Hello shoppers...

Americans spent $180 billion last year on health club memberships. ($600 a year times 300 million Americans.)

Americans gained 180 billion pounds last year. Americans will need a new planet by next Tuesday.

Health clubs' survival and thrive-al depends in part on our belief that we can exercise our (fat) demons: As long as we buy(ite) into Einstein's notion that E(ating a canned ham)=M(ile on the treadmill)C(runches on the stomach dealio) squared (rounded), we will continue to let our memberships auto-renew and our fees auto-withdraw, while our mouths auto-eat and Taco John laughs.

Where we choose to torture our bodies in the name of our full-time modeling careers is no laughing matter to the owners and investors who sink millions of dollars into hundred thousand square foot facilities full of thousands of ellipticals and free weights and treadmills and stretch balls and squirt bottles full of blue goo that kills all the germs, except the ones that generally matter.

Yet when it comes to picking a health club, is size the only thing that matters to us worker outers? Shouldn't customer service be in there, too, somewhere between "Do you have a latte machine?" and "Are your tanning beds stand up, or lay down?"

That's the question your once flabulous and now fabulous (with chronic "loose skin") Unsecret Shopper attempts to answer, with a Secret Shopper review of five health clubs in the Des Moines area.

They include: Aspen Athletic Club, Fitness World West, Prairie Life Fitness, 7 Flags Fitness and Racquet Club and the YMCA Healthy Living Center.

Prairie Life and 7 Flags are stand-alones. The other three have multiple outlets. For those, I visited the mother ship. In the Y's case, I went to the only one I've never been to.

Full disclosure: I've been a member at the Walnut Creek YMCA for three years, was a member at 7 Flags for 10 years, and have visited Fitness World West and written radio ads for them, which the owners have probably tried to forget about.

I went into each club posing as someone seeking to leave his own; what I really sought were The Five Pillars of Great Customer Service: smile, greet, engage, thank and follow up. (Click here to find out more.)

OR just look down there and read what I mean:

1. Do staff members smile and greet, at the front counter and throughout the club?

2. Are employees engaging? Do they introduce themselves, ask for my name and use it during a conversation?

3. Do staff members thank me for coming out, and use my name?

4. Do the clubs follow up with me?

In short, do the employees at our local health clubs, help make our experience there fun?

I stopped in to each club to make the initial contact, and then returned with a "free guest pass" at a later time.

I'll rate each club based upon my overall experience there, using my usual mask rating system, which will look suspiciously like dumbbells:

  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.

 Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.

 Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.

 Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.

 Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.

Betcha didn't see that one comin, did ya smarty pants!

What is easy to see is tons of workout equipment: every club has it. But Stairmasters and cable weights can't look us in the eye, smile, ask us how our workout is going and encourage us to keep up the good work.

The question is: Who will?

Seven Flags Fitness and Racquet Club  2100 NW 100th Street, Clive


Reid, a personal trainer, greeted me at the front desk with a sort of bored, ambivalent, smile-free "hello" which could have set a bad tone for the entire visit.

A word here to all of you uber low-voiced (wo)men,  like Reid, working in retail: you've got to work 100 times harder at emoting - being expressive with your voice - than us higher register mousy-sounding dudes, otherwise y'all sound like Rocky Balboa, and he never sold a thing. It would benefit Reid to record his voice as he engages customers, and then listen back to it with someone who can work with him on pitch and tone.

One thing Reid doesn't need work on is being a genuinely nice guy - he already is.

After that initial encounter, Reid became more animated and engaged; he introduced himself and shook my hand and showed me every square foot of the club. He also did a nice job of explaining its features, but probably could have gone into a bit more detail about the two things I expressed particular interest in, cardio and free weights. Reid also could have asked a few more personal questions, just to knock down those walls that exist between two people who have just met.

But he didn't try to oversell the club, which was great, and he was pleasant, kind, flashed the occasional smile and remembered my name at the end, and used it.

The wrong one.

Reid referred to me as "Jon" in every conversation, even though I'd told him my name was Jonnie up front, and also written it on the waiver.

My name is Jonnie. I purposefully introduce myself that way because "Jonnie" is more emotionally accurate than "Jon," my birth name. "Jon" is a quiet library. "Jonnie" is a disco party in the back of a careening semi.

When people call us by versions of our name that are NOT the actual name we gave them, it can feel judgmental, and offensive. If you tell me your name is Robert and I call you Bob, I might as well call you "Stupid" for using the wrong version of your own name.

Just a thought.

Reid did write my (incorrect) name and scheduled time to work out, on my guest pass, which was a nice touch.


I approached the 7-Flags counter a few days later wearing torn wrinkled slacker-friendly workout duds.

I was immediately greeted like I was dressed like Mike Pace after a quick jog around his castle, with a smile and a "Hi!" from Marcia, who, after discovering I was a newbie, shook my hand and introduced herself. Great start!

Tyler, working the tennis area, didn't copy Marcia's smile but did borrow her "Hi," followed by the closed-ended "Can I help you?"

Remember, Tyler - if  a patron is standing at your counter and staring at you, they probably need your help, which renders the question goofy. If they're standing and staring and DON'T need your help, they still need help, just not from you.

Either way, try a nice open-ended "What can I help you with?" instead.

Tyler, you did a fantastic job of shaking my hand, introducing yourself, getting my name and engaging me about how the tennis part of the membership works, including the very cool online scheduling of court time. Just remember to use my name during our conversation, and that great smile you flashed at the end, sooner and more often: tennis is a fun game, played by fun-loving people, so look like you're having it!

At the end, Tyler gave me his card and said, "Call me, email me." That's great, young man, except it puts the entire onus to follow up on the potential buyer, which is like someone after a great date leaving it up to the other person to call: that expectation will break your heart, every time.  Instead, get my contact info then send me a thank you note, and a coupon or some other enticement to come back.

Maggie, overseeing the young kids, did a good job of explaining the children's area, but could and should have introduced herself, shook my hand, gotten my name and used it.

Health clubs are huge investments in time, money and trust, particularly when it comes to making sure our kids don't turn each other into punching bags while we work on the punching bag. Because of that, every employee needs to be a welcoming ambassador for that club, attempting and never succeeding in killing members and visitors alike, with kindness. :)

Joe, at the snack bar, showed how it's done.

He greeted me warmly as I approached, smiled, shook my hand, got my name, used it and laid on some serious Italian charm.

That's how it's done.

Wiley, the club accountant looked me in the eye, frowning, then looked away and said nothing as he walked past.

That's not how it's done.

Reid was there right at 5, as promised, and engaged me with a slight smile, using my poopy handle: "Jon, how are you?"

I'm great, and otherwise, so was Reid. He asked me a few personal questions and shared some of his personal story, told me he'd been at the club eight months and had just started selling memberships the past few weeks. He thanked me at the end, invited me back for another visit, told me to call him if I had any questions and used my (less than groovy) name at the end, as he saw me to the door.


The upstairs bathroom smelled like stale urine, even though there wasn't any in the bowl. There was also debris on the lid and around the sink. It needed a once-over with a mop.

The main men's locker room was clean - just some light debris on the floor.


With some practice and polish, Reid will sell a lot of memberships.

The other staff I encountered was pleasant and friendly; Joe was especially engaging. His personality should be bottled and sprayed on all employees (and members, for that matter).

The main workout area could use music; tuneage would help get the endorphins snapping.

7 Flags is, in many ways, the same club I left back in the 90's: huge, pleasantly overwhelming, crammed full of an amazing array of equipment which could benefit from customer service that works just a little harder to stand out over its size, and its number of machines.

Aspen Athletic Club  10930 Hickman Road, Clive



Zac greeted me with a smile and a "Hello" at the front desk.

He called for Aaron who approached in short order, shaking my hand, smiling, introducing himself and asking for my name.

Aaron, who has been working for Aspen since 2001, was very knowledgeable about the different areas and machines, and thorough in explaining how each one worked. He did a particularly nice job of asking me how I felt about certain things, then playing off of my response.

He asked if I played tennis and I replied that yes, I used to play quite a lot. He then sort of whiffed on his return shot, as he pointed to where the courts were instead of taking me to them.

Otherwise, Aaron was as much of a detail-giving machine as the thing that shoots tennis balls across the net so you don't have to listen to someone whine because they just don't feel like hittin it around.

He knew every nook of the club and how each nook worked, better than the nooks. Awesome presentation of the facility, Aaron!

Aaron also followed up on the day of my scheduled workout, leaving a very nice reminder on my voice mail, and telling me he was looking forward to having me try everything out. Great job, Aaron!


Jason greeted me at the counter with a bit of a disinterested and unsmiling "hi." I told him I had a scheduled workout with Aaron - at which point he should have asked me for my name, and used it.

I knew Aaron would say it as he approached.

"Hey buddy!"

Okay, so maybe not. It was instead a very informal "I know you and you're my friend" salutation.

As I walked around the club, three things stood out:

1. Its ginormous

2. The main workout area is poorly lit

3. There are trainers everywhere

4. I stink at counting

The lighting issue is especially troubling. I noted a lot of stuff scattered on the floor: free weights, weight poles, stomach belts, dumbbells, even HUGE chains that looked like they could pull a Space Shuttle out of the mud.

Another thing I noticed was that the trainers - including Jeff, Josh, Holly, Deb and Shawne - rarely smiled.

Working out is hard work, especially for the chronically out of aerobic shape, like moi. But when the in-shape fitness nuts who have committed their lives to proper nutrition and exercise look on the cusp of being miserable, why in the world would any normal person think the grass is greener on their six pack-ab side of the fence?

My advice for trainers is to watch old footage of the Godfather of fitness: Jack LaLanne. Jumping jacks to leg kicks, running in place to touching his toes, the guy was always smiling.

What'd I tell ya!

Isn't that why we do all of this workout stuff? Because it's fun????

In the childcare area, Stephanie flashed a great smile and answered my questions wonderfully, but probably should have asked me my name along with some questions about my kids, since I told her that I'd never been to the club, and was here on a guest pass.

Luke, who is Aspen's VP of Sales, was on the phone as Aaron brought me into an office to get a business card. He looked at me but did not smile and did not acknowledge me.

You're yakking on the blower, Luke, I'm down with that. But smile, wave, even mouth a "hello," and the caller on the other end would be none the wiser. Besides, I always think it looks extra cool when an employee multitasks in the name of great customer service.

As I left, Jason, at the front counter, didn't say bye-bye. The last impression is the one that sticks, so don't forget to thank people for coming out and torturing their bodies, and welcome them back to do it again, and soon.


Two stall toilets were dirty when I got there and still dirty when I left, 40 minutes later. The sink also needed cleaned, and there was some debris on the floor. Aspen is also a very busy club with a lot of members, so it's an understandable challenge for staff to keep up with what we drop off.


Aaron is a top-notch salesperson. He's engaging, witty and above all else, knowledgeable, which helps him create an immediate level of trust with a health club shopper. He's also poised, and authentic: the guy you talk to at the club is probably the exact same guy you'd talk to at a club (if this rode hard and hung up wet middle ager still did that sorta stuff).

The greatest opportunity in improving Aspen's already strong customer service lies with the trainers. You can watch them working very hard with members to help them achieve their fitness goals. What the club could greatly benefit from is more of their soft, friendly, human side.

Share that, and you'll light up that main workout area to the point where the owners won't have to spring for new bulbs. :)

YMCA Healthy Living Center  12493 University Avenue, Clive


Amanda (there are three that I counted) with darker hair, greeted me with a nice "hi" and smile at the counter.

After telling her I was doing some health club shopping, she very pleasantly handed me a sheet with that location's hours, a pamphlet with additional info, pointed to a rack that had more printouts with more info, and handed me a blank one-week pass.

Knock yourself out, dude!

The YMCA Healthy Living Center is a little over a year old, making it the newest health club in the Des Moines area. It is ultra-modern, extra spacious, dynamically lit, and ergonomically designed.

In other words, it breaks the design mold of the Y's built in the area before it, in almost every respect.

What Amanda did is not her fault; she did what she's been told to do. But shame on the people who told her.

Turning newbies loose inside that building - assuming they can figure it all out, and that the place sells itself - is a marketing and PR disaster, in my humble view.

Instead, a ground-breaking facility of that magnitude should try to offer a tour to every potential member who steps into its airy airspace.

Otherwise, it's just another Y.


Nikki, a former cheerleader at Iowa State, greeted with an energetic "Hi!" and smiled like the 'Clones were beating up on Division II Unsecret Shopper State, as I approached the front counter.

She asked Robin how to enter a guest pass into their system.

Robin did exactly as she should have; she explained the left-brain process to Nikki. But she also missed a great right-brain opportunity to smile at me, greet me and engage me. Plus, when an employee talks to another about something to do with a customer who is sort of right there, without addressing the customer, it makes that customer feel left out.

So tell Nikki how to enter my info, but do it through me, Robin.

"Hey Jonnie! Welcome to the Y! I'm going to have Nikki enter your data through the phlogiston transmutater, then put it into the doo-hickey, and hit 'save.' That way we've got you in our system. Got that, Nikki? Enjoy your visit, Jonnie!"

Nikki wrote out a week long free pass card with my name on it - nice job!

Jackie, a lifeguard on duty at the indoor pool, smiled as I approached, and engaged me nicely after I engaged her, about pool hours, and the overall aquatic area.

As I walked through the hallway, two Y employees approached and passed by, talking to each other and seeing no need to acknowledge me.

In the Physical and Aquatic Therapy office, I was greeted with a smile-free but pleasant "hi" from Brandt. I told him I was considering joining the club and wanted to find out more about their water therapy program, for a relative of mine.

Brandt did a nice job of taking me down to the pool and showing and explaining the water therapy area. Brandt can do a better job of engaging me by asking me questions, which he didn't do until the very end, when he asked if my relative could walk, and if she was incontinent.

These were screening questions, not questions of personal interest, of course. I understand that they were necessary. But asking more personal, get-to-know-me-and-my-situation questions first would have made the other two feel less invasive.

Brandt told me to feel free to contact him, and handed me a biz card. It said Trina Radske-Suchan, Medical Director, YMCA.

I'm sure Trina is great. But I'd rather contact you, Brandt. If an employee has to use someone else's business card because they're out, or don't have any to begin with, they have to make sure they write down their own name and contact info. That shows they're taking responsibility and ownership of a customer.

Emily, working at the front desk, asked me if I'd been helped. When I said no, she asked, "Can I help you?"

I kinda tried to make that clear when I answered "no" to the first question.

You were polite and pleasant, Emily. Just remember to ask only open-ended questions - those that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer - particularly when you're working at a help desk, where people come to be helped.

Robin - who'd initially glanced at me from behind the front counter as I first walked in but not acknowledged me - gave me a pleasant but unsmiling "hi" as I approached the staff counter upstairs.

She did a nice job of explaining the Y's hours, and encouraging me to check into some of the group workout programs. But she should have offered to take me on a tour, especially after I made it a point to say that this was my first time there, that I was contemplating becoming a member, and that the facility was large and sometimes confusing.

That's a soft softball pitch, Robin; hit that puppy outta the park! :)

Back at the front counter, I asked Amanda (darker blond, no glasses) for a towel, which she gave me, but forgot to include a smile, or a "you're welcome" after I thanked her.

I walked past another Amanda (shorter than the other two, blond, wearing dark framed glasses) several times, and each time she'd glance my way, then look down and away, without any smile or acknowledgement. Finally I stopped her, engaged her and saw the most beautiful, sweet, ear to ear smile light up her face. Where had that been hiding?

You've got a lighthouse smile, Amanda; members can see it for miles! Now just remember to turn it on, so we can navigate through the occasional fog of customer service ambivalence, okay? :)

Sheila asked a closed-ended and clunky "Can I help you with something" without looking or sounding like she really wanted to. I mentioned to her that it was hard to distinguish the employees from the patrons, since nametags were worn infrequently and haphazardly.

"Is there a wall with employee pictures and names on it?"

"Well that's what the older clubs do," she informed me, "but we don't do that here. You can go online to our website, and see pictures and names."

I'm not a bettin man, but I'm bettin you just missed the point.

On that sour note, I skedaddled.


It was marine-polished clean. Whoever is assigned the task of tidying up the toidy should be congratulated. Awesome!


Since I'm a Y member, this one kinda hurts: you can't be that big and new, and seem that small and old.

Employees were engaging; they were just more engaging to each other than to members, and there was a consistent lack of smiles and friendly acknowledgement from staff.

It's easy to fix, with training, compassion and diligence. It's harder to want to, with the busy business of simply keeping the club running, taking up most of the available real estate inside every manager's and director's head.

It brings to mind a paraphrase of the saying that's become a fixture of our American vernacular, and an indelible part of Iowa lore:

If you build it...they will come. But if you don't build it...they won't stay.

Fitness World West  3200 Westtown Parkway, West Des Moines


TJ, sitting down and from behind the round front desk, greeted me with a pleasant but smile-less "hi" as I entered.

I told her my name and explained why I was there.

"We'll get somebody out here for you," she said. While we waited for that somebody, TJ did a nice job of breaking the ice, asking a few personal questions about where I lived and what I did.

A minute or so later, Travis approached, hand and smile extended, like a guy who wanted to get to know me. "Hi Jonnie! I'm Travis! What can I do for you today?"

It got better from there.

Travis would ask me a question - about my workout routine, what I liked and disliked about my current club, what my interests were - listen to my answer, and then plug in that feature of Fitness World West that brought us back to his original question, thus completing the loop. If I asked a question, he'd answer it with both the basic detail that satisfied the inquiry, and the emotional foundation upon which the question was asked, addressing the intent of the question.

Holy Dr. Phil, Batman.

Travis is an intuitive, emotive, nurturing, compassionate right-brain kind of guy, the kind of dude who would stink at poker but rock at suggesting a hundred fun things to do on a rainy day. You feel Travis' friendly vibe before he ever utters a pleasant word.

I suspect that comes from being genuinely happy.

Of course I could be un(W)right as rain about that; Travis may spend his weekends reading The Unabridged Works of The Unabomber and trying to burn ants with a magnifying glass. But I'm betting that joy rules his world, at work and away from it.

Travis did a lot of other cool things:

1. He said "Jonnie" at least a half-dozen times, and meant it.

2. He was genuinely interested in me, and especially about my weight loss

3. He kept bringing up small but significant and well-timed spiffs that came with membership

4. He never stopped smiling, and meant every second of it

5. He gave just enough details about the club's features to pique my interest, without over-explaining

There was also a pretty good sized misstep.

When I told Travis I didn't know Fitness World West existed until I'd driven by it that day, he looked taken aback, and said, "We've been here for 26 years, since 1986..." and "Do you work on this side of town?," like, DUH stupid, we've been here since dirt, don't you ever get out?

Probably a better response would have been, "That's awesome! I can hardly wait to see what you think of it!"

He also could have done a little less talking smack about other clubs, and about mine, in particular. I'd given Travis the bait, telling him some of the things I thought were lacking at my current sweatin and gruntin crib. But it's like when you complain to someone that your significant other is being a meatball; the minute the person agrees and piles on, you suddenly want to defend the person you just blasted. It's a form of triangulation, which you can read more about by clicking this sentence.

Otherwise, Travis was a rock star salesperson in a trusted friend's body.


Travis had called me two hours after I left the initial visit, and two hours before I was scheduled to work out.

"Hey Jonnie! Just wanted to say thank you for stopping in today, and I look forward to seeing you later."

Incredible. Text-book, plus 10%.

The glad-handling continued as I stepped through the entrance doors to find TJ, who was smiling this time, and Travis, who had probably never stopped.

He invited me to enjoy the club and to not hesitate to ask if I had any questions.

As I trotted around the track, I counted about 30 people on ellipticals and treadmills, working free weights and cable weights. Of those nearly three dozen, at least 25% of them were smiling, grinning or at least smirking.

That would seem to be a pretty good sign for a health club.

Not as good of a sign was the one on some of the treadmills, which said Reservation Required.

I get it that clubs get busy. But having to sign up for something that begs you to just step on it and start walking, seems a little off-putting. Travis had also stated that the facility "doesn't get that busy," even during peak times.

He'd also told me every aerobics machine came with its own TV, which could get 78 channels. Add a pizza and a recliner, and that sounded pretty enticing.

Without a reservation and thus expecting to be immediately taken into custody, I jumped on a Lifecycle and hit the "Quick Start" button.

As I started to jog, the TV screen turned fuzzy, then annoying.

I stepped onto the treadmill beside it. This time the screen worked perfectly - but the treadmill wouldn't come on.

Maybe I DID need a reservation.

The third time was a charm, as the belt and Steve Carlin worked perfectly.

I hopped off, looked for employees to engage, and found two, back at the front desk, in Ann and Lindsay. They were both sitting behind the counter, working on stuff, and didn't notice me right away, until they each sort of looked up, startled, but without a smile or a salutation.

No big whoop. But I'd suggest that anyone working at the front desk be a) standing, b) greeting and c) engaging. Save the left-brain tasks for an office. The front desk is the hub of member activity, where everyone checks in and walks past on their way out, and so everyone behind that counter should be on meet and greet patrol.

Another thing, that's a delicate issue: Ann, who was sitting down, was wearing something that might not have seemed so revealing if she were standing. As it was, she could have been on the cover of FMH. Also, it turns out that she doesn't work for Fitness World West, but for a physiotherapist whose office is embedded inside the club; that's a bit confusing, but perhaps unavoidable.

Who did avoid me - eyes, salutation, acknowledgement and all - was Aaron, a trainer, who glanced my way, then away, without a smile or a nod.

When I stopped him to get his name, he acted like I was putting him out - probably not the best choice of attitude.

Trainers are ambassadors first, trainers second. That can be especially challenging for people who are often ruled by structure, which is what makes them good trainers, but often less than stellar ambassadors.

I walked repeatedly past Patrick, another trainer, as he was working with a member. He looked my way, and then looked away, without a smile. No problem. He also forgot to flash a grin when Travis introduced him to me, later on, although he was very nice.

This brings up the point that anytime employees, and especially health club trainers, are with a customer, that customer is their world, the customer knows that, and likes it. But all employees, regardless of their title, should always have their head on a swivel, and always be looking for opportunities to greet everyone. That sort of collective staff engagement can take a good or even great environment and raise it to the stratosphere.  

I'd recommend that the entire FWW staff hang out with Travis a little more. (I can hear them all groaning at the thought of this. :))


The men's locker room was pretty clean, although the stall toilets could have used a quick clean-up.


Travis was the most engaging, nurturing, dynamic employee I came across, out of all six health clubs. He was simply amazing.

Now let's see if he can take his joie de vivre and spread it to his co-workers; teach them how to find that happiest part of their inner selves and turn it inside out, for the entire (member) world to enjoy. Make it a rule, a mandate and an expectation, that every employee will engage every member, every time - no exceptions.

Do that, Trav, and you could help Fitness World West set a new customer service standard for health clubs.

Prairie Life Fitness  4875 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines


Robert greeted with a pleasant smile and wonderful manner, as I entered.

After telling him I was here to check out the club, he asked, "and your name is?"

"Jonnie," I reasonably replied.

"Jon, let me get somebody who can help you," came his unreasonable response.

As I've already pointed out, referring to someone by the name you want vs. the one they offer is rude, judgmental and a customer service disaster.

It would get worse.

David approached, greeted me (as "Jon") and began asking me questions about what I was looking for in a health club.

David was extremely friendly. He had a very disarming manner, and was quite charming. He gave me the grand tour, pointing out the club's features and benefits. He probably could have pointed less and actually shown me more, but overall, he did a fine job.

Then he executed the first somersault in what would be a long tumble down a short hill. 

Attempting to close the deal, David said, "This is where the who's who of Des Moines comes, the somebodies."

Excuse me while a nobody throws up in his mouth.

About 30 seconds later, as David was taking down my information, he asked me for my last name.

"Wright," I responded.

David paused a moment, thinking. Then...

"We've got some Wongs here..."

I could see the derailed train approaching, but couldn't jump off the track fast enough.

"Two Wongs don't make a (W)right!"

Check, please!

OMG. Is there any room in my mouth for more puke?

As David guffawed at unknowingly just pooping down his leg, I thought of some better ways he could have said what he said: like never saying it.

David's a nice guy, who managed to be off-putting and racist in the span of a half minute, and he wasn't even playing at The Funnybone. Regardless of whatever I experienced at Prairie Life, his comments would dominate it, like a cloud of gas from a flatulent elephant.


I was a little late for my 5pm scheduled workout/appointment with David and felt appropriately guilty as I walked in.

There was no need. David wasn't there.

Stuff happens, and that's as cool as the other side of the workout bench. But not showing up to glad handle a perspective member when you said you would, at a time you agreed to, leaves a bit of a burn, and not from doing squats.

Robert slightly smiled and called me "sir" after I'd signed in as "Jonnie" and handed him my guest pass with "Jonnie" written on it. But he was extremely old-school engaging, almost as a butler would be, greeting guests, and adds tremendous polish to an already well-polished facility.

Cathie and Dillon knocked a bit of the luster off with smile-free but pleasant enough hellos at the towel counter.

After 10 minutes of wandering around the club, I'd burned 4 calories: it was time for a snack. Kayla greeted there with a huge smile and infectious "Hi!" and "What can I get for ya?"

Even more engaging was Deb, who, after discovering I was a guest who was trying things out, engaged me with a continuous smile and endearing manner. She introduced herself at the end of our chit-chat instead of the beginning, as I asked for her name, but then shook my hand, asked me for mine and used it as we said goodbye.

Do that introducey thingy sooner, Deb!

I could have used another intro, as I watched a fat little girl leaning against a pillar, texting.

There's somebody who should be working out instead of playing with her cell phone, I thought to myself.

I turned and began to walk away, chest feathers puffed out, thinking about how I would blog-blast the club for having at least one lazy, underachieving member.

Then God made me turn my head back in the slacker's general direction, for a second glance.

It was Shawn Johnson.

When the possibility of that factoid finally started sinking into my concrete noodle, I gingerly walked my dunce-cap wearin noggin over to snack bar Kayla and asked, "Uhhh...Is that Shawn Johnson?"

No, pencil head - it's some anonymous fat kid.

"Yes, it sure is," she mercifully replied. "She really doesn't like it when people approach her - she wants to be treated just like a normal person."

"Of course! I totally understand," I reassured her. "I knew it was her! I saw right away that it was her! Just wanted to make sure! Ha-ha!!"


I dismounted awkwardly off the "unparalleled stupidity" bars, slipped on the landing and headed quickly for the showers.


It was immaculate. I'm not even sure people poop there. I know I held it until I got to a Quik Trip.


Robert - in spite of calling me by a name of his own choosing, instead of the one I chose - did a fine job as the super-polished greeter stud. Deb and Kayla shined.

Unfortunately, it is David's bad choice of words during the initial meeting that I'll take with me, from this visit.

David is incredibly friendly and engaging. His comments were not. I'm sure he'll either read this, or somebody will read it to him, and he'll learn from it.

Some other things that stood out include the fact that out of 23 machines that use free weights, I saw a total of 3 weights sitting free on the floor. That's impressive. Somebody - employees, members or both - is doing a great job of keeping the area organized, and safe.

I also liked the posters on the inside of the bathroom stall doors, which promote Prairie Life health programs - plus it gives you something to read, if you forgot your dog-eared War and Peace.

Now just keep kids from loitering in your lobby.

Health clubs are wonderful centers for socializing, trying new things, pushing our bodies and minds and generally having fun.

Yet one fact remains: 70% of weight loss and maintenance is diet. I'm the science experiment that proves it. That means that any of us can pretty much get in and stay in shape by choosing dates over donuts for dinner.

Notice that "...and joining a health club" is conspicuously absent from my paradigm.

Yet too many workout facilities, including, at times, the ones I Secret Shopped, go about their biz with an air of disinterested ambivalence towards their patrons, as if exercise was the lone gateway to our fountain of eternal youth, and not having to carry a portable defibrillator in our trunk.

I met several customer service stand-outs who swam against this current: Reid and Joe and Robert and Aaron all impressed, and are wonderful flag-bearers for their clubs.

No one held the flag higher than Travis.

Yet it is also fair to say that each club has much work to be done, in the name of great customer service. That also means there's great opportunity to create greater loyalty and stability, and more revenue.

I hope each club's owner/management team holds the five "Legion of Customer Service Superheroes" up as powerful examples of what can and should be done, with words and deeds that are the foundation for an effective customer service exercise plan that every employee should be required to follow.

After all, a health club shouldn't encourage its members to strive for "a happier, healthier you," if it's not willing to get with the program itself.

Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT. 

Ways to contact Jonnie:

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Phone: 515-480-4190



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