The onboarding process is one of the most valuable, and potentially scary, parts of the gym member experience. They’ve signed up and have become part of the team. It’s now up to you to, not only live up to, but exceed their expectations. Do it right, and you’ll have a happy member who’ll spread the word for you. Get it wrong and they won’t hang around for very long.

In this article, I’ll lay out a template to help you to develop a successful onboarding process. This will seamlessly integrate the new member into your gym community, helping to avoid retention issues and contributing to an enthusiastic, contented atmosphere. 

Here’s a quick overview of the six steps that we will cover in detail shortly …

  • The initial consultation
  • The first workout
  • Implementing a communication strategy
  • Building member knowledge
  • Encouraging integration
  • Assessing and evaluating

What is Onboarding

Onboarding is what happens in the month or so after a new member joins your gym. It should be a structured process by which new members are guided into the gym experience. 

Many gyms don’t even have an onboarding process. A person joins up, is given a carbon copy workout, and then left to sink or swim. Over the last 40 years, I’ve worked out in gyms all over the world and have seen this all too often. It’s hardly surprising that those gyms almost always have an unacceptably high attrition rate.

Putting in place an onboarding system is also a service to your existing members. Consider a long-term member who attends a BoxFit class a couple of times each week. The class averages a dozen people, three of whom are newbies. As a result, the instructor has to spend a large chunk of time each session helping these newcomers. That is going to dilute the experience for the existing member, leading to frustration and possible ditching of the class.

Onboarding is an extension of the sales process. It should pick up where the sales finished and seamlessly lead the new member into the gym experience. It is your opportunity to help members get comfortable with the gym process, to develop the right mindset for consistent working out and to learn how to train properly. 

I actually prefer to refer to this part of the gym member experience as integration rather than onboarding. Your goal shouldn’t be just to get them on board but to integrate them as a vital part of your active gym community. Key to this is to realize that joining your gym is not an isolated act; it is part of a life transformation towards a healthier existence. 

If you set your sights on helping the new member to achieve success with the things that happen outside of the gym as well as inside it, you will be on track to exceed their expectations. That may mean providing general nutritional guidance or providing them with activities they can do on active recovery days. 

Most of your members have joined with the expectation that they are getting a gym membership. My recommendation is that you train your staff to think of it a little bit differently. Their job is to provide the new member with coaching. If they have that mindset, they will do more than point out where the leg press machine is and how to gain access when the gym is unstaffed. 

Think of member onboarding like a first date with someone that you really want to have a long-term relationship with. Your aim should be to wow them with the experience. 

Find the Pain Points

Your onboarding process should be built upon knowledge of your customer needs. Conduct a survey among your existing members, asking them what they found to be most challenging when they joined up. What would they have liked to have experienced that they didn’t? Did they feel that they were highly valued? Did they receive the needed guidance to be able to confidently work out on their own after the first four weeks? Was the member engagement consistent or haphazard?

Once you have assimilated the results of your existing member survey, you should get input from your staff. What do they think could be done better to improve the onboarding process for new members? Have a brainstorming session at your weekly staff meeting to generate ideas.

6 Steps to a Successful Onboarding Process

There are no set rules regarding how long an onboarding process should be. However, my experience has been that 30 days is just the right length to provide new members with everything they need to be able to flourish in the gym. That’s why the information that follows is based on a 30-day process. 

The Initial Consultation

Once a new member signs up, you should make an appointment for their initial consultation. Prior to the assessment, tell the new member to dress comfortably and be ready to work out.. 

You should also give the new member a questionnaire to complete and bring with them on the initial consultation. This should include questions about what they hope to achieve, their workout history, and eating habits.

When the new member arrives for the appointment, establish a casual, friendly atmosphere.

Ask them about their background and situation (without being intrusive). Take brief notes that you can transfer onto an engagement card later. Here’s an example of an engagement card that I have used in the past for each member …

  • Preferred name
  • Fitness goal
  • Experience level
  • Support level required
  • An anecdotal note to guide staff (examples: “don’t distract until after workout” for a hardcore trainer or “needs motivational support” for a new member)

This information was added as a note to each member’s name on the gym database. The system was set up so that when the member scanned their membership card, these details would come up on the front desk computer screen. My staff was trained to give a personalized welcome based on that information. 

Before diving into the fitness assessment, ask them about their fitness goals. Dig a little to get at the emotional trigger underlying their goals. For example, if they say they want to lose 30 pounds, ask them why. Then they may reveal that they want to set a good example for their children or to be more attractive to their partner. 

Your fitness testing should involve no more than five simple moves to establish a baseline for their fitness level. These tests should help determine their cardio and endurance levels, strength level, posture, muscular imbalances, and core strength. 

Once the testing is complete, take the new member’s the bodily measurements and assess their body fat percentage. 

I recommend talking to the new member about their nutritional habits. Rather than bombarding them with information, keep your nutrition guidance simple. Have a one or two-page sheet prepared that provides habits that they can implement gradually to move toward a healthier way of eating. 

You should finish the assessment by taking the new member onto the gym floor. Provide them with a tour of the gym during which you take them into each area and explain its training purpose. The member will have already have had a tour during the sales process but this one should be more in-depth. During this tour, try to introduce the new member to an existing member who you know to be engaging and welcoming.

Once the tour is complete, return to your office and spend five minutes talking about motivation. Provide some practical strategies that will help the member to maintain their workout motivation. 

At this time you should also talk about goal setting with the member. Use the SMART goal setting formula to help them to set long-term (12 months), medium-term (3 months), and short-term (1 month) goals.

I suggest having some sort of incentive in place that rewards new members for achieving a minimum number of visits during the first month. One program that I have used was to do a cross-promotion with a hair salon that was in the same strip mall as my gym. All new members who completed 10 workouts in their first 30 days, received a $50 hair salon voucher. 

The $50 voucher promo allowed my onboarding staff member to have something really positive to finish the initial consultation session. That, combined with the motivation tips (these should be printed out for the member to take away) had the member hyped up for their first actual gym session. 

Before the member departs, make an appointment within 3 days for their first workout. 

The First Workout

Having done the fitness assessment, your job is now to create a personalized workout program that aligns with their goals. You should have a policy of having the program prepared and ready to go within 3 days.

It is important that the same person who conducted the initial consultation take the client through their first workout. This helps build the relationship and create a seamless transition. It is not the purpose of this article to tell you how to take a member through a  workout but the following points should be kept in mind:

  • Don’t just tell a person what they are doing; explain the specific purpose of each exercise.
  • Demonstrate every exercise yourself.
  • For each exercise, give the member two or three words that they can use as mental cues; i.e. on dumbbell curls, the cues could be  ‘Elbows in’, ‘Up Slow’, ‘Squeeze’, ‘Control Down’. 

During the initial interview, you should have developed an idea of what sort of motivational style the member responds to. Some people relish the sergeant-major in-your-face type of encouragement while others give their best when the trainer gives them a much more understated, quiet form of reinforcement. Find out which one the member responds to and make use of it.

At the end of the first workout, ask the new member how confident they feel about going through the workout. Let them know that you may not be there every time they come in over the next month but other trainers will be available to guide them. 

If they feel 100 percent confident to go it alone next time, that’s fine. However, you should expect new members to have two or three nearly 100 percent guided workouts. Your staff should be geared up to make that happen. For that reason, if the member would like that extra guidance, book their next couple of sessions to make sure that someone will be available to work with them. The last thing you want is for the member to turn up expecting to be guided and, because no one is available, be thrown into the deep end all by themselves. 

Implement a Communication Strategy

Member communication is the key to engagement. You should have an automated process in place to communicate with all members through their preferred channel. This may be email, text, or instant messaging. 

Whereas your long-term members should be receiving a message from you on a monthly basis. New members need more frequent correspondence. Here is a messaging plan for the first month of membership that will make your new member feel engaged and included:

  • On Day 7, they should get a congratulatory message that reaffirms their decision, and reinforces the benefits of it.
  • On Day 12, they receive a message that provides tips regarding training, nutrition, and recovery that is appropriate to their training level.
  • On Day 14, they receive another message with specific content that is at their level and usable.
  • On Day 30, they have been entered onto your monthly list.

Now that you have a plan to send messages, you need to create message content that is as specific to them as possible. Of course, you can’t sit down and write personalized messages to every new member. But you can use automated systems to do the next best thing.

Use the information you collected during the initial interview to segment your new members into message categories. For example, you should have separate categories for weight loss and muscle gain goals. The same thing for experience levels. So that a guy who’s been training for 40 years as a bodybuilder and moves across town to join your gym gets a different message than a person who has never stepped foot in a gym before. 

Build Member Knowledge

The more knowledgeable your members are about health and fitness, the more likely they will be to achieve their goals. Goal achievers are more motivated and more likely to hang around. 

There is a lot of inaccurate information in the fitness industry. Some of these beliefs, such as the myth of spot reduction, can lead your new members down a dead-end path that leads to frustration and disappointment. It is your job to counter that false information.

The internet has opened up the opportunity for gyms to share knowledge with their members. Your website should be your primary tool for doing so. Your website needs to have a blog page attached to it. This is where you will provide the in-depth, relevant and immediately usable content that engages the reader, provides that ‘aha’ moment, establishes you as a fitness expert, and makes them hungry for more. Your goal should be to regularly update your blog with cutting-edge content every week or two. Hiring a fitness freelance writing specialist writer from Upwork may be another good option here.

Encourage your new members to read one article from your blog every week. 

In addition to your blog, you should also have a newsletter that goes out to your members on a monthly basis. This will, in effect, comprise the monthly newsletter that you send out to all members. Remember, though, that the monthly emails should be segmented. So, a 40-year-old woman who is trying to lose weight should not get the same newsletter content as a 23-year-old guy who is about to enter his first powerlifting competition. 

Your monthly newsletters should have just one or two feature articles per issue. So, if you have 3 different versions of the newsletter (i.e. one each for those who are focused on fat loss, muscle gain, and one for seniors), you will need a maximum of 6 new articles per month. Putting a process in place to make that happen is well worth the effort and the cost. 

If your members receive one piece of new, immediately applicable information from the newsletter every month, they will remain engaged and interested. However, filling your newsletter (and your blog for that matter) with cookie-cutter content that they can find on a hundred websites is worse than having no content at all!

Another great option is to create a video series of mini-seminars to educate your new members. Enroll them in the seminars as a study course during the initial interview, providing them with a special access website address. Make a big deal of how this knowledge will give them a huge advantage as they work toward their goals. 

Here are suggested subject titles for a video education series for new members:

  • The myth of spot reduction and the truth of fat loss
  • Sensible eating demystified
  • Aerobic or anaerobic; what’s the difference?
  • What weight training can do for you?
  • The vital importance of recovery
  • Getting your mind in the game

Encourage  Integration

A powerful way to get new members to feel as if they are part of the gym community is to get them interacting with existing members. The more you can encourage this, the better. 

A great way to get new members interacting with established members is to encourage them to participate in group fitness classes. The camaraderie that is created will be contagious. Keep in mind what we mentioned earlier, however. When you throw new members into classes it may inhibit the class’s ability to train with the intensity required to challenge existing members. That is why you should have beginner classes that are designed for new members. The engagement between new members is just as valuable as that between new and existing members. It has also been shown that gym members who regularly take fitness classes are 56 percent less likely to cancel their membership than those who train alone. 

Assess and Evaluate

Rather than being a process that is set in stone, your onboarding system should be living and dynamic. In the second month of their gym life, each member should receive a request for feedback on the onboarding process. Ask them to rate how welcomed, appreciated, cared for and part of the gym community they felt. Then ask for suggestions on how the process could be improved in the future. 

You should also be constantly analyzing your attrition rate with regard to new members. Have any members dropped off within the 30-day onboarding process? If so, you should make a follow-up call to that person to inquire as to the reason that they are no longer coming to the gym. 

This is an area where many gyms fall short. They don’t like to contact lapsed members, perhaps worried that they will hear something they don’t want to hear. Yet, that is the very thing that you need to hear. If there is an issue from your end that has caused that member to stop coming, you need to know about it immediately. If you don’t, who knows how many other members will also be stumbled by it?

Summary

For your gym to succeed, you need to have a robust, consistent onboarding process in place. It should nurture your new members, gently bringing them into the fold and making them feel part of the team. At the same time, it should educate them so that they are more likely to reach their health and fitness goals.

Here’s a recap of the key elements of an effective onboarding program:

  • The initial consultation
  • The first workout
  • Implementing a  communication strategy
  • Building member knowledge
  • Encouraging integration
  • Assessing and evaluating

Establishing these processes will take quite a bit of time and money. However, the effort will be well worth it. Your retention rate will increase significantly and your members will be a lot more engaged, knowledgeable and successful.

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