Authenticity and The Pre-Gym Experience

I’m actually on something of a regular waking schedule, getting up around 8AM and then heading to the coffee shop around 10AM. Ostensibly, the reason behind my daily coffee shop routine is to plan the day; the new version of the Emergent Task Planner arose out of a couple months of drawing it every morning over chai as part of the planning process. Another benefit has been seeing people I am getting to know every day. The staff is starting to see me as a regular, and that is an oddly comforting feeling. Although I have to pay the $3.00 Chai Latte Tax every day, it’s a pittance compared to what I get in return: a cross-section of life, told through unguarded expressions and incidental overheard conversations. I have been surprised at what stories can be gleaned from just fragmentary observation; for example, I recently got the impression that one of the staff members had been promoted, which was later when we were chatting during one of her breaks. I had guessed this based on one observed 1-on-1 meeting between the staffer and another woman who seemed more senior, a glimpse of what looked like a form being returned, and the elevated sense of energy in the shop over the following days. It’s been moments like that, plus the opportunity to connect with people, that has made my morning routine successful. As a result, I’ve been waking up naturally at around the same time every day out of habit for the past couple weeks.

It occurred to me last weekend that this regular routine could now be used to anchor another activity like going to the gym. Anchoring is similar to what television networks do with their programming; once they are lucky enough to have a hit show, they “bracket” it with other shows they hope will also be popular because people are already going out of their way to tune in. A general engineering principle also applies: if you have a process that you can reliably predict, you can use it as the basis for some kind of system function. In my case: I’m up, I’m already looking forward to going out, so why not hit the gym for 30 minutes before I have my coffee shop fix? I know I want to be stronger, and even just 30 minutes of some kind of muscle conditioning will be good for me.

So today, I went to check out two gyms: a Best Fitness and a Workout World nearby. I wanted to just get a “feel” for the places and what they offered, as I’ve never actually been inside a gym club before. What is deciding my choice is not the facilities (they were approximately equivalent) or the fees (they were also pretty much the same)…it was the sales approach.

I walked into Best Fitness and told the person at the desk that I was checking out gyms in the area, and they showed me around. I was assigned a staff member, and he walked me around the club. As we walked, he asked me some questions about what I was looking for, and I said I had once been on an exercise regimen and had liked feeling strong, but had gotten bored of it and was looking for some variety. He answered my questions about how I would get started, what kind of expertise was on hand, what their hours were, and so on, admitting that he’d just started there a week earlier, but had been a member himself. Seemed like a nice guy. After the tour, I was lead to a booth where I was obviously about to be sold. I told him I wasn’t looking to join anything up front today, and he respected that. I learned, though, that in Massachusetts health clubs have 2-year contracts, but for some reason in New Hampshire it’s limited to 1 year as some kind of protection measure. I asked him what the advantage of a club like this had over the YMCA, and he answered to the best of his ability without being disparaging. He didn’t know if my health insurance would reimburse me for health club fees (some of them do, I believe, but I have a PPO that is only for big emergencies with a high co-pay). Since he wasn’t sure, he lead me over to his manager, who was in another booth, and he gave me good advice on choosing a gym as I shopped around. It was an excellent interaction overall, and he told me to watch for flyers because their pricing changed all the time. Then I got a free one-week trial membership that I could start when I was ready, and was walked out the door. Low key, almost zero pressure, friendly, and genuinely helpful without being salesy. That is the way I like things.

Workout World is approximately the same distance away from my house, but has more traffic lights in the way, so it is a less likely final choice. Still, an acquaintance of mine said that he liked it for their machines, so I figured I should check it out. As I walked in, I saw a lot of enticing price-related promotions going on. My tour guide was a high-energy guy who had an engaging demeanor, showing me the machines and ticking off the advantages one by one. One thing I liked was how he got me on some of the machines to try them out. He pointed out the features that the gym offered, and the benefits they had. Everything was fine until the end, when he led me to the inevitable booth to sit down and go over pricing. The first thing he did was lay out the pricing, which was practically identical to Best Fitness. Then he told me how in Massachusetts you have two-year contracts, but TODAY he was authorized to give me just a ONE YEAR AGREEMENT (not a contract) for a signup fee of $299 plus $19.99 a month afterwards. Having just been to Best Fitness and having been told that New Hampshire doesn’t allow more than one year contracts, I asked, “Isn’t that just a NH state thing?” and he agreed yes, it was…his attempt to spin it as a “special deal for me” failed. After that it just got worse, with him going to get his manager and then I got the “professional” spiel full of plausibly-deniable promises and the “what can I do to get you to sign today” vibe. It was lame. I finally said, “I am 100% certain I’m not going to sign anything today. I’m just evaluating gyms, so thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.” After shaking their hands and being walked back out to the door, I got the last bit of interaction with my original staff guide, and a card for a free day. I gave the guide a warm smile and handshake, as I genuinely was appreciative, and I got the same in return. However, just as he was turning away, I saw that smile come off as fast as a sandcastle being washed away by a fire hose. It was completely phony. While I had already been pretty sure, based on the poorly-executed sales tactics I’d just experienced and the traffic light situation, that I wouldn’t be picking Workout World, it was this last interaction that clinched it. While they were higher energy than Best Fitness, I think I got an authentic interaction with people there, and that’s the kind of place that I would rather spend my money.

I was reflecting afterwards that this kind of sales approach had to come from somewhere, and I’d be curious to know how independently each facility operates. Best Fitness seemed secure in its operational model, and had nothing to hide or to prove. Workout World seemed to resort to used car salesman tactics, applying every trick to spin their offering into a “deal” for me, so I would sign. Both of the Workout World staffers seemed to be conversant with Salesman 101, though they had not been able to read me accurately enough to just tell me what I needed so I could get on with my evaluation. It may have been the very inexperience of the Best Fitness staff member (he was only on the job for a week) that allowed him to deal with me as just a regular guy talking to another guy. And it is interesting that the two experienced managers had different approaches:

  • At Best Fitness, the senior staffer told me what I needed to know and kept the conversation in the realm of the best decision for me, based on observations he had made of other people who were in my position.

  • At Workout World, the senior staffer tried to manipulate the conversation into a selling proposition, using half-truths and obvious relationship-building ploys to create a false sense of helpful opportunity. Ultimately, he cared more about making the sale than having a conversation with me. They put as much effort as the needed to to maintain the facade, and dropped it as soon as they thought I wasn’t looking.

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p>Fascinating.

[I should add: this is just my experience with two individual sales experiences. Could just be the luck of the draw.]