Celebrity trainers promising a “new you”. Social media feeds overflowing with fitspiration memes. Letterboxes stuffed with pledges from gyms to help us get in the best shape of our lives — “NO JOINING FEES!”
It must be a new year.
With all these fitness professionals falling over themselves to transform your life, you’d be forgiven for thinking the industry is filled with altruistic types who only have your best interests at heart. But sitting behind the uplifting messages of transformation is an ugly commercial reality of an over-supplied market that’s often more interested in lightening our wallets than improving our health.
Many gyms train their staff to employ sales techniques that are more fitting with pressure-selling sales people than concerned health professionals. Here’s five deliberate techniques less scrupulous gyms use to manipulate their customers.
1. They find your emotional weak spot
Weight is an emotional issue for many people, something they’ll only discuss with their nearest and dearest. You might expect some sensitivity from gyms.And you’d be wrong. It’s just another way to get you to sign up.
“Staff in some gyms are told to find out about a person’s family — their kids, their spouse — and then hit them with, ‘What about your wife, does she want you to be fitter?’ or ‘Do you want to get healthy for your kids?’,” says Andrew Meade, who has worked at several gym franchises and was a trainer for the second season of The Biggest Loser.
Worse, some gyms carefully document their clients’ personal relationships and motivations to be used against them should they decide cancel their membership.
“Staff will say things like: ‘Sure I’ll just get the cancellation form, but before I do, I can see here that six months ago you said you wanted to get fit for your kids. Is that no longer your goal?'”, says Meade who is now a director and trainer at Melbourne’s Urban Workout.
2. They don’t give you time to think
Like any other retail environment, gym staff are often trained to make a sale and given incentives to sign new customers, re-sign existing customers and/or up-sell personal training sessions and other ancillary services and products.
“Staff are taught not to give people time to think about what they are buying and always assume it’s going to be a ‘yes’,” says Meade.
While it’s often more sophisticated than “Do you want fries with that?”, the aim is to get you to hand over as much money as possible.
“They bombard you with the pitch and put the form in front of you and the pen in your hand before you can process what they are saying,” Meade says. Many gyms’ contracts contain a 30-day cooling off period, so if you’re having second thoughts, use it.
3. They try to disguise the total price
Walk into most commercial gyms, and you’ll be hard pressed to find the price displayed. There’s a reason for that. They’re hiding it from you.
Some gyms I’ve rung to find out the price, refuse to give it, preferring instead to waste time by booking potential customers into “a personal consultation”. Mostly these consultations are thinly disguised sales pitches.
And even when you do find the price, there are ways of presenting it to make it appear less than it actually is. Trainer Melanie Collins who has worked at a chain women’s gym says that she was specifically told to hide the price from clients.
“We would write down how much it would cost per week or month and not write the annual total that they were committing to”, says Collins. “And we’d just write a number and leave off the dollar sign so customers just see a number and don’t think of it in terms of money that they are about to pay”.
“I was young when I started working there, and at first I didn’t think about the ethics of what I was doing. When I started to get to know the clients I realised how they were being manipulated,” Collins says.
4. They imply that there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed
The last time I went into a big commercial gym to enquire about membership the sales guy asked me the standard questions about my goals. When I told him I wanted to feel strong he looked me up and down and replied, “Is that all?”
I thought it was just his limited social skills, but it turns out that trying to make people feel inadequate is part of the gym sales tool kit.
“Rather than asking what you’d like to achieve a lot of assumptions are often made. In the fitness industry a significant portion of the staff are young and also single minded about their own personal fitness and body shape goals. Quite often this can lead to a big lack of empathy and understanding,” says Meade.
5. They’re like the Hotel California: you can check-out, but you can never leave
If you decide to leave, gyms will do everything in their power to stop you. One of the most common areas of complaint against gym memberships is the difficulty of exiting the contract once you’re in.
Tactics range from exorbitant exit fees, demands that you provide long periods of notice — in some cases three months — before letting you go, demanding written information and doctors’ medical certificates if you are unable to use the gym because of illness or incapacitation, and continuing to debit credit cards.
I once had a gym threaten to send the debt collectors around to repossess my furniture. I’d tried to cancel my membership but the cancellation process was more complex than Brexit. It became pretty obvious that they weren’t quite as concerned about my wellbeing as they had originally claimed.
This article first appeared in Daily Life.