We love new ideas and innovation. In 2011, around the time of the new Y-USA brand rollout, our firm was visiting tons of YMCA branches working on web site launches. So I traveled a lot. Like a whole lot, to the point my family forgot I lived in the same house as them.

I frequent a variety of hotels including Hampton, Marriott and the occasional Intercontinental (always using hotel points there!). One experience I had, and remember well, was when I had checked into an Intercontinental and a couple days later I was walking through the lobby frantically looking for my hotel key in my bag. A front desk employee came over and said, “Mr. Nichols, is there anything I can help you with?” This same front desk person had checked me in 2 days before. Wow, now that’s service. An employee who most likely checks in dozens of customers a day..and she remembered my name. That same level of service runs across every Intercontinental I’ve stayed at. And that got me thinking….

At the YMCAs I visited, one take-away I noticed was the lack of consistency in customer service. I know, it can be a touchy subject to talk about staff service levels.

But, let’s be honest, your front desk staff, wellness floor people, program directors AND coaches make up most of your face-to-face interactions and drive retention. I’ll be the first to suggest that software doesn’t drive that retention rate. It’s the staff who remember names, who help members find their way, who have friendly/welcoming body language. In most Y markets, the membership fee is a premium vs. competitors and it would be great if customer service matched.

Since January 2016, I work out at my local Y 5–6 times per week. I visit an express branch a couple miles from my house, usually around 7pm….which hits us with the “trifecta of bad service” possibilities:

I would venture to say that approximately 65% of the time, the front desk staff person is on their mobile phone when I check in. There has to be a solution.

In 2011-12 we reached out to many of our YMCA clients and had discovery meetings with CEOs, Marketing Managers, Ops folks…anybody.

The plan was, “let’s build a YMCA customer service training package that we can say provides world-class service over and beyond the member’s expectations!”


Of course the whole plan was to package a YMCA customer training module and sell it to Y’s. (We have to eat.) After months of research and meetings and phone calls there were 2 key points we found:

The Plan

Well, the plan was to develop our customer service package based loosely around the Disney Institute’s Customer Service Teachings. Of course, with the Y, there would be some tweaking.

Disney’s 4 Keys to Great Guest Experience





So What Happened?

After months of research, we found that the implementation cost to create a proper training package didn’t warrant moving forward with a training system. Plus, the YMCAs we worked with had varying ideas of service, while others didn’t place customer service as high priority. (Imagine that, a YMCA who thinks they’re different from other Y’s.)

Key Take-aways

I’m interested in what other Y’s are doing to affect customer experience. I know some of our larger Y clients have hired VPs of Customer Experience to steer that, but what are the ways you’re making your Y experience better? Email me at kevinnichols@starklmc.com.