buying decision.

Stay tuned for more secret shopping missions.


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