The “January Effect” is provoked by the annual New Year’s resolution rush when eager health seekers practically burst through your doors. These newbies are easy to spot, usually in brand new shoes with fancy water bottles in hand. The effectiveness of your staff during these first six critical weeks of the year will impact your revenue for the next 12 months, and beyond. Sadly, research and past experience tells us that most of these new members won’t succeed. In fact, as many as 85% of new members will fail and ultimately cancel their membership within 30-120 days. The result is a massive revenue loss and a missed opportunity to impact people’s lives. Can this be turned around? How can you prevent the January influx from becoming the March exodus?
Fortunately, the research is also clear that we can prevent this member loss by offering specific support that doesn’t have to run your staff ragged or upset long standing members. Recognizing there are predictable challenges and planning for them with specific solutions can help improve retention, staff morale, member engagement and set you up for a profitable 2017.
Newbies: Research shows that you may only have a few visits with a new member to convert them to a longtime member. Although attrition usually begins within the first 30 or 60 days, the decision to cancel often happens in the first 3 weeks. Without some intentional planning, their only experiences could be a crowded fitness floor, packed classes, a parking lot approaching capacity and a staff that always seems overwhelmed.
The truth is your staff is outnumbered. Sometimes it’s as much as 200 to 1 on a regular day. At no time is it more apparent than in January with the influx of new members who need a lot of support. The financial impact of a short membership life can be devastating to your bottom line and discourages health seekers pursuing a healthier lifestyle.
The “Cheers Effect” – Your Regulars: As if that’s not challenging enough, your current members are experiencing their own unique frustrations. Just like Norm on the 80’s sitcom Cheers expected his favorite barstool every night, your ‘regulars’ expect their favorite treadmill or spot in Zumba class.
To long-time members January is the worst time of the year as they share their facility with newbies who don’t know their way around and often have no knowledge of gym etiquette. As far as they’re concerned, the ‘resolutioners’ are infidels and they can’t wait for them to gradually fall of the wagon and restore the status quo to their facility.
Staff: The third layer to this problem is the staff who serve these conflicting constituents. As a former director who supervised two departments, I remember being told not to expect time off in January, being handed a schedule for MOD “manager on duty” shifts that were always inflated during the first 6 weeks, and a checklist for what we needed to do to ‘prepare’ for January. In meetings with my staff we discussed action items like cleaning, restocking and layering shifts. Even though I tried to put a positive spin on it, I felt their anxiety… and it only reflected my own feelings. January is typically a very stressful time for staff. Without realizing that and doing something about it we leave our fate in the hands of often well-meaning but exhausted and overwhelmed front line staff.
The stakes are high for new member retention, existing member retention and staff morale. We have three forces often working in opposition creating the “January Effect.” But, this situation isn’t inevitable! In fact, if you’re truly intentional and prepared, you can actually capitalize on this annual opportunity. It begins with looking at each group of stakeholders, and their needs, individually.
- High Impact Touring – When staff are stretched thin in January, use a needs-based tour. Have your staff ask prospects what they’re interested in and focus the tour on those areas. The discussion should center on the amenities, programs and aspects of the Y cause that impact those areas of interest. Your staff may still tour the entire facility but they’ll know where to focus and what they can potentially skip. Make sure your staff note the prospects program and facility interests as they tour. This information is very helpful to the wellness staff during onboarding appointments. Throughout the year, but especially during high volume times, you should be tracking how many tours are given, by whom and their tour conversion rates. This will give you valuable information about the effectiveness of your touring process and ensure prospects receive follow-up even if they don’t join.
- Painless Joining – Of course, if you can automate the process of joining and make it electronic that’s ideal. If you aren’t equipped for that yet, your goal should be making joining as quick and effortless as possible. People hate paperwork. They hate it more when they don’t have anywhere to sit or have a pen handy. Make sure you have an area for prospective members to sit and resources available for them if they are filling out forms. Offer them coffee or a bottle of water and make them feel welcome. You may even want to have some small toys or coloring sheets for kiddos tugging on their legs under the table. Remember, this is their first impression of the YMCA!
- Handoff from membership to wellness – Whatever introduction appointment your YMCA offers should be scheduled immediately when the member joins. Trying to follow up with dozens of new joins a day can be frustrating and wastes valuable staff time that is already limited in January. Set your members and staff up for success by scheduling the first onboarding session right then and there. Then send an automated text reminder. This extra step will drastically reduce no-shows and cancellations.
- Onboarding– Research clearly demonstrates that only 15% of new members will be able to succeed on their own. The key to overcoming this is onboarding – an intentional process helping a member discover their goals and develop a plan for how to reach them. New members who are properly onboarded are 75% more likely to be successful. Onboarding appointments should include behavior modification strategies including: identifying barriers, measurable goals and a customized plan for the new member. The member should also schedule the next onboarding session (ideally there are 3-4) during that first session. Communication between the coach and member is key between appointments. Discuss how that will occur (text, phone calls, etc.).
- Mentoring – Don’t assume your staff are the only people who can help new members settle in. Many of your existing members would be willing to help new members… if asked the right way. Start a volunteer ‘welcome team’ that existing members can join. Share the cause driven approach to helping members make lasting lifestyle changes. Get creative, have shirts made that say ‘ask me for help’ and celebrate members who wear them. Let health coaches connect these ‘mentors’ with new members that match their interests. This can foster cross-pollination among your new and current membership. Social ties are some of the strongest retention and behavior change factors. Welcome team members can go to classes with new members and even be a workout buddy. The YMCA has a long history of volunteer recruitment; so don’t overlook your volunteer base.
- Beginner/intro group ex classes – Many new members will be intimidated by the already fit ‘regulars’ they imagine in your classes and by the intensity of the classes. Research shows that health seekers are particularly averse to ‘exercise induced discomfort.’ What that means is the intensity that a newbie finds tolerable is very low. Consider offering shorter intro classes during peak times. These classes are less intimidating and they also alleviate the packed classes by offering more, shorter options. You can advertise this to your current members as their opportunity as part of the ‘Try Something New in the New Year’ marketing campaign.
- Signage for gym etiquette- Newbies don’t mean to annoy anyone. Often they’re confused or ignorant about the gym etiquette your ‘regulars’ think is common knowledge. Make sure signage is posted, and in a friendly way, reminds members of anything that usually causes complaints. Things to consider are time limits on cardio equipment, expectations to wipe down equipment when finished, re-racking weights, pick-up game-rules and locker room etiquette. These signs may not have to stay up all year, but with so many new members in the facility it can help them feel more confident about expectations in an unfamiliar place.
- Heads up – Even though the ‘January effect’ is very predictable and most ‘regulars’ have experienced the phenomenon before, each year they seem surprised when it happens. Your holiday newsletter is a great time for a “Try Something New in the New Year” marketing campaign. Mention to new members that January is a great time to:
- Try a new class (we’ll be offering shorter intro classes in January so you can try them all)
- Try a new ‘off peak’ time and avoid the crowds (list off peak times)
- Join the ‘welcome team” for new members
- Member appreciation promotions and events – Plan a few treats for members during the month. A free bottle of water and granola bar helps soften the frustration of circling the parking lot for 5 minutes trying to find a spot. A few guest passes also goes a long way with regulars, and sometimes even leads to new members.
Leadership team: Your leadership team is so critical during high volume months. The tendency is to increase their presence at the branch as much as possible to ensure everything runs smoothly. You’ve probably noticed by the third week in January they start fizzling out and by mid February they’re running on fumes. While it’s true that a rising tide lifts all ships, a sinking ship will take the captain down with it.
- Consider scheduling time off during these busy weeks so your leadership has an opportunity to restore themselves and have the stamina to give 100% when they are at the branch. If you don’t have coverage to make that happen, get creative, sometimes just a longer lunch break or a later start in the morning can make a big difference.
- It’s also important to make sure everyone is cross-trained to tour and sell memberships in case you need extra hands. Instead of interrupting everyone randomly as you need them, consider having scheduled backup coverage times during that day. During their assigned time your directors will know they may be called repeatedly but they can plan for the rest of the day to be mostly uninterrupted and productive.
Front line staff: While your leadership team is often familiar with the budget and the membership goals, your front line staff don’t always have the same personal investment in those targets. That can make it hard to keep them motivated during high volume times when their job becomes exponentially harder. There are usually dozens of new programs, schedules and procedures for them to learn and many of them may be recently hired to increase coverage in January. With so much to learn and stakes high, you need to think about getting them up to speed and motivated before the New Year.
- Nothing is more discouraging to a member than staff who can’t answer their questions. Before January think about an event to get them familiar with some of the new programs and procedures they’ll be promoting. A great way to inform staff is a scavenger hunt. Put staff on teams with people from various departments and give them clues like:
- Where reservations are appreciated but not required (childwatch)
- Where your healthy coaching sessions begin (wellness office)
- The first beginner class on Tuesday nights (group exercise schedule)
- Where staff should be parking (back rows of the parking lot)
- Think about your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and trickle them down the front line staff as daily or weekly challenges. Whether you want to measure your tour conversions, onboarding sessions scheduled or onboarding graduation rates, you can create excitement through weekly staff challenges. Incentives like staff recognition, gift cards, prime parking spots, and other rewards can help staff stay motivated and creates clear communication of priorities to all staff.
The beauty of technology is that it allows human beings to be more efficient and multiply our efforts in ways never before possible. This is especially critical during the busy early weeks of the year. Our MobileFiT technology platform is designed to streamline the new member process and give executives the ability to track every step of the journey. From totally paperless tours, instant appointment scheduling, to automated text appointment reminders, to member engagement tools for your staff, we give your staff the tools they need to excel in this process (and to keep their sanity while doing it!). To learn more about how MobileFiT can help you maximize your retention of new members, be sure to visit our website .
January can be a double-edged sword where the difference between success and frustrations is intentional planning which respects the needs of all stakeholders. Use the information above as a checklist and mark the action items you know your team needs to address. Then prioritize the action items and put them on a time line. October through December are the launching pad for a successful 2017 and beyond. A little time invested now will reap huge outcomes with newbies, regulars and the staff that make your work possible.