The Y Experience

Going Above & Beyond to Exceed Member Expectations

Customer Service , Retention

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:

  • Express branch
  • In the evenings
  • Part time staff

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:

  • YMCAs are torn as to whether excellent customer service is an inherent trait of an employee or if that service level can be taught to employees….which always leads to the COO conundrum of “Do we pay higher wages to attract better employees, or do we invest in training more?”
  • Whatever we planned for our YMCA customer service package, it had to be ongoing and we even considered activating employees at the ground level to co-train (or co-work) alongside YMCA employees….sort of a service “refresher” course that would happen monthly. This would help maintain the service level and skills taught in the initial training.

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


  • I practice safe behaviors in everything I do
  • I take action to always put safety first.
  • I speak up to ensure the safety of others


  • I project a positive image and energy
  • I am courteous and respectful to guests of all ages
  • I go above and beyond to exceed guest expectations


  • I stay in character and perform my role in the show
  • I ensure my area is show-ready at all times


  • I perform my role efficiently so guests get the most out of their visit
  • I use my time and resources wisely

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

  • Personal customer service drives retention. In most Y markets, your price point is a premium, so make sure your service matches.
  • Train everyday. Do something to help a staff member understand the importance of service.
  • “Over and beyond service that a member will remember.” I love that… think of ways that a member will remember what a Y did for them. That doesn’t require $75k software, but it may require a compassionate employee to remember all the names of a new family who recently joined.

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