New Member Onboarding: A Practice in Behavioral Change

For Gym Operators

New Member Onboarding: A Practice in Behavioral Change

What would you do to have new members still visiting your club after 90 days? A well-designed and thoughtfully executed onboarding process will enhance member experience and maximize retention. 

The first four weeks are the most crucial in the membership lifecycle, and gym operators should have an onboarding process to generate a high number of visits within that period, as well as the weeks following. Learn a few ways onboarding can modify new members’ behavior and secure loyalty.

The following is a summarization of an education session from the 2016 IHRSA Convention, produced with full permission from IHRSA. The full-length video is available for purchase at

About the Speaker

Mark Miller, Vice President and Maria Miller, Regional Program Leader, Merritt Athletic Clubs.

Onboarding – Engaging New Members

Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, is defined as the processes through which new personnel acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.

Applied to clubs, it’s an intentional process of introducing a member into the facility through an integration of interactions that create a quality experience. It’s a methodology that adapts a member’s behavior towards exercise adherence and inspires a fitness lifestyle.

Clubs that properly onboard new members have significantly higher levels of member retention. The data shows improvement rates up to 85%. New member onboarding has been proven time and again as the most critical element in reducing membership churn at a fitness facility.   

Philosophy of Onboarding

With that level of impact, clubs need to understand the significant benefit of integrating an entire club’s operation into a new member onboarding process. From the welcome desk who greet members, to the group exercise trainers who lead workouts, to the care team that keeps gym operations seamless, everyone and everything becomes a part of new member onboarding.

Where Onboarding Begins

An essential step in any new member onboarding strategy is defining your club’s culture and brand. Look at your club’s core values. What defines your club’s customer service? How do staff conduct themselves with members? The only question your team should ask themselves at the end of the day is “What kind of difference did we make?”

68% of members quit because of an attitude of indifference by a staff member.

Everything is built on relationships. It is the “humanness” that makes a business great, not the business. Customer service is the only sustainable competitive advantage. Members will find convenience and affordability somewhere else. You must continually create value for members. This is where onboarding begins.

How Is Your Club Being Judged?

Understand the experience your club provides to its members. Consider your own customer experience with businesses where you shop, eat, or play. Are you greeted when you enter? Is the staff friendly and sincere?

Today, people measure customer service in a broader context. A member’s experience at your club is compared to the types of experiences they have at different businesses they visit daily, weekly, or monthly. If something noteworthy happens to a customer during a transaction, they’ll perceive that experience as part of what to ask for, to look for, or to expect from your club.

Onboarding Is Driven By the Member Experience

What kind of experience do you create for your members? Below are three aspects to study. Each will have multiple impacts on the overall member experience.

  1. Function – A quality interaction with staff, trainers, small group training, equipment, locker rooms, etc. This includes the dependability of support staff. Is there the right equipment, programs, and services to meet members’ needs?
  2. Access – Is it easy for a member to do business with the club? Can they get their questions answered? Do they know who to call?
  3. Emotion – Does staff convey confidence and trustworthiness? Do they show respect to each member and treat them fairly? Are staff empathetic to members’ needs?

Map a Member’s Onboarding Experience

A member’s onboarding journey begins with their expectations of the club. It’s the first step in a member’s emotional connection to how they perceive the club. The journey moves on through an exploration of a multitude of interactions or touchpoints within the club, for example: interactions with the team, workouts with the equipment, small group training, and club procedures. Do you consider how each touchpoint within your club supports a high-quality service experience?

Next, an experience is created through the feelings and perceptions triggered by the interactions members encounter: when they’re at the front desk, in the locker rooms, or on the gym floor. The sum of all experiences over time builds a relationship. Strong relationships establish loyalty. The result: business success. 

Impact of Not Understanding the Customer Experience

  • 86% of customers stop doing business with a company as the result of a bad experience.
  • 83% of customers listen to friends and family rather than a company’s marketing.
  • 79% of complaints are ignored by a company.

Remember: members have a powerful voice. A single member’s sphere of influence is approximately 100 to 250 people. This is 100 to 250 people they can directly influence. Add in the effect of social media, and the numbers become exponential.

Listening: Your Best Tool to Impact Onboarding

What do you know about your member? What is important to them? Find out what brought them into the club. Dig deep into the real reason why they’ve come to your club. Look for opportunities in each interaction with members: sales, delivery, service, support and applications. Look for ways to improve the ease, efficiency, and effectiveness of how members do business with your club. 

Create an onboarding process that discovers a member’s interest, their goals, and what motivates them.  There are far greater opportunities to influence a member’s experience by targeting features and programs of the club that appeal to their interests.

Ways to Influence Member Onboarding.

How people feel drives how they behave. Restaurant dining is a simple example of how a person’s behavior is influenced by how they feel. The better we feel about a dining experience, the more we’ll tip. Gym operators need to evaluate the types of responses in the onboarding process to control a desirable outcome.

Shape each member experience that happens at different touchpoints to influence a member’s feelings and their perceptions of the club. It can take three weeks to three months to properly onboard a member. It doesn’t happen with one orientation session. 

Well-Designed Onboarding Increases Retention

Talk to members about their fitness plan when they join. Describe what will happen over the first 30 days, the next 60 days, and the following 90 days. Integrate the club’s services during the onboarding process to help direct members into the programs or services right for them, which fit their goals. Personalize the plan for each member. Have a process where your staff engages with new members.  Educate members on ways to fit exercise into their life/work schedule. It will influence their behavior and increase visits to the club. 

Each member visit within the first month of joining increases their length of membership by 5%.

  • Get members off to a good start – make sure your processes are easy and problem free.
  • Create good experiences – encourage new member introductions in group exercise classes.
  • Develop connections – foster interactions with staff and among members.
  • Focus on the member – create member-oriented policies.

Affect Member Behavior to Increase Frequency

Your onboarding method should affect a member’s behavior to encourage a high frequency of visits. Use approaches and activities to motivate new members to use the club from 5 to 9 times in their first month. Take advantage of every point of interaction to connect with members. Did they enjoy the nutrition seminar? Would they like to set an appointment with the club’s nutritionist? Present options to members to redirect them and help them with their decisions.

Get New Members Off to a Good Start on a Path to Fitness

  • Set appointments for classes, to meet the manager, or to attend member appreciation nights.
  • Schedule a fitness appointment – make it about the member.
  • Introduce new members to a fitness trainer or a manager based on their interest or goals.
  • Give incentives to members to use at their next visit. Create an urgency to return.
  • Ensure members know what to expect at their first appointment.
  • Hold openings for new members in classes that sell out.
  • Enroll them in club seminars and workshops.
  • Allow new members to participate in a group fitness program at no charge for four weeks. Let them bring in an “accountability” partner to work out together with them for those first 30 days.
  • Foster longevity by making a plan for a member’s first six weeks and then the second six weeks.
  • Involve and inspire members by developing a road to success with a calendar of event based on their interests.  
  • Follow up and follow through every 30, 60, and 90 days.

Impact members in the key moments of their needs, not yours. Always be there to guide members. Proper integration as part of onboarding is proven to help new members make fitness a lifestyle.

Getting Them Hooked Starts First With Onboarding.

Essential in new member onboarding is create engaging high quality experiences for new members. Focus on each and every interaction a new member may have as they discover the club. Bring along all staff members into the onboarding process. Have systems and procedures that are both efficient and easy to use for members. 

Create a fitness path that integrates programs, activities, and services, and be there to interact and guide their decisions. Ensure new members visit from 5 to 9 visits in their first 30 days. If personal training is not their thing, suggest small group training. Perhaps they prefer an aquatics or Pilates program. Throughout the onboarding process, continue to guide members along their fitness path as you gently influence their behavior. The results: well-earned loyalty, retention, and revenue