Better Business Bureau Remains Relevant for Health Club Operators

(this is a reprint from an article in Club Industry Magazine: 

As United States industry goes, health clubs certainly see their fair share of disgruntled customers. At a time when venting frustrations to a worldwide audience takes no time at all on social media sites, do longstanding reputation handlers such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) still matter to health club owners?

In a word, yes. Upper management and owners at clubs of all sizes say their BBB rating is still relevant even though many do not participate in the nonprofit’s accreditation program.

The BBB, founded in 1912, is focused on improving marketplace trust. It offers more than four million free online reviews on all types of businesses, and in 2012, its website was one of the 300 most-visited websites in the country. The BBB offers thorough and current information on many health clubs, but a handful of club owners contacted for this story say they suspect Millennial gym-goers often forget—or do not even know—about the agency, preferring Twitter, Yelp and Facebook to voice frustrations and read reviews.

Other club operators, however, say the BBB is more impartial and has a more objective view of a company “as opposed to the subjective, knee-jerk reactions that are often seen on Yelp and TripAdvisor,” says Fred Hoffman, owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services and author of ”Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry.”

Hoffman, who lives in Paris, assisted Club Industry with this story by asking several of his U.S. contacts how they feel about the BBB. Some respondents liked that the BBB has a rating system based on a fitness club’s history of customer service performance rather than one or two instances of complaints that stick out on social media.

Accreditation vs. Non-Accreditation

Fortunately for fitness club members, the BBB reports on businesses regardless of whether they are accredited. A business must apply to become accredited and show, among other things, a commitment to resolving consumer complaints. Businesses pay to become accredited based on the number of their employees. One to three employees costs about $490 per year. Clubs with more than 500 employees can pay as much as $3,000 annually.

"We hold our accredited businesses to a higher standard," says Dan Hendrickson, BBB spokesperson who works in the Minnesota and North Dakota branch office. Hendrickson adds that "there’s no pay for play" and accreditation has no bearing on your rating, despite some suspicions to the contrary. Failure to respond to customer complaints lodged on the website means a club could lose its accreditation.

The BBB advocates for health club consumers each year by sending out a press release in January—the most popular month to begin a gym membership.

"We encourage them to do the legwork that will prevent complaints," Hendrickson says.

Julie Schuh, who works in member relations at Life Time Fitness’ corporate office in Chanhassen, MN, is tasked with responding to all BBB complaints against the club—about 10 per week, she says, including executive complaints such as letters to the CEO or COO. As of April, the company held a B rating with the agency.

"Our goal is to make sure we respond in four to five business days when the expectation is 10," Schuh says. "I know that helps our overall score. We are always between an A-minus and a B."

Although businesses are not obligated to become BBB accredited, the agency over the years has received some pushback from outlets who say businesses that pay the BBB receive better ratings. However, a review of the BBB website shows some health clubs, such as Life Time Fitness, are not accredited and still maintain a high rating.

Life Time has chosen not to become BBB accredited because Schuh says it already receives plenty of support from its BBB rep.

"He brings any of our big complaints right to the surface," Schuh says, adding that the BBB is always asking how it can help Life Time improve its member experience. Since no one wants a poor rating, the BBB also acts indirectly in a consumer advocacy role.

"If I have a question, I can pick up the phone and give Ryan a call," Schuh says. "He can tell me how we’re doing with closed cases and open cases."

Schuh’s diligence seems to be working. Factors that keep Life Time Fitness’ rating high, the site says, include length of time that the company has been operating and its response to 550 complaints.

Not every business is eligible to become accredited. Clubs in business for less than a year may have a tough time becoming accredited unless the owner has a history in the industry, Hendrickson says. If a non-accredited health club has lower than a B rating, the BBB will not contact them for accreditation. (Clubs do not lose their money if they try to be accredited and fail. There also is an appeal process.)

Planet Fitness, Newington, NH, is not BBB accredited but holds an A rating. McCall Gosselin, director of public relations for Planet Fitness, did not comment directly on the company’s involvement with the BBB, but she did say the company takes “all feedback seriously, whether it’s in the form of local Better Business Bureau ratings, consumer feedback in the clubs, on sites like Yelp or via our social media channels.”  

She adds, “We frequently ask members for their feedback and are always looking for ways to continue to exceed our members’ expectations.”

Gosselin says Planet Fitness engages with its members on Facebook and Twitter nearly every day.

"It’s a great way for us to get real-time comments and feedback from our members, and we have a dedicated team in place to respond to as many comments as possible, positive or constructive," she says.

But online responses may not be enough.

"We are here for both the business and the customer," Hendrickson says. "That’s great that they take care of their customers on Facebook, but many customers do care about the BBB."

New to clubs’ BBB pages in 2014 are customer reviews. This addition allows the BBB to balance its reputation as an outlet for complaints with positive customer input, Hendrickson says. (As of late April, Life Time Fitness had only one customer review on its BBB page.)

24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, CA, which has been a BBB-accredited business since April 2010 and holds an A+ rating with the agency, declined comment for this story. However, the company has a high rating, the BBB site says, because of its length of time in business, number of complaints filed compared with the size of its business, and response and/or resolution of more than 750 complaints filed against it. (BBB ratings are based on 16 factors, and time in business comes in at No. 2 behind type of business.)

Nonprofits such as the YMCA also are rated by the BBB. The YMCA, which has approximately 2,600 locations throughout the United States, has met the agency’s 20 standards for charity accountability. Consumers can file complaints against the YMCA just as they can against any other fitness facility. Re-evaluated for approval every two years, the Y’s last accreditation was August 2013. The BBB offers free reports on its assets, income and use of funds.

SIDEBAR: Responses about the Better Business Bureau

Fred Hoffman, owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services and author of ”Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry,” assisted Club Industry with this story by asking several club operators how they felt about the Better Business Bureau. Here are some of their responses:

• One person replied that with social media—as opposed to the BBB—club owners have the ability for rebuttal and/or a needed conversation in a timelier manner.

• A few respondents said that the BBB and social media are both relevant in today’s market for fitness clubs but for different reasons. The BBB, they said, is used more by people who felt slighted monetarily and want restitution, whereas social media is used more for satisfaction ratings.

• One person said people might look to the BBB for ratings of smaller clubs but not necessarily for larger clubs or a chain or the YMCA, since most are already aware of their offerings and reputation.

• Another person said that if someone wanted to check out a fitness club, they would go to the BBB first for relevant information but only after consulting the club’s website, Google, Yelp and the club’s Facebook page to look for good and bad comments. She stressed this is why the club’s social media pages are monitored closely by club marketing staff, aiming for real-time interaction with customers.

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