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What Gyms can Learn from Restaurant Customer Service

Last Updated on Dec 12, 2017

I’m Patrick Jones, the owner of FitnessTexter. Prior to starting FitnessTexter, I spent a solid 8 years working in the restaurant industry.

While in college, I worked at a gorgeous restaurant in Minneapolis called the Loring Pasta Bar. After college, I lived on the beach in Miami for a year and worked at SugarCane. Once I decided to settle down in Denver, I worked at Cuba Cuba during the evenings, and spent my days working on building the FitnessTexter brand.

Restaurant work paid for my college tuition, the incorporation of FitnessTexter, as well as a lot of the initial advertising I did when the company was moving through the various growth stages of the business. For many years, FitnessTexter earned enough to pay some of the bills, but but all off the bills. It’s a humbling experience to run an online business during the day, and then put on your restaurant clothes at night and serve tables for the next six hours. It makes your days long, but it also gives you the fire that you need to Build a Business, Not a Job (super popular book!).

I’ve since left the restaurant industry, but am forever grateful for all I learned about hard work, customer service and leadership while serving tables. Since starting FitnessTexter, I’ve had sales calls with well over 500 fitness businesses. I’ve talked with gym owners, read their online reviews, and I think there’s a lot about customer service that fitness businesses can learn from successful restaurants, and even more to be learned from unsuccessful restaurants.

Not Everyone Should Own a Gym

Just because you love having dinner parties and can cook a great dinner for 2, doesn’t mean you should open a restaurant. Most restaurants fail. I’ve seen a lot of restaurants open and close within 6 months and wondered, “Had they even worked in a restaurant before opening their own?” Cooking a nice dinner for you and your significant other is MUCH different than serving 50 demanding people per night, night after night.

The same can be said about owning a fitness business. Just because you enjoy lifting weights, doing WODs, taking pictures of yourself in the mirror at the gym, etc doesn’t mean you should be a gym owner. Gym ownership is tough work. You’re going to have to spend 100s of hours setting up your business, buying insurance, finding property, buying equipment, etc. Then you have to worry about getting gym members. Then you have to hire employees. There’s more to being a successful gym owner than simply opening your doors and having thousands of new members flood your business. Think long and hard before you start a gym, it’s more work than you think.

Happy Employees Create a Great Atmosphere

There’s nothing worse than going to a restaurant and having an unhappy server. They provide poor service, don’t put the guest first and just tend to bring down the entire experience. The food at a restaurant can be stellar, but if your server is a wet blanket and doesn’t have any enthusiasm for life/work, it really diminishes the overall experience. We’ve all had a bad restaurant experience, so I’m sure we can agree on the importance of happy employees.

During my time in the service industry, I worked alongside many unhappy servers. Most of them brought their outside drama to work and it directly affected the quality of service they provided. I always made it a mental rule to keep my outside life separate from my serving. As soon as I put on my apron for the night, it didn’t matter if I had just fought with a loved one, or gotten cut-off on the ride to work, I was going to be professional.

Fitness employees are no different. They set the tone of a client’s experience with your facility. If your employees are happy, they’ll exude happiness and provide a higher level of customer service. If they’re bringing drama to work, they’re not doing anyone a favor. Keep this in mind when you’re making your first hires. Really try to figure out who the person is deep down, because the last thing you want is a bad first hire.

Regular Guests Expect Recognition

Since I like to try different restaurants as often as possible, I usually don’t gain “regular” status at many of the haunts I frequent.

However, back during my serving days in college, every restaurant I worked in had a set group of regulars. These were the older single men, 20-something career women, or middle-aged couples who came in at least once per week. We always knew them by name, and eventually built up friendships over the course of time. You knew what they liked to eat/drink, but you also knew about their jobs, families, significant others, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’d squat by Cliff’s table in Minneapolis and catch him up on my social life.

The reason people like becoming a regular is because they like being recognized and acknowledged. You can only go to a business and get a generic greeting so many times before you start thinking that the business doesn’t respect your business. Do you know the names of all your gym members? Can they walk in your door and get a first name introduction? If not, you better start working on it. You might not lose your current members if you don’t know their names, but if you DO know their names, they’ll surely develop a more emotional connection to your gym, rather than just seeing it as a place they spend their hard-earned money.

Don’t Let Employee Ego Overrun the Place

While working in Miami, I worked alongside a James Beard nominated chef, a truly insufferable man. He thought he was God’s gift to mankind and believed that his food was all that mattered. It didn’t take long before he started polarizing the staff of the restaurant. Either you got along with him and life was good, or you didn’t get along with him and he made your life a living hell.

There’s nothing worse than an employee with a super-ego, and everyone knows that gyms are overflowing with ego. Keep your employees in check. Employees with large egos tend to talk down to others, play favorites with people that give them the most attention, and are generally just pains in the ass. Hire humble people, perhaps Midwesterners, and you’ll have a much happier staff.

Location is More Important Than You Think

Have you ever driven past a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and said to yourself, “Jeez, could they have picked a worse location?” One of the most important aspects of building a restaurant is deciding where you’ll build. Pedestrian and car traffic are essential to building a successful business. Unless the restaurant has very deep advertising pockets(to let people know about her/his restaurant in the boondocks), no one will ever find out about it.

The same goes for fitness businesses. A gym owner needs to decide if they want to save money on rent and open their business in a industrial park, or if they’d rather pay a little more money in rent, but be in an area that gets more “eye-traffic.” This is a term we use to describe people looking at your fitness business from afar. If you’re located in a busy area, you’ll get more eye-traffic and more people will become familiar with your business.

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